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Looking at the Eagles’ offensive woes through the lens of advanced stats | Early Birds

Third- and fourth-down conversions, the screen game, and play-action passing have not been good for the Eagles.

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and Eagles head coach Doug Pederson talk on the sideline during Monday's game.
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and Eagles head coach Doug Pederson talk on the sideline during Monday's game.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Good morning, Eagles fans. Happy Wednesday. I typically try to start things off with some uplifting small talk, but I won’t sugarcoat things this morning. The Eagles’ season is spiraling out of control, and another weekend looms large with the team headed to Green Bay to play the 8-3 Packers. If this three-game losing streak continues, sweeping changes at important positions could be imminent. Honestly, those changes might not even take until Week 17 depending on just how bad things get and just how frustrated Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has gotten with Doug Pederson, Howie Roseman, and Co. Both Pederson and Roseman have played major roles in wrecking the Eagles’ offense this season. More on that later.

If you’re reading this Wednesday morning, Jim Schwartz and Dave Fipp will speak with the media before your lunch break. Carson Wentz is scheduled to speak with reporters around noon, and the team will practice around 2 p.m. Some players should be available afterward, too.

If you like what you’re reading, tell your friends it’s free to sign up here​. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @EJSmith94.

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Behind the numbers

It doesn’t take a keen evaluator’s eye to know the Eagles offense has seen significant regression this season. But which areas have robbed Pederson’s group of the identity it formed in years prior?

1) Third and fourth downs

The Eagles’ offensive identity each of the last few seasons revolved around Wentz’s success on third downs and Pederson’s aggressiveness on fourth downs. This season, the Eagles have been one of the worst teams in both categories, which is a departure from Pederson’s best years as the team’s head coach. In 2019, the Eagles converted 45.4% of their third downs, which was the fourth-best conversion rate in the league. The Chiefs and the 49ers, the teams that went to the Super Bowl, were also in the top 5 that season.

This year, the Eagles are converting 38.6% of their third downs, which is sixth-lowest in the league. A big part of the drop obviously comes from Wentz’s struggles in tandem with Zach Ertz missing the last five games with an ankle injury. Wentz used to be one of the most effective quarterbacks in the league at converting and keeping his team on the field, but he’s been the exact opposite this year.

Regarding fourth-down efficiency, the decline has been a slower burn. Pederson has always been one of the more aggressive coaches on fourth down. The Birds have been in the top five of the league in fourth-down conversion attempts in each of the last four years. Even with Pederson’s analytics-motivated approach to fourth-down, the team hasn’t been very successful converting in each of the last two years.

From 2017 to 2018, the team converted 63.3% of their fourth-down attempts, which was one of the best percentages in the league. Over the last two seasons, they’ve converted 32.6% of their attempts, which is among the worst conversion rates in the league.

2) The screen game

The screen game is a staple of not only the Eagles’ offense but West Coast offenses in general. The lack of effectiveness on screens for the Eagles this season is a departure from what’s made them so successful in years past.

The Eagles have run 30 screens this season and completed just 20 of them for 62 yards, good for an abysmal 2.1 yards per attempt. Wentz was sacked on two of them, including one against the Seahawks Monday night when it appeared that Jalen Reagor didn’t realize he was the intended recipient of the screen. The best the Eagles could do against Seattle were two three-yard gains from Dallas Goedert and Greg Ward.

Part of the problem can certainly be assigned to the constant shuffling along the offensive line and the reliance on bigger, slower players like Matt Pryor and Jason Peters to get out and block in space.

On a larger scale, running back receiving yards are down this season. Last season, Eagles running backs averaged just over 50 receiving yards per game with Miles Sanders leading the way with 31 yards per game on his own. This season, the Eagles’ backs are collectively averaging 29.3 receiving yards per game. Sanders also has eight drops this season, which is tied for the most in the league with Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf, who has almost 50 more targets.

3) Play action woes

Now that we’ve discussed what’s ailing the Eagles’ West Coast foundation, let’s talk about the play-action game. The Eagles hired Rich Scangarello in the offseason because of his ties to 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan’s play-action heavy system with a hope that the offense could “marry” the play-action game with the running game.

Effective play-action schemes are in vogue the way run-pass options were a few years ago, but this trend is passing the Eagles by. C Wentz’s quarterback rating is lower in play-action passes this season than it is in conventional drop backs, and he’s averaging .4 fewer yards per attempt on run fakes, according to Pro Football Focus.

Wentz had similar numbers last year but was much more effective using play action to his advantage in years prior. In 2018, he was averaging 3.2 more yards in play-action situations and completed a higher percentage of his passes. In 2017, he had a higher completion percentage in play-action.

It’s not a staple of the Eagles’ offense the way screens and third-down conversions have been, but as the league finds value in using run fakes creatively, the Eagles are being left behind.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Doug Pederson said he was on board with the Eagles taking Jalen Hurts in the NFL draft, but as Jeff McLane points out, the usage of the backup quarterback signals the organizational dissonance surrounding Howie Roseman’s decision.

  2. Pederson said he hasn’t gotten any assurances about his job security for the remainder of the season “one way or another,” and sounded more open to giving up play-calling than he has in the past, as Les Bowen reports.

  3. Still trying to make sense of what went wrong on Monday night? Paul Domowitch offers the five reasons the Eagles left the Linc with a loss against the Seahawks.

  4. The Eagles waived Philly native Will Parks on Wednesday. As Bowen writes, the decision to let the former Germantown High star go could be a signal the team is ready to turn to younger players as losses mount.

  5. Domo also took a closer look at Pederson’s decisions to go for it on fourth down twice against Seattle here.

From the mailbag

“What went wrong from winning the Super bowl to having 3 wins?” — From Steven (@AShelle1) on Twitter.

Good question, Steven. It’s pretty jarring to think the Eagles were one of the most well-regarded franchises around the league considering the fall from grace this season. We talked a lot about the offensive struggles earlier, and coaching has been a significant factor in the team’s struggles this season, but everything goes back to Howie Roseman’s roster building. The reason the Eagles haven’t been able to sustain their success after Super Bowl LII and even in 2018 is because they’ve failed to replace aging and retired players with young talent. The Eagles are still a good team on paper, but injuries and regression from older players is how they got here.

Roseman deserves plenty of credit for the roster he built going into the 2017 season, but it’s fair to point out the championship team was built on perfect free agency signees like Brandon Brooks, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, Nigel Bradham, and many more. There’s a reason most title teams are built through the draft: It’s much harder to consistently find cheap talent through free agency because, by nature, you’re working with players whose were willingly let go and you often have to be the highest bidder. The last few seasons, the free agency signings have been far less successful across the board, and the draft classes haven’t panned out. I’d say that’s the main reason the team is 3-7-1.