Why Carson Wentz and the Eagles have been struggling with the deep ball | Film review
The Eagles have been among the worst deep passing offenses in the NFL. Carson Wentz has had his misses, but personnel, execution and play calling have also been causes for the ineffectiveness.
Two seasons ago, the Eagles had one of the worst deep passing offenses in the NFL. Carson Wentz was still finding his way in his rookie season, but the lack of a threat down the field clearly affected the quarterback. The Eagles addressed the problem the following offseason by signing wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith.
Smith was the burner capable of taking the top off a defense, and Jeffery's ability to win on 50-50 balls gave the Eagles another deep element. On passes thrown plus-20 yards through the air in 2017, Wentz completed 25 of 65 for 912 yards, with ten touchdowns and four interceptions. He had a passer rating of 100.2.
But Wentz and the Eagles have regressed closer to their 2016 form this season. He has completed just 15 of 38 passes for 527 yards, with three touchdowns and four interceptions. His rating of 73.8 is only marginally higher than 2016 (64.2), when he completed 21 of 64 passes for 654 yards, with six touchdowns and six interceptions.
Overall, if Nick Foles' numbers (2 of 9 for 64 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions) are included, the Eagles are among the NFL's worst deep passing offenses this season. Only the New York Jets (36.5), Bills (43.7), Ravens (56.7), Panthers (58.6), and Redskins (69.9) have a lower rating than the Eagles (70.1) through 11 games.
"It's really hard to say," Wentz said Thursday when asked to explain the Eagles' deep ball struggles. "I feel like we do have some down-the-field shots, and we have connected on some, and have had some big plays.
"I think part of it would be how teams are playing us. … Other than that, it's really hard to put a finger on it."
There isn't an Aha! moment for the lack of deep ball production. There's been myriad reasons. Wentz's and Jeffery's return from injury. The loss of speedy receiver Mike Wallace, who was supposed to offset Smith's departure. Protection hasn't been great. An inconsistent run game hasn't opened play action.
Game planning and play calling, along with the overall dysfunction of the offense, haven't helped either. There isn't a bona fide field stretcher on the outside. And there have been missed opportunities.
"I don't think it's anything personnel-wise," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "I think it's more of just execution and holding up in protection just a little bit longer."
Here's a closer look at personnel, execution and scheme and why the Eagles offense is struggling down the field:
Agholor is the Eagles' most targeted receiver on passes over 20 yards. But he's caught only 3 of 13 for 148 yards and no touchdowns. When the Eagles traded for Golden Tate earlier this month, they thought that he would allow them to utilize Agholor's speed more on the outside.
But that hasn't been the case. When Wentz (No. 11) and Agholor (No. 13) have managed to hook up – as they did here three weeks ago against the Cowboys – it's been on routes run from the slot.
Overall, the Eagles aren't using Agholor on the outside much.
Agholor: It's something I'm capable of doing. … If I can master being a take-the-top-off guy and then being able to play inside like I've already done, I think it's going to continue to give me value.
He's played essentially the same percentage of snaps in the slot after the Tate acquisition (85.2) as he did before (86.4). There are ways to match up inside receivers vs. one-on-one coverage or free them up vs. zone, as the Eagles did here on this long Agholor completion vs. the Jaguars.
But it's easier to get those matchups on the outside. The Eagles' large number of inside receivers and tight ends could be one reason why they have hit on only 2 of 11 deep passes since acquiring Tate.
Overall, the Eagles' 47 deep pass attempts is right near the league average (46.4) for the season. But last week against the Giants, Wentz threw only one pass over 20 yards.
Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh: I think he had over ten completions past ten yards, so we were still getting the ball down the field. We missed one early in the game where we had an opportunity to maybe have a bigger play. But it wasn't necessarily anything by design. It just was the way that the game went.
Pederson: I try to build it in where at least we're trying to do one a quarter or more. So it's a good way to kind of back the defenders up, so we don't see as much eight-man boxes or seven-man boxes, and kind of open up the run game.
