Doug Pederson’s menu of red-zone plays appears to be shrinking.
The losses of Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, Miles Sanders, and several other key offensive starters, the Eagles coach said, limited what he was able to call against the Giants last Thursday night. The Birds escaped with a 22-21 win despite going 3-for-8 in the red zone.
“It can be a challenge at times,” Pederson said Friday. “The thing is, with this many new players, new starters or guys in the lineup, you don’t get much time on task. You don’t get many reps during the week with these guys. So some continuity and timing in the passing game, particularly, can lack just a little bit.”
The Eagles have typically been among the best in the league at converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns under Pederson, but that has changed this year. Before Sunday’s games, the team was ranked 21st in red-zone scoring percentage, which tracks how often teams score a touchdown when inside the 20-yard line.
Last year, the Eagles were the eighth-best team in the red zone. In 2017, they were No. 2 in scoring efficiency.
The absence of big, effective targets like Ertz and Goedert is definitely part of the issue in the passing game, and the run game is hampered by the loss of Sanders along with injuries ravaging the offensive line. Still, a handful of questionable plays by Carson Wentz hurt the Eagles against New York, including an interception from the Giants' 20-yard line in the second quarter on Thursday.
Wentz evaded pressure to his left and threw a jump ball to rookie receiver John Hightower with multiple Giants defenders nearby. Cornerback James Bradberry came up with the pick in the front corner of the end zone.
“He knows, we know, I think everybody knows we can’t do that,” Pederson said. “It’s unacceptable for us. Carson feels the same way. In situations like that, you throw it away. You throw it in the first row of the stands. It’s just a mistake we’d like to have back."
Pederson pointed out the team’s ability to gain 442 yards and reach the red zone eight times in the game was a solid building block. It’s also worth noting the Eagles’ eighth and final trip to the red zone concluded with a kneel-down after Brandon Graham’s strip-sack of Daniel Jones sealed the outcome.
“The fact that we were in the red zone seven times is awesome,” Pederson said. “You’re in the red zone seven times. You need to come away with points. That’s a correlation to not only scoring but helping you win football games. So that’s a positive.”
In 17 red-zone plays, the Eagles had six runs and 11 pass plays. In those pass plays, Wentz was 3-for-10 for 39 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a sack. On the season, Wentz is completing 51% of his red-zone passes, down 8% from last season’s average.
“We left a lot of plays out there,” Wentz said. “We were in the red zone a lot and didn’t score many points. Those are things we gotta clean up and be better.”
It wasn’t all Wentz, though. Jake Elliott missed a 29-yard field goal in the second quarter. The running game was stagnant, and Pederson had a few head-scratching play-calls. His biggest blunder came on a pivotal fourth-and-goal from the Giants' 3-yard line late in the game, when he called for a fade route to reserve tight end Hakeem Butler.
The disorganized play started with Butler lining up on the wrong side of the formation and ended with him and Wentz failing to connect. It was Butler’s only offensive snap of the season to date.
The Eagles had five rushing attempts out of option plays, four with Wentz at quarterback, and one with Hurts behind center. On those plays, they averaged 2 yards per carry and had one score, on a Wentz 1-yard run on the team’s opening drive.
“The breakdowns were really execution, offensively,” Pederson said. “Whether it was offensive line mistakes, receiver mistakes, quarterback mistakes. Everybody had a hand in the breakdowns. It’s really something that I think, as coaches, with the amount of new faces, it’s really a teachable moment for us, to be able to show guys.
“The field gets condensed a little bit more,” Pederson added. “Can’t have penalties down there. Can’t take sacks down there. Obviously can’t miss kicks down there. Those are all things that we can control, and we can fix. It’s all teachable and correctable.”