Every now and then, something that may seem obvious to us ignoramuses outside the walls of the NovaCare Complex isn’t always so obvious to those inside the walls.
Earlier this season, as the fumbles and tipped passes and pass-rush pressure began to mount for Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz, the logical solution seemed to be to move him out of the pocket a little more frequently.
But it wasn’t until after Wentz’s dreadful three-fumble, four-turnover performance in a 17-9 loss to Seattle in Week 12 that head coach Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Mike Groh decided that, yeah, maybe adding some more designed movement plays for their mobile quarterback might benefit both him and the offense.
“If you remember, we had some issues there on the right side of our line [against Seattle] too,’’ said Pederson referring to rookie Andre Dillard’s mighty struggles trying to replace concussed Lane Johnson at right tackle and right guard Brandon Brooks’ taking ill after just 11 snaps.
“We had to shuffle some things as early as the first quarter, and it just disrupted some timing. So, as a way of helping those guys, the play-action pass, the screen game, and getting Carson out of the pocket have kind of been our success here the last couple of weeks of the season.
“We just have to find ways to do that, and we have to help the offensive line that way as well.’’
Wentz had 16 fumbles this season, which were the second most in the league. Only the Giants’ rookie quarterback, Daniel Jones, had more -- 18. Wentz’s seven lost fumbles also were second only to Jones’ 11. Clearly, pocket awareness will be on Wentz’s offseason things-to-work-on list.
In the division-clinching win over the Giants, Wentz ran five plays that were intentionally designed to get him out of the pocket and a sixth in which he took off on his own after getting pressure.
He completed four of those passes, including a 24-yard touchdown throw to tight end Josh Perkins, a 41-yard completion to wide receiver Deontay Burnett, and a 14-yard pass to tight end Dallas Goedert.
“We’re always trying to find ways to move the pocket, to change it up and do some different things,’’ Wentz said this week. “The coaches have done a good job of designing some of those plays and getting me out of the pocket so we can create those big plays like we did.’’
The truth is, Wentz is a better passer outside the pocket than he is inside it. The numbers bear that out.
I’m not suggesting he’s not a very good passer in the pocket. But his ability to extend plays is one of the reasons the Eagles fell in love with him before the 2016 draft, and for a while there, it seemed as if both Wentz and the coaches forgot that.
If anybody needs any convincing of what he can do outside the pocket, I refer you to that highlight touchdown throw he made to Miles Sanders against Washington in Week 15, when he threw an on-the-run laser past two defenders to Sanders in the back of the end zone.
“Carson throws the ball very well on the run,’’ said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger. “Sometimes, I think he thinks a little too much [in the pocket] about trying to be perfect with his mechanics and trying to do all the things he’s supposed to do.
“When he’s on the run, or on a rollout like he was on the throws to Perkins and Burnett last week, he just seems to be so much more relaxed and just throwing the ball and not thinking so much and just doing what he does naturally.’’
Since the Eagles started moving him out of the pocket more following that Week 12 loss to Seattle, Wentz has been playing his best football of the season. He has lost just two fumbles and has only one interception in the last five games, and that was a Hail Mary pass at the end of the Eagles’ Week 13 loss to the Dolphins.
In the last four games, he has a 100.8 passer rating and completed 67.6% of his passes.
“He’s a great player outside of the pocket,’’ center Jason Kelce said. “Everything’s been going together really well. The game plans and the play calls. The boots and whatnot work really well off the run plays and keep the linebackers honest."
The Eagles will be facing one of the best linebacker tandems in the league this week in the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Keeping them honest with bootlegs and play-action and screens to Sanders and Boston Scott won’t be quite as easy as it was against the Giants and Redskins.
“I’ve done a film session with Wright,’’ Baldinger said. “I know how they kind of think. I know how they take the RPO game away.
“Wagner is so patient in what he reads. A big part of the RPO game and the bootleg game is seeing what [the linebackers] are going to do.’’
Malcolm Jenkins made one of the biggest plays of the game last Sunday when he forced a fumble by Giants quarterback Daniel Jones early in the fourth quarter that set up a 2-yard touchdown run by Boston Scott that gave the Eagles a 10-point lead.
Jenkins executed a perfectly timed blitz through the “A’ gap on a second-and-8 play. Jones fumbled the low snap, picked the ball up, then had it knocked away by Jenkins before he could totally secure it.
The Eagles are blitzing a lot more this season than they did last year, and Jenkins has been a big part of that. He rushed the quarterback 73 times this season, which is the most since Jim Schwartz took over the Eagles defense in 2016.
In the 17-9 loss to the Seahawks in Week 12, Schwartz blitzed Russell Wilson on 14 of 31 pass plays (45.2%). Jenkins blitzed nine times in that game. Four of the Eagles’ six sacks of Wilson came on blitzes, including two by Jenkins.
“We just timed the blitzes up well in that game,’’ Jenkins said. “Fletcher [Cox] obviously gets a lot of attention up there [on the line]. If they’re trying to double him, it leaves some gaps. I thought we just did a real good job of taking advantage of a couple of protections. Obviously, this week, they’ll be prepared for that.’’
With the Eagles linebackers frequently struggling this season, Schwartz has moved Jenkins up closer to the line of scrimmage.
“He’s probably their best linebacker,’’ Baldinger said. “Malcolm understands how to play when he’s not getting any protection from the defensive line. Your job is kind of to clean things up, and he’s just really good at it.’’
Jenkins likes that the Eagles are blitzing more, and he likes being a big part of it.
“We’ve been changing things up a little bit this year when it comes to how much we’re pressuring [quarterbacks] and what types of pressures we’re using,’’ he said. “It’s given myself and everybody else a chance to just do what we do best. It’s a role that I’ve been enjoying.’’
--Boston Scott has 27 first downs – 27 rushing and 10 receiving -- on 85 touches (31.8%). That’s a higher first-down percentage than the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey and the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, who are 1-2 in the league in yards from scrimmage. McCaffrey had 115 first downs on 403 touches (28.5%), and Elliott had 99 on 355 touches (27.9%).
--The Eagles had 63 passing first downs in the last four games. Scott and wide receiver Greg Ward had 25 of them. I wonder what kind of odds you could have gotten on that happening three months ago, when both of them were on the practice squad.
--Carson Wentz had 21 rushing first downs this season. That was the fifth most among NFL quarterbacks behind the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson (71), the Bills’ Josh Allen (42), the Texans’ Deshaun Watson (29), and the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray (27). The Giants’ Daniel Jones also had 21. Interestingly, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson had only 17. Wentz’s 21 rushing first downs were the second most of his career. He had 27 in 2017.
--Wentz had 11 touchdown passes and just one interception on 164 third-down pass attempts this season. The 11 TDs were second to the Raiders’ Derek Carr, who threw 14 on third down.
--In their last nine games, the Eagles gave up just four touchdown passes in the red zone. Opponents completed just 12 of 28 passes in the red zone in those nine games.
--Even with tight end Zach Ertz sidelined with broken ribs and a lacerated kidney last weekend, the Eagles continued to use multiple-tight-end personnel groupings. They used 12- or 13-personnel on 53 of 71 plays Sunday against the Giants. But without Ertz, Wentz wasn’t nearly as effective throwing out of those personnel groupings. He completed just 15 of 29 passes (51.2%) with 12- and 13-personnel. In the Eagles’ previous five games, he completed 68.8% of his throws with 12- and 13-personnel. That said, two of his biggest plays of the game came out of 12/13-personnel. His 41-yard completion to Deontay Burnett was with 12-personnel, and his 24-yard touchdown pass to Josh Perkins was with 13-personnel.