Each week this season, we'll have an oral history of a play, trend or scheme from the Eagles' previous game using the coaches all-22 film. This week, we spotlight Carson Wentz and the use of his eyes, both in manipulating defenses and in seeing the field.
Wentz's game has improved in almost every facet, but the significant jump he's had in terms of average yards per attempt (from 6.23 last year to 7.77 this year) and touchdown passes (23 vs. nine through nine games a year ago) can be partly attributed to becoming a more nuanced quarterback.
Wentz: Going back and looking, last year there was multiple times you could definitely move defenders with your eyes, with a pump fake, with different things, shoulder movement, you name it.
Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich: That's certainly one of the areas that he's improved in. Like we've talked about a lot, you make incremental improvements hopefully in every aspect of your game and using your eyes, and your body, and little, subtle movements to influence defenders. Part of that equation is knowing when to do it and when not to do it.
The Eagles often see a single high safety with man-to-man defense underneath. It's unclear on this play whether Wentz was looking toward Alshon Jeffery (up top) as his first read or to draw the free safety away from Zach Ertz.
Wentz: Every play is different. Sometimes you have a plan to do that. Sometimes it is your first read and it might look like you're looking him off, but it's your first progression.
Brent Celek's inside route, though, was designed to clear out space for Ertz, whether he was the first or second read. And Wentz knew the key to completing a pass here was getting the safety to hesitate either way.
Reich: When a corner is playing press coverage and he's not looking at the quarterback, obviously there is not much use to use eyes on him. Now you're using eyes on the free safety.
A year ago, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said that Wentz had a long way to go in terms of manipulating coverages with his eyes. He said he's still not there.
Jenkins: He's done it a few times where he's looking defenders off, but not quite like a Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning. But what he is doing better this year is going through his reads a lot faster.
Wentz has clearly become comfortable going to Ertz later in progressions because of their chemistry and because Ertz runs crisp routes.
There was a lot that made this 1-yard touchdown pass work against the Panthers – Jeffery drew two defenders on the outside and the protection was sound – but Wentz's eye movement and the high-low route combination gave the quarterback a clear lane to his tight end.
RED ZONE SUCCESS
The Eagles have converted the highest percentage of red zone possessions into touchdowns (21 of 29) in the NFL. Wentz hasn't thrown an interception or taken a sack in the red zone. Again, there have been myriad reasons for his effectiveness inside the 20, but his subtle movements – and knowing when and how to use them – have played a huge role.
Wentz: It's important all over, but I think you got to be careful with how much you do when you're in the red zone because you're always trying to play on time.
The view of this 10-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor doesn't show Wentz's eyes, but it gives a clear look at how a slight pause locked Redskins safety Montae Nicholson's knees.
With the Redskins in what looks like a Cover 3 zone, Wentz tossed a high, inside strike in between the outside cornerback and the late (late) arriving Nicholson.
This 1-yard touchdown pass to Ertz wasn't from the pocket and it wasn't vs. zone – the 49ers blitzed Wentz as he rolled out – but it shows how the quarterback was able to get both underneath defenders to key on Wendell Smallwood out of the backfield.
Wentz's natural ability and instincts certainly play prominent parts in making passes like this one look effortless. But being able to put himself in game situations during film study has been as pivotal.
Reich: You can have two people sitting in the room for the same amount of time, and one guy get a lot more than the other guy. I believe Carson gets a lot out of every moment he spends in there.
STARING DOWN RECEIVERS
Wentz isn't perfect. He remains a work in progress. Asked last week the last time he had to ride Wentz hard, Eagles quarterback coach John DeFilippo said, "Probably some places with his eyes."
DeFilippo: He was getting a little bit too cute with his eyes at times, and maybe accelerate his vision over to the first or second progression a little bit earlier. Eye placement is something we're continuing to work on with him, and that's something that's very easily fixable.
Wentz doesn't do it often, but he will sometimes lock in one receiver. On this pass against the Cardinals, he stared down Ertz and didn't anticipate safety Antoine Bethea getting over in time.
Bethea made a great play, but all it took was an extra millisecond of holding onto the ball and Wentz was intercepted.
Wentz: It's something I can always get better with.
Wentz has had nine of his passes batted at the line of scrimmage. Only one other NFL quarterback (Blake Bortles, 13) has had more. Last year, he had 15, which was tied for third most. Is it circumstantial or because he's locking in on his receivers?
Quarterbacks need clean pockets and time to move defenders with their eyes, and that simply isn't always possible. Wentz has been excellent throwing on the move and from all kinds of awkward positions. But unlike so many young quarterbacks, he has managed to keep his eyes downfield amid pressure and before taking hits.
DeFilippo: He's done a great job of moving his feet, keeping his eyes downfield, staying balanced and throwing accurately.
Jenkins: The good part about him that's just as effective as looking off a safety is being able to extend a play.
Since the start of offseason workouts, DeFilippo has incorporated more drills that simulate pressure.
DeFilippo: From my standpoint, I think it has helped. I do. I think not only has it helped in terms of his escape ability in the pocket, but I think it has helped his feel in the pocket. He can keep his eyes up and move at the same time.
But there have been plays Wentz has made that are impossible to replicate in practice. That's when instinct takes over, like on this 9-yard touchdown pass to Corey Clement against the Redskins.