So, nine games into the season, we have a pretty good idea of what the Eagles offense is and what it isn’t.
What it isn’t is an explosive, spread-‘em-out, secondary-stretching, wide receiver-centric, score-in-the-blink-of-an-eye offense with a lot of SportsCenter-highlight, eat-my-dust catches.
That went out the window in mid-September, when DeSean Jackson suffered a core muscle injury and Alshon Jeffery injured his calf.
Jackson sat out six games, tried to come back before the bye, but reinjured himself and will miss the rest of the regular season after finally having the surgery he should have had two months ago.
Jeffery missed only one game, but has been playing hurt all year and has averaged a career-low 10.4 yards per catch.
Throw in Nelson Agholor, who, in the last six games, has averaged just 8.1 yards per catch with no touchdowns and six first downs, and Mack Hollins, who played 185 snaps in the last five games and somehow had zero catches, and you’ve got one of the least productive wide receiver corps in the NFL.
In the eight games without Jackson, Eagles wide receivers have averaged a puny 5.61 yards per target and 9.91 yards per attempt.
For better or worse, what the Eagles offense has morphed into coming out of the bye week is a unit that plans to lean heavily on its run game and its two talented tight ends, Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert.
The million-dollar question is can they get back to the Super Bowl with an offensive recipe that includes running the ball 30-35 times a game and throwing six-yard slants and 10-yard crosses to Ertz and Goedert. The answer: we’ll find out.
“Without a doubt we can win like that,’’ quarterback Carson Wentz said. “But at the same time, I’m confident that we will find ways to make big plays and be explosive in both the passing and running game.’’
During the Eagles’ Super Bowl run in 2017, 20 of Wentz’s 33 touchdown passes came on throws of 11 yards or longer. This year, just five of his 15 TDs have been on throws from that distance.
You don’t have to throw the ball 40 times a game to win in the NFL. The 49ers, whose 53.2 run percentage is the highest in the league, are 8-1. The Ravens, who are second at 53.0, are 7-2 and coming off a 17-point win over the 8-1 Patriots, who will face the Eagles on Sunday at the Linc.
The Niners have 29 pass plays of 20 or more yards, which is just two more than the Eagles. Their top three receivers are tight end George Kittle; rookie slot receiver Debo Samuel, who has a running back body and ran a 4.48 forty at the predraft scouting combine; and running back Matt Breida
But the Niners also have one of the league’s top defenses, so they’ve seldom had to play from behind. The Eagles trailed at the half in five of their nine games. They lost four of them.
The Eagles have one of the best offensive lines in the league and two very good running backs in Jordan Howard and rookie Miles Sanders. Howard, a decisive between-the-tackles runner who the Eagles acquired from the Bears in an offseason trade, is averaging 4.4 yards per carry with six touchdowns, and is averaging 4.5 yards per carry on first down.
Seventeen of his 119 rushing attempts have gained 10 yards or more. He’s had just nine carries that have lost yardage.
Sanders has averaged 8.9 yards per carry in the last two games, including a 65-yard touchdown run against Buffalo in Week 8, and is averaging 13.9 yards per catch on 22 receptions. He has five catches of 30-plus yards.
In their back-to-back pre-bye wins over the Bills and Bears, the Eagles ran the ball 76 times for 364 yards. They controlled the ball for nearly 36 minutes against the Bills and more than 40 minutes against the Bears.
“We feel really confident in our running game, and our offensive line is playing at a high level, and our running backs, I really like the way they are running the ball,’’ offensive coordinator Mike Groh said.
“We don’t care how we make first downs or how we score points. If we can hold the ball for 40 minutes like we did against the Bears and keep the other team’s offense on the sideline, I think that’s a good recipe.’’
It is if you hang on to the football and maximize those long possessions by scoring touchdowns rather than settling for field goals, like the Eagles did on their first two possessions against the Bears.
Ball security also is a concern with this recipe. While Wentz has the lowest interception percentage of his career (just four in 303 attempts), the Eagles’ nine lost fumbles are the third most in the league.
Another problem for the Eagles is their nasty habit of getting off to slow starts. The Eagles have given up 128 first-half points this season, which is the sixth most in the league. The five teams who have allowed more – Atlanta, the Giants, Arizona, Cincinnati, and the Jets – are a combined 9-37-1. The good news is the Eagles gave up just seven points in the first half in their wins over the Bills and Bears.
On Sunday, they’re playing a Patriots team whose plus-105 halftime differential is the largest in the league.
“At some point, you’re going to need some explosive plays,’’ said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger. “When you go against teams like Dallas and Seattle and other teams with explosive offenses, you have to get on the board.
