Eagles great Brian Westbrook takes running backs' pass blocking to task
Brian Westbrook, a great pass blocker when he played, is concerned that Carson Wentz is going to get hurt if the Eagles' RBs don't learn how to block.
Brian Westbrook is one of the best running backs in Eagles history. Rushed for 6,538 yards and 37 touchdowns. Averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Caught 426 passes and finished his Eagles career with a club-record 9,785 yards from scrimmage.
He also was really, really good at something else you won't find in the record book. Despite being just 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds, he was a helluva blocker. I mean one of the best to ever come down the pike.
Saved Donovan McNabb's butt many a time during his career by derailing blitzing linebackers and safeties intent on maiming No. 5.
"I was no different than a lot of running backs who come into the NFL," Westbrook said. "The biggest part of our game in college was having the ball in our hands. Blocking wasn't something we did a lot.
"But when I came here, if I wanted to play, I had to learn how to block. The first thing that Duce Staley and Dorsey Levens and Brian Mitchell and all those guys told me when I came here was [learn how to block]. Because they understood how bad the team would be without No. 5 behind center."
The same holds true today with Carson Wentz behind center. If he goes down, if he gets hurt, this team can kiss its Super Bowl hopes good bye.
After watching the Eagles' current group of bad-blocking running backs flail away since Darren Sproles got hurt in Week 3, Westbrook thinks it's not a matter of if Wentz is going to get hurt, but when.
"I think Doug [Pederson] is doing a good job of making those guys understand what the blocking responsibilities are, but at some point, the guys have to step in there and put their nose in somebody else's chest and block," Westbrook said. "And I'm just not seeing a lot of running backs this year do that.
"At times, it looks like they're turning down opportunities to block. And you can't win that way. Many times, if you watch the film, it looks like they're closing their eyes [at the point of contact]. They have to become better technicians. They have to become better at the technique of blocking. Right now, they're not very good at it.''
As Westbrook proved, and as the 5-foot-6 Sproles proved, you don't have to be big to be an effective pass-blocker.
"Darren's smaller than me and he was a fantastic blocker," Westbrook said. "First of all, he had the want-to. He wanted to get in there and mix it up, which a lot of guys don't have the heart to do.
"And because you're smaller than the defender, you already have leverage. Now you just need to step up there and actually perform the block. But so many guys aren't willing to do that."
LeGarrette Blount is a 250-pound block of granite, but his blocking technique is poor and he doesn't seem terribly interested in refining it at this late stage of his career. Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner are willing, but are struggling with the able part.
The team's new addition, Jay Ajayi, is an explosive runner, but not a particularly good blocker either. It's one of the reasons Dolphins coach Adam Gase started taking him off the field on third down this season.
"It's a lot like learning how to be a receiver out of the backfield," Westbrook said. "You either want to learn how to be better at catching the ball out of the backfield or you don't.
"If you do, you stay after practice. You talk to the receivers. You run routes in the offseason. You talk to receivers about how they run routes and how they look at things. And you try to perfect your craft.
"It's the same with blocking. If you want to be better at it, you have to go out there and practice it. The first part of that is learning the technique. Learning how to close the distance from where you're originally lined up [to the pass rusher]."
Westbrook said the Eagles running backs' failure to close the gap between themselves and their blocking target has been one of their biggest problems.
"It's the one thing I think they're struggling with the most," he said. "They're not closing that gap. What happens is, if you're five yards deep in the backfield, and the linebacker is at the line of scrimmage, and if you only take one step up, then you're giving him a four-step running head start to try and run you over.
"Smallwood, for the most part, is a small guy. Clement isn't a big back. And Blount isn't a big-time blocker anyway. If you have a 250-pound linebacker running full speed and running into you, if you're four yards deep, the odds are you're going to get pushed into the quarterback.
"I just think their technique isn't very good. They have to become better technicians. They have to close the gap. They have to put their inside leg up. The strength of a pass-blocker is you're not giving away the inside. That's the quickest route to the quarterback. These guys routinely give up the inside lane. They routinely have bad technique. And when it comes to point of contact, they're not punching."
You can make numbers say whatever you want them to say. The numbers say the Eagles are fifth in the league in rushing, averaging 129.3 yards per game.
But that ranking was largely built on the back of the 407 rushing yards they piled up in back-to-back wins over the Giants and Chargers in Weeks 3 and 4.
In the four games since then, they've averaged just 3.7 yards per carry, which is the 15th lowest mark in the league during that period.
Now, they're about to face what is arguably the best run defense in the league Sunday when the Broncos visit the Linc. The Broncos actually are giving up 2 ½ more rushing yards per game than the Eagles, who are ranked No. 1. But the Broncos are second in the league in yards allowed per carry (3.0). The Eagles are 12th (3.8).
"They're very good," left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. "Part of it is scheme. There's almost always an extra guy down in the box. A safety or somebody that's playing down there. So they're going to have a numbers advantage, which is big.
"And they just play really gap-sound. Everybody knows their assignment and does their job. There usually aren't too many creases in there because they play that sound defense, and a lot of times, that safety is going to go unblocked."
The Broncos have given up just 14 runs of 10 yards or more in their seven games. They've held six of their seven opponents to 80 rushing yards or less. Oddly, the only team that has had any success against the Broncos on the ground was the 1-6 Giants, who rushed for 148 yards on 32 carries in a 23-10 Week 6 victory. The Giants are 27th in the league in rushing. So go figure.
