How do you defend against the Eagles?
They're not "The Greatest Show on Turf" from 20 years ago, they aren't piling up yardage and touchdowns at any kind of astonishing pace, but they have scored 20-plus points in each of their last 10 games, going back to last season, the NFL's longest current streak. And they have at least two things that make their attack hard to shut down: balance, and Carson Wentz.
The Eagles have the NFL's third-ranked offense, by fielding its ninth-place passing attack and its fifth-ranked rushing game. And by possessing a second-year quarterback who plays with discipline and composure, who has led them to the league lead in third-down efficiency (50.6 percent) through the season's first six weeks. Pro Football Reference says Wentz has the NFL's best passer rating (130.5) on third down.
Former Eagles quarterback and TV analyst Ron Jaworski tweeted Tuesday that based on his film study, Wentz has been blitzed on a league-high 39.3 percent of his dropbacks, and has thrown for five touchdowns and no interceptions in those situations.
Blitzing seems to be the answer a lot of defensive coordinators have tried when trying to shut down the Eagles. It hasn't worked very well.
"I like the blitz; I want teams to blitz us because I'm confident," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. "Now, they're going to get their shots, and they're going to win their battles. Carolina beat us on a couple; I'll tell you what, there's nothing that gets me more mad than when we get beat on a blitz … If we miss a pickup, or we miss a layup.
"When you've got a blitz, there are opportunities for layups, for big plays. We've missed one or two of those here or there. I know that happens, it happens everywhere I've ever been.
"They're still trying to attack Carson, I suppose. Rotating backs – that's some of it. A lot of teams, what they do in the blitz package is to put pressure on the running backs. How can you eat up the back? … The reason they blitz you is to make your back protect, and [make you] do some different things schematically so that they have an advantage, they have one more cover defender in back."
Teams can be excused for thinking blitz pickup might have been a challenge for the Eagles, after reliable pass blocker Darren Sproles went down for the season and the guy pegged to fill his role, Wendell Smallwood, did the job for one full game, at the Chargers, before knee swelling sidelined him for two weeks. As Reich noted, there were times against Carolina, and even in the romp over Arizona, when Kenjon Barner, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement weren't exactly compiling a blitz-pickup training tape for youth football camps.
But against Wentz, you can blitz your way around or through the running back and still end up watching the chains move.
"Quarterbacks, man," Carolina defensive tackle Kawann Short said after the Eagles' 28-23 victory last Thursday. "They find ways to get it done and move around in the pocket. We knew he was going to do that, we just had to get back there and get him off that spot."
Panthers corner James Bradberry told reporters that Wentz "can buy his receiver extra time to get open, so that was one thing that hurt us … He is a big quarterback, and he is fearless."
Certainly, the Birds' offensive line is doing a good job, particularly in the run game the past several weeks, smashing large holes for Blount (70 carries, 390 yards, 5.6 yards per carry) and the rest of the group. That makes play action effective, and play action is a big part of the Eagles' passing success.
It's also true, though, that you can't shut down one receiver and shut down the Eagles' passing game, and that is a tribute to Wentz.
Most teams have tried to take away Alshon Jeffery, with mixed results – Jeffery has made some crucial plays, but his totals of 24 catches for 317 yards and a couple of touchdowns are pretty ordinary. Carolina was the first team to really focus on the guy Wentz looks to the most, tight end Zach Ertz, who leads the Eagles with 34 catches for 405 yards and four TDs. Ertz caught a season-low two passes for 18 yards – but both catches were touchdowns. Wentz found him when he really needed him.
"If you were using a basketball analogy, we don't have anybody averaging 30 points a game, but we've got five guys who can score," Reich said. "You don't know who it's going to be week-to-week."
Reich said a lot of nice things about Wentz, but he also seemed to be cautioning that a quarterback with 22 NFL starts is not a finished product, that seven touchdown passes over the last two games doesn't mean Wentz will never struggle again.
"There's a continuum [to development] and you go through times that are accelerated positively and negatively. You go through stretches that are good and bad … It's a long season," Reich said. " So far, Carson's certainly on the accelerated path."