Agholor: Just got to keep on making the plays in practice. I don't call the plays, but what I can do is always perform to instill confidence in both the quarterback and the coach to call them.
The only true outside receiver on the roster, Jeffery hasn't seen as many targets recently. In his first four games, he caught 25 of 39 targets for 306 yards and four touchdowns. In the last four, he's caught only 15 of 21 targets for 155 yards and no touchdowns.
Jeffery: Whatever it takes for us to win the game. That's all that matters. I'm not worry about no targets.
Some plays don't show up in the stat sheet. On this second down pass, Jeffery (No. 17) would have likely caught a deep pass had the Giants cornerback not grab him after getting beat on a double move.
Jeffery has seen only nine targets (catching three for 73 yards and a touchdown) on passes beyond 20 yards. He can sometimes struggle to get separation vs. man coverage, as he did — and Agholor (below) — on this play vs. the Jaguars.
But Jeffery has always been categorized as a guy that's open even when he isn't. He's big and physical and has won more than his share of jump balls, as he did here vs. the Panthers.
Jeffery isn't slow by any means. Late in the Panthers game, he ran a deep post route beyond the entire defense and drew a pass interference penalty.
Jeffery: There's definitely more opportunities for us. At the same time … we're just playing our game. Whatever defense gives us, we got to just got to play within the system.
The Eagles have called two deep shots for Tate (No. 19) – basically the same route — but Wentz and the receiver have failed to hook up.
Wentz appeared to underthrow the first and overthrow the second. Chemistry could be an issue.
Tate: I think it's just going to be reps, and we try and take advantage of those at practice. If we have any time in between periods I know we're kind of talking through things and running extra routes, just trying to make up for that extra time. Hopefully, it helps.
Wentz: He wants to learn. He wants to ask why or what are you seeing here. We're always just in communication. … You build your chemistry on the field, but just talking through things off the field is something I've been very impressed with him.
They're running out of time.
Wentz has hit on some beautiful rainbows. The above 51-yarder to Agholor was perfectly placed as he led his receiver. He hit Jordan Matthews (No. 80) in stride for a 56-yard touchdown against the Titans on a nicely-drawn up pass vs. a quarters zone.
But Wentz has had his share of misses, too.
He had an opportunity to hit Agholor on this deep post against the Saints, but he didn't see cornerback Marshon Lattimore drop and was intercepted.
Against the Cowboys, he had Jeffery free in the deep "turkey hole" vs. Cover 2, but the pass took too long to get there and was broken up.
Wentz: I have to get more behind that throw. I couldn't quite finish it and I couldn't quite see how the end result was, but I know I didn't get enough on the throw.
Wentz had a defender bearing down on him, but it brings his knee into question. There was a recent NFL Network report that he was still being hindered by his surgically-repaired left knee and was hesitant at times when stepping into his throws.
Wentz: I heard about that and I don't know where that came from, to be honest. I feel good. I've analyzed my mechanics really all the way throughout this injury and I've never felt that as an issue at all.
And there have been a few times, however few, when he simply didn't pull the trigger on a deep shot. This first down play, in which Agholor and Jeffery ran vertical routes and the backside safety bit on play action, could have been a winner. Wentz dumped instead to running back Josh Adams, who subsequently dropped the pass.
Wentz: It happens. Sometimes you miss one or you got off your first read and he ended up winning late or something like that. And that happens within the course of a game, and especially within the season.
Deep shots mean deep drops and longer-developing routes. There have been far too many occasions, especially earlier in the season, when the Eagles' offensive line didn't withstand the rush long enough. Here's an example vs. a Giants blitz last week.
Pederson: You have to look at protection and how well we're protecting up front. Any time you take a shot down the field, it's usually a seven-step drop or a deep, play-action pass.
But Pederson must shoulder blame, as well. His reluctance, at times, to run the ball has made play action ineffective. He hasn't taken enough advantage of tight end Zach Ertz's skills as a downfield receiver (5 of 5 for 134 yards on deep passes). And his situational play calling, like on this short third down when he called a deep shot vs. the Saints, has been shaky all season.