Like their San Francisco 49er opponents this week, the Eagles use screen passes as an integral part of their offense, an extension of the run game. Eagles coach Doug Pederson, asked about the team’s offensive identity Friday, mentioned the screen game as part of that.
But the 2-1 49ers have been pretty successful in running their concepts this season, and the 0-2-1 Eagles have not.
The last two weeks in particular, the Rams and the Bengals were all over Eagles screens, either because the blocking was sloppy, the timing was off, or the opposition knew what was coming.
This has led to some soul-searching at the NovaCare complex; the Eagles offense overall has been painful to watch, Carson Wentz having thrown three touchdown passes and six interceptions. Fixing what is wrong would seem to involve fixing the screen game.
"We’ve been a good team with screens over the years. I think defenses start to game-plan for that,” tight end Richard Rodgers said. "That might be one of the reasons. You never really know. Like I said, once you get good, and you put it on tape, teams start to adjust, and see what’s coming. … There’s certain situations you want to run screens, and if the defense is keyed on that, then it’s tough to run it.
“Third-and-long, screen, draw. You hear defenses call that all the time. In those certain situations, it’s kind of tough to run screens.”
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Yet, again, the 49ers seem to manage, as does the team that defeated them last February in Super Bowl LIV, Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs. Nobody runs more screens than the Chiefs. Theirs don’t seem to get swarmed, the way the Eagles' screens have this season.
Maybe the Eagles are having to go to it too much. Pederson mentioned how ineffective his team has been on first down, how often it is in second- or third-and-long, situations when defenses look for screens.
“Teams look at you just like we do ourselves. I’ve got to be unpredictable when it comes to screens,” Pederson said. "It can’t be the ideal screen situation, as a play-caller. But at the same time, we’ve got to make sure that the picture that we’re presenting … to the opponent kind of matches up with, say, the run game, or a play-action pass, or a QB movement, something of that nature, and then you screen off of that.
“Some of the top teams that we’ve studied have done that, and those are the things that we have built into our system over the years, and we’ve just got to continue to work and develop that. Really, it’s just an extension of the run game, when you can get an explosive screen, it’s like getting an explosive run from the backfield. It’s just a matter of, I think, mixing it up, not being predictable with it, and then marrying that up with other aspects of your offense.”
Other than being in predictable screen situations, have the Eagles been telegraphing what they’re about to do?
“As a group, coaches, we have to do better, and I am starting with myself. I have to do better,” assistant head coach and run game coordinator Duce Staley said. "Make sure I’m scouting better, and make sure I’m going back and looking at the last three weeks, looking at those teams, seeing if I can pick up on any calls, any little things that are different that they are doing, I’ve got to go study and make sure that we take care of that.
"And then we have to go out there and do the little things once again, that’s what it’s about, making sure you detail your work. As running backs, we have to detail our work in order for us to be better in the screen game. Around here, for a long period of time, the screen game was in the top 10, top five. … We got to get back to that.
“We have to make sure we are not giving it away from [not betraying direction with our] eyes, to depth, alignment, certain things like that. So, you check there first. Then when you go back and study the last three weeks, because we haven’t had any success; you go back and see what the defense is doing and then you try to counter.”
Screens are all about timing. The Eagles have two offensive linemen, right guard Nate Herbig and left guard Matt Pryor, who are new to the group, maybe aren’t quite in sync with everyone else. On wide receiver screens, the wideouts to that side who aren’t getting the ball are expected to block. That has been a highly visible, dismal failure this season for the Eagles; J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, useless so far catching the ball, seems to be the only wideout who can execute a block. (And Arcega-Whiteside is doubtful for Sunday night’s game with a calf injury.)
But the regular old screens to the running backs aren’t working, either. This ought to be a good way to keep a defense honest, to keep blitzing at a minimum, and cool down a ferocious pass rush. That has not been the case for the Eagles. Miles Sanders has seven catches for 48 yards, on 15 targets. Boston Scott has five catches on five targets for 43 yards, Corey Clement two catches on two targets for 2 yards.
“Yeah, it’s just little things. I don’t know if the defenses are finding something, identifying it, or that maybe we’re giving it away,” right tackle Lane Johnson said. “But that’s been kind of what’s happened, I guess. … Guys on the defensive side have been able to sense it out. So we’ve been analyzing ourselves and trying to mix that up for this week.”
Quarterback Carson Wentz said there is no one answer that will fix the screen game.
“It’s a culmination of things. Lots of credit to the defenses we have played, and [them] knowing it’s a big part of what we do, and how they have taken it away,” Wentz said. “So we just have to keep repping, keep working on it, and getting them honed in against all the different looks.”
Wentz has had to throw screens at receivers' feet when it was obvious the play was doomed, much more this season than previously.
“It seems like such a simple aspect of just throwing a screen, but there is so much timing and precision that goes into those, and how they hit just right,” Wentz said. “I’m confident we will get it going right, and hopefully this week will be a good one for it.”
Scott said the timing has to get better, and that beyond that, he puts his trust in Pederson.
“They’re just doing a good job of sniffing it out right now. I trust in Doug to definitely put us in situations where we’re able to get it going,” he said.