“You have to match scores. I think it’s going to be hard. I think they can shorten games by running it 35-40 times. It’s a great recipe unless you’re behind. If you’re behind, that recipe usually goes away.’’
With the emergence of Goedert, who not only is an excellent receiver but also has quickly developed into one of the league’s top blocking tight ends, the Eagles are committed to using a heavy dose of 12-personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers).
As effective as both Howard and Sanders have been, it also wouldn’t be shocking to see head coach Doug Pederson start sprinkling in some 21- and 22-personnel packages (two running backs, two tight ends, one wide receiver).
“You can win with 12 [personnel],’’ tight ends coach Justin Peelle said. “When Zach and Dallas are out there, nobody knows what [the play call] is. We can stretch the field with both of them. We do our whole run game with both of those guys on the field, where in the past, on teams I played on, when I was in the game, there was a pretty good chance it was going to be a run play.
“But those guys have the skill set to be viable threats in the pass game and also be able to sustain blocks in the run game.’’
Wentz has a 101.7 passer rating in 12-personnel, including a 67.1 completion percentage.
Ertz, who had 116 catches last season, has a team-high 46 in the first nine games. In the Eagles’ 22-14 win over the Bears two weeks ago, he was targeted 11 times by Wentz and had nine catches for 103 yards, one touchdown and eight first downs.
“If you look at the Patriots, they’ve had a big-play guy most years, but a lot of time, they had Gronk or they had Edelman,’’ Ertz said, referring to retired tight end Rob Gronkowski and current receiver Julian Edelman.
“Gronk was a big-play guy. But we feel we could do that with our tight ends if we had to. We feel we’re detailed enough with Carson, detailed enough in the run game right now, that we can get a lead in the game. We’ve seen what we can do with the lead in the game.
“We found a recipe the past couple of weeks of doing that. We beat two good teams the past two weeks doing that sort of thing. Getting the lead with the run game. Being efficient on third down.’’
Figuring the Eagles
In the Eagles’ back-to-back wins over the Bills and Bears, Carson Wentz had an 88.2 passer rating and 66.7 completion percentage in the first quarter. That’s much improved over his first-quarter performance in the first seven games when he had a 72.0 rating and 54.3 completion percentage.
Seventy-three of Jordan Howard’s 119 rushing attempts have been on first down. He’s averaging 4.5 yards per carry on first down, which is the 10th highest average in the league among rushers with at least 50 first-down carries. As a rookie with the Bears in 2016, Howard led the league in first-down rush average (5.66). That average dropped to 4.27 in 2017 and 3.75 last season.
Zach Ertz has a team-leading 46 catches. Thirty-one of them have been on throws of zero to 10 yards, 14 on 11-to-19-yard throws and one on a 20-plus-yard throw. Ertz has 25 catches for 286 yards and a touchdown in 11-personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR), 20 catches for 226 yards and one TD in 12-personnel and one catch for 15 yards in 13-personnel.
In their first five games, the Eagles held opponents to 3.3 yards per carry on first down. In their last three: 5.9.
The Eagles are 4-2 this season when they won the time-of-possession battle. They’re 21-7 over the last three years when they’ve controlled the clock.
In their five wins this season, the Eagles have a plus-6.5-yard average drive-start differential. In their four losses: minus-7.5. Overall, they are sixth in the league in average drive start (29.7), but 24th in opponent drive start (29.4).
This and that
Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley was asked Thursday whether Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders remind him of any previous running back tandem in Philly. Without hesitating, he said, “They remind me of Charlie Garner and Ricky Watters. Thunder and Lightning. That’s who they remind me of when they’re out there. You look at Jordan, he’s always falling forward. Always getting that extra yard. What we teach and take pride in is, if nothing’s there, get back to the line of scrimmage.’’ Garner and Watters played together in Philly for three years, from 1995 through 1997.
Jason Peters returned to practice this week after having his injured knee scoped. It’s uncertain whether he’ll be able to play Sunday. If he can, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland made it pretty clear this week that the 37-year-old left tackle will get his job back. Rookie first-round pick Andre Dillard has started the last three games in his place. “Since I’ve been here, all I’ve ever heard is, ‘Ah, he’s too old. He can’t do it anymore. He’s not going to make it,’’’ Stoutland said of Peters. “And he’s proved everybody wrong every single year. Every single year. You might not see another Jason Peters again. This man is an absolutely incredible player. Before he got hurt, he was playing at an extremely high level. Now that he’s gotten that thing taken care of, I expect him to be back playing at an even better level. I’m excited about that.’’