When the Eagles run a quarterback sneak and center Jason Kelce ends up crushed beneath a few thousand pounds of offensive and defensive linemen, Kelce figures the play has been a success.
“You know it’s going to be a pile, leading up to it. To be honest, if you’re underneath everybody, that’s a good sign,” Kelce said Wednesday. “When you’re on top of guys, generally you didn’t generate much push.”
The Eagles and Carson Wentz ran three sneaks in their opening-game victory over Washington, all successful, two on third-and-1 and the other on fourth-and-1. According to Pro Football Reference, that was as many sneaks as they tried all last season with Wentz, who appeared in 11 games, coming off knee surgery, before his 2018 season ended with a back injury.
PFR says Wentz has tried 21 career regular-season sneaks on third or fourth down and has been successful each time. In the Carolina loss last season, he was unsuccessful on a first and-goal sneak.
It might seem like a boring, simple play, but it moves the chains – 87.5% of the time across the league, according to a study of QB sneaks from 2007-17. Running backs got first-down yardage in such situations only 68.7% of the time.
Wentz, asked Wednesday if he likes the play, said: “I like staying on the field.”
It might be a good sign that the Eagles went to Wentz so often in short yardage Sunday; it would seem they are more comfortable than last season letting their now-completely healthy 6-foot-5, 237-pound quarterback churn into the line. Wentz ran 14 sneaks in the 2017 Super Bowl season, according to PFR.
“He’s 100% healthy. There’s nothing to risk. We have a lot of faith in him,” right guard Brandon Brooks said.
Wentz, Eagles coach Doug Pederson, and offensive coordinator Mike Groh all said the sneak hinges on Brooks, Kelce, and left guard Isaac Seumalo.
“I think it starts up front with our offensive line and certainly those three interior guys. I think Isaac actually had a pancake on one of the sneaks in the game,” Groh said. In fact, when Seumalo put Washington defensive lineman Jonathan Allen on his back, Allen suffered an MCL sprain and did not return to the game. “But Kelce and then Brandon Brooks, the three of those guys in there wedging.
“And then Carson's a big, strong guy, so his added strength and push behind those guys makes it a tough play to stop. We have a lot of confidence in it and hopefully, [Wentz] can get up from the pile each and every time.”
The Eagles’ success on sneaks fuels Pederson’s proclivity to go for it on fourth down, something he does more than any other NFL coach. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and safety Malcolm Jenkins said this week that going for it on fourth down is part of the team identity Pederson has forged, and they don’t mind.
“For us, we’re always on call. We know our coach at this point, and how aggressive he is, and how comfortable he is making those calls,” Jenkins said. “For us, it’s the way we get down.”
“That’s what we are,” Schwartz said. “That doesn’t surprise us. It’s been that way for four years. The defense is ready. We know it’s our job to go out there and cover us up if we don’t get that.”
On Sunday, even when the stout Washington defensive front knew the sneak was coming, the Eagles got push, and Wentz burrowed in behind, squeezing into gaps.
“Carson is long, powerful with his legs, and did a nice job of just hitting that apex and that wedge, and just kind of riding the wave, just well executed,” Pederson said.
Given the push the line gets, is there a temptation to use the play when more than a yard is needed? Wentz once gained 4 yards on third-and-1, against the Seahawks in 2017.
“Some of it is gut feel. I mean, obviously the further away from the first down, the less chance that you're going to do it,” Groh said. “But anywhere from probably 2 yards in” is considered sneak range.
Wentz said there isn’t much to his part in the play.
“Coach trusts me on that, coach trusts the O-line to get the surge no matter what the [defensive] front is, and we’ve been able to stay on the field on a lot of those,” Wentz said. “I just gotta fall forward.”
Seumalo said the key is just what you would think: getting lower than the defensive lineman across from you.
“You just gotta fire off the ball. I think it’s more of a state of mind than anything – not only have you got to shoot out, but you’ve got to keep your feet moving as you go,” he said. “They already know it’s coming, too. You just gotta get low, know where you’re going. There’s some little details to it, but for the most part, if you’re lower than the other guy – football’s a game of leverage.”
Does the defensive front matter?
“The defensive front will dictate it a little bit. … We’ve converted ‘em against almost any look a defense can give us,” Kelce said. “Based on the front, you might have a different [blocking] call or whatnot, but for the most part, you’re just kind of all plowing forward together.”
Brooks said he likes the simplicity, the fact that he doesn’t need to care about twists or stunts or anything the defense might do.
“Really, all you’re doing is just running forward, trying to get as much push and churn as you can. It’s not like you’re worried about anybody moving, you’re not worried about any blitzes or anything. Just mano a mano,” Brooks said.
What’s it like, in that giant pileup? Claustrophobic?
“You got a helmet on and stuff, so it’s whatever,” Seumalo said.
“It’s just pure carnage under there, man, we always joke about it,” Brooks said. “Between that play and field-goal block, two worst plays for offensive linemen.”
Brooks said that as he has gotten older, he has learned to curl up in the pile, not leave limbs stretched out for people to land on.