One day after the Eagles opened the season 3-0, coach Doug Pederson explained a formula for quarterback Carson Wentz. It included keeping Wentz to about 30 passes per game and complementing him with a successful running game.
During the last two losses, Wentz attempted 43 and 47 passes. They were the only games with that many attempts, a departure from an average of 30.8 passes during his first six games.
"I wouldn't necessarily like to drop any quarterback back that many times," Pederson said. "Again, it goes back to being able to run the football and kind of hanging your hat there first and then the play-action stuff. So no . . . I wouldn't like to see it. But I've also said, too, that sometimes we're going to have to do that."
Sunday might be one of those days, unless the Eagles can establish the running game early to avoid putting too much pressure on Wentz. The Eagles host the Atlanta Falcons, who visit with the NFL's No. 1 ranked offense. It's not expected to be a defensive struggle; handicappers set the over-under at 50.5 points, tied for the highest total of this week's games.
The Eagles need Wentz to appear more like the quarterback he did in the first month of the season and not how he has played in recent weeks. Wentz had a quarterback rating of 103.5 through the first four games. That rating has been 72.4 in the last four, during which he has thrown twice as many interceptions as touchdowns.
"I think as an offense, we came out pretty hot," Wentz said. "We were doing some good things. But we struggle with consistency. That's something we've got to be better with. We've got to be better with our details, just consistency and not shooting ourselves in the foot. Whether it's interceptions, fumbles, turnovers, penalties, I think we've had a little bit of everything in some of these losses that we've got to clean up."
Wentz expressed his distaste for the way the Eagles are playing late in the games. It's been documented that the Eagles offense had a chance to either win or tie in the fourth quarter of all four losses this season. Wentz said the players "are sick to our stomach" over the late-game failures.
Wide receiver Jordan Matthews said he watched the final play of the Eagles-Giants game "countless" times in recent days and has gone over the play with Wentz. They even drilled it in Wednesday's practice - it resulted in a touchdown - and Matthews pledged that the Eagles will continue going to the slot fade.
"That's got to be a staple for us, the same way Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson have the back shoulder," Matthews said. ""He's willing to work on it, I'm willing to work on it."
The message from Wentz's top receiver was confidence in the quarterback. Matthews said that the first few weeks were only a snapshot of the season. The last four games have been the same way. Over time, it will be seen whether Wentz and the offense can demonstrate the consistency they need.
"Right now, we're at the halfway point," Matthews said. "The game before the halfway point, Carson threw for [364 yards], which is great, but we also had some things that didn't look right. If we're still throwing for 360 with things not looking right, that means we have something good in place. . . . That's why even with Carson's first throws in the game [including two interceptions], we never took our foot off the pedal. We're going to let Carson throw because he has the ability, he has the swagger."
Of course, it took Wentz 47 attempts to reach that yardage total. Wentz said when looking at his pass attempts, one needs to consider the situation in the game and the way the defense is playing. But he emphasized that the Eagles want "balance," which was a popular term in the NovaCare Complex when discussing Wentz's pass attempts in recent weeks.
The Eagles have attempted 276 passes and have been sacked 17 times, so 293 plays can be logged as passing plays. They have 213 rushes this season. So the pass-to-run ratio is about 58:42 this season. But in the last two weeks, it's been 66:34. That puts a considerable burden on Wentz and the passing game.
"We still want to stick within the game plan, manage it that way, and use that run game to your advantage," Pederson said.
If the Eagles find themselves in a shootout on Sunday, they'll need to pass the ball. But if they can establish the running game early and manage the clock, it would take the pressure off Wentz - and the defense - and the Eagles could look closer to the way they did early in the season than how they've looked in recent weeks.
"He's going to have to continue to make the plays that are there to be made," Pederson said. "But at the same time I think your run game becomes a little more important in games like this. . . . Does it work out that way all the time? No, it doesn't. But those are things that as we put our game plans together and the personnel and everything we look at, we take that into consideration."