Eagles autopsy: A legit concern about Carson Wentz, and five other things
The other stuff, especially the inaccuracy, can be written off with a bunch of legitimate excuses, first and foremost that any quarterback is going to have a bad day from time to time, especially one with Wentz's mechanics. As far as I can recall, the loss to the Bengals was the first time this season he repeatedly misfired on throws to wide-open receivers or easy dump-offs. The first 11 games count for something in that department.
Wentz's offensive line did not help his accuracy, either. Allen Barbre had an awful half at right tackle, and Stefen Wisniewski did not appear to have a great time of it, either.
It wasn't the poorly executed throws that had you sitting back in your chair. It was the poorly conceived ones. Simply put, Wentz looked a lot like the guy many expected we'd see as a rookie coming out of North Dakota State: confused. Confused by the pre-snap looks he was getting at the line of scrimmage, confused by the coverages he was seeing at the top of his drop, confused by the speed of the defense he was facing.
While it's impossible to offer a complete diagnosis without the ability to watch and rewatch the game film, it certainly looked as if Wentz was deciding where he was going before the snap and then locking onto that read. Case in point was one of his ugliest-looking balls of the game, a wildly overthrown duck of a third-down pass that missed a wide-open Dorial Green-Beckham for what would have been a big gain on the Eagles' fifth possession.
Wentz locked onto Beckham from the snap, presumably because he correctly read man coverage with no outside help. It was a slow-developing play, though, and if Beckham hadn't shaken Dre Kirkpatrick with a slick-looking out route, he could have been out of luck, because at no point did Wentz appear to survey the rest of the field for a Plan B.
On at least three occasions, Wentz appeared to have little idea of what coverage he was throwing into. All three balls should have been easy interceptions. The three passes that he did have picked weren't nearly as glaring as the three that weren't.
On the first, he was hit as he threw. On the second, he sailed a ball rather than misreading a coverage. The third pass seemed to be a result of his deteriorating mechanics.
Given his low release point and long windup, Wentz needs to be able to position himself into throwing windows in the pocket, something he did not do when Vontaze Burfict was able to stand up at the line of scrimmage and catch Wentz's over-the-middle attempt with his chest in the waning minutes of the game.
Again, the slew of variables working against Wentz makes it difficult to put any sort of concrete grade on his play. But the failure to see the field is something that transcends a lot of the situational stuff that we might otherwise disregard as one of those afternoons.
It was one of the big questions people had about Wentz at the time of his draft. He simply hadn't played a lot of football, and he'd never been exposed to the speed and complexity he'd see at the NFL level.
That was one of the reasons that the Eagles' 3-0 start was so remarkable: Rare was the moment when he seemed caught off guard by the coverage he saw after the snap. Maybe that was because the secondaries of the Browns and the Bears and the Steelers were as awful as many had expected them to be. Maybe it was because Doug Pederson and Frank Reich called great games that put Wentz in position to succeed. Maybe defensive coordinators have gradually begun to understand how to disguise what they are doing and keep Wentz and his playcallers in the dark. Whatever the case, Wentz seems to have gotten progressively worse in his ability to read and react at the line of scrimmage.
Clearly, all of that is a subjective pronouncement, but it's worth noting that Wentz entered Sunday having thrown eight interceptions and 107 incompletions in his last 290 attempts after throwing none and 36 in his first 102 attempts. He averaged 7.54 yards per attempt in those first three games, and he has averaged 6.29 yards per attempt since (1,824 yards, 290 attempts in eight games heading into Sunday).
It's also worth noting that there were several moments when Wentz reminded everybody why the Eagles had sacrificed what they did to draft him. His scrambling ability helped the Eagles pick up a couple of first downs in long situations. On several throws, he showed the easy arm strength that enables him to put balls into windows that simply are not available to most quarterbacks (one example was a pass to Trey Burton early in the fourth quarter; the play was ultimately ruled incomplete, but the throw itself was quite pretty, going from Wentz's hand to the sideline 15 yards down the field in a blink).
More than anything, Sunday's loss to the Bengals was a reminder that Wentz is nowhere near a finished product, and that the Eagles cannot dawdle in their attempt to surround him with the kind of talent he will need to give him the best chance to make the sorts of strides that he'll need to make to establish himself as a legitimate, top-tier NFL quarterback.
Wentz cannot do it by himself, especially not with his current mechanics, which is something else that has not made any obvious progress and in fact might be getting worse. Wentz had at least four passes batted at the line of scrimmage Sunday, one of which he caught himself for a 7-yard gain.
Five other things:
1) The lackluster play the Eagles have seen from Leodis McKelvin has had many questioning why they don't just play rookie Jalen Mills the whole game. But Mills' lack of foot speed is such a glaring liability that it's difficult to put him alone on an island for an extended stretch of time.
After an awful first-quarter series by Nolan Carroll that included his surrendering a 50-yard completion to somebody named Cody Core, Jim Schwartz called on Mills for his first action of the afternoon. The seventh-round rookie was quickly torched by rookie Tyler Boyd for a 23-yard gain. The Bengals clearly targeted Mills throughout the series. This is no different from what the Seahawks did when Mills was in the game a couple of weeks ago. It's really hard to be an outside cornerback in the NFL when you can't keep pace with even-marginal NFL receivers. Boyd ran a 4.58 40 at the combine. LaFell was also 4.58.
2) Brandon Graham once again played like a disruptor, but the defensive-end spot opposite him continues to be a huge void. That's not necessarily unexpected, given that Connor Barwin is a converted linebacker. But Vinny Curry has been almost as absent, which is a huge liability when you factor in the contract extension he signed, which next year will make him one of the highest-paid defensive ends in the NFL.
Take the drive that removed any doubt about the eventual result of Sunday's loss, a 93-yarder in which the Bengals marched all the way downfield after starting at their own 7-yard line. Cincy's first play from scrimmage featured a full-house backfield and nobody out wide, and yet Rex Burkhead still managed to gallop for 16 yards, thanks to a gaping hope that opened up over right defensive end.
Graham, Bennie Logan and Fletcher Cox have all played like top-end linemen this season, but the Eagles need to find somebody who can hold down that second defensive-end position. It was supposed to be Curry, but the guy is still being used as a third-down pass-rusher, despite not seeming to be able to rush the passer with any degree of consistency. You're better off with Cedric Thornton holding down the fort against the run if you aren't going to get any semblance of a pass rush out of the position.
3) Wendell Smallwood has not impressed even a little bit as the Eagles' primary ballcarrier over the past few weeks. The Bengals defensive line dominated the Eagles' offensive front on Sunday, but Smallwood did not do much to maximize what little running room he had. He did not hit the hole hard, he ran too upright, and he did not show any cut-back vision at all.
4) I get that Paul Turner is small. At some point, though, a guy who catches passes is a guy who catches passes. Even if he's catching them against bigger defenders.
5) The Bengals apparently have their own version of one-time Veterans Stadium fixture Sign Man. Throughout Sunday's game, a banner hanging from the concrete facade of an upper deck section read: "Watch. Wince. Repeat."