"We're coaching the run fits differently this year," said head coach Vance Joseph, who replaced Gary Kubiak after last season. "Our linebackers are getting downhill faster, which takes the pressure off of the defensive linemen.
"Last year [under Kubiak's defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips], we were more of a stack-and-fall-back, run-fit team. This year, we're a downhill-fitting team, which works for the linebackers and works for the front."
The Broncos also signed nose tackle Domata Peko in the offseason. He's been a run-stopping force in the middle of their 3-4.
"They're a very aggressive defense," Eagles center Jason Kelce said. "Even when the safety's down in the box, it seems like he's playing run first more than maybe some other guys are.
"All in all, they're focused on winning matchups on the outside one-on-one with the receivers. Whenever you have teams that are focused on that, those inside-the-box players can play the run that much harder."
Figuring the Eagles
Sunday's game pits the Broncos' No. 1-ranked third-down defense against the Eagles' No. 2-ranked third-down offense. Opponents have converted just 25.0 percent (23 of 92) of their third-down opportunities against the Broncos. The Eagles have converted 47.8 percent of their third downs. Carson Wentz is first in the NFL in third-down passing with a 118.8 rating that includes a 9.33 yards-per-attempt average and eight touchdown passes in 76 third-down attempts. But the Eagles are coming off their poorest third-down performance of the season in Sunday's 33-10 win over the 49ers. They converted just four of 14 third-down opportunities against the Niners. Wentz was 3-for-8 for just 31 yards, no TDs and an interception on third down.
The Eagles have run 532 offensive plays in the first eight games. All but 18 have been run out of three personnel groupings: 11 (1RB, 1TE, 3WRs), 12 (1RB, 2TEs, 2WRs) and 13 (1RB, 3TEs, 1WR). A breakdown of their use by percentage: 11 (60.7), 12 (25.2) and 13 (10.7).
The Eagles used multiple-tight end sets on a season-high 51.5 percent of their plays against the Niners (34 of 66).
Wentz was 9-for-11 for 94 yards out of 12 personnel Sunday. Through the first eight games, Wentz has a 117.8 passer rating with 12 personnel. Last year, he had a 63.8 rating with 12 personnel (just 4 TDs, 7 interceptions in 189 attempts).
Zach Ertz is averaging 12.3 yards per catch, 3.8 of which has come after the catch. He's seventh among tight ends in yards after the catch. The Patriots' Rob Gronkowski is first (5.9) and the Raiders' Jared Cook is second (5.0).
Nine of Carson Wentz's 19 touchdown passes and three of his five interceptions have been with 11 personnel. He has attempted 172 passes with 11 personnel. He has thrown six TD passes and one interception on 70 attempts with 12 personnel, three TD passes and one interception on 15 attempts with 13 personnel, and one touchdown pass on one attempt with 20 personnel (2RBs, 0TEs, 3WRs). That one touchdown out of 20 personnel was Zach Ertz's one-yard TD catch against the 49ers last week. It was just the ninth time this season the Eagles have used a personnel grouping with two running backs.
Alshon Jeffery was targeted eight times by Carson Wentz last week but had just two catches, although one was that terrific 53-yard touchdown catch and run. His 45.2 catch rate this season is the lowest of his career. But he has three touchdown passes, including two in the red zone, and his 10 third-down receptions are just two less than Zach Ertz, who has a team-high 12.
Ertz leads the league in red-zone touchdown catches with six. He had eight in his first four seasons with the Eagles. Jordan Matthews had six twice — as a rookie in 2014, and again last season. The most by an Eagle before that was seven by Jeremy Maclin in 2010.
The Eagles blitzed the 49ers' C.J. Beathard on 10 of 40 pass plays last week (25.0%). He was 4-for-10 for 51 yards with a touchdown when the Eagles blitzed. Jim Schwartz sent six rushers on the shovel pass to running back Matt Breida that went for a 21-yard touchdown.
Four of the Eagles' 10 blitzes Sunday were on third down. Beathard completed just one of four passes for 10 yards against the blitz on third down. For the season, opposing quarterbacks are just 7-for-25 for 59 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and two sacks when the Eagles blitz on third down.
[Eagles-Broncos staff predictions]
This and that
Not surprisingly, defenses are devoting more attention to tight end Zach Ertz. He was targeted by Carson Wentz 48 times in the Eagles' first five games, and had 32 catches. In the last three, he's been targeted just 16 times and has 11 catches, though four of those 11 have been for touchdowns. "They've been trying to bang me up with defensive ends at the line of scrimmage,'' Ertz said. "Once I kind of get the gist of the game plan early in the game, I'm able to adapt. But they caught me off-guard last week at the beginning of the game. I'm seeing something different every week. But I'm getting used to it.''
Like most people, the Broncos' first-year coach, Vance Joseph, has been impressed by what he's seen of Carson Wentz. "He's a big guy with poise,'' Joseph said. "He has a great arm. And he can escape the pocket. He's strong. He's got some Cam Newton-like tendencies. And he's being really, really smart with the football. He's not turning it over. For a young quarterback to play with that much poise and that much courage in the pocket and not turn the football over, that's a gem right there. That's special.''
From the lip
Zeke has in no way, by any standard in this country, done anything wrong. He's done nothing wrong. We, the league, have tried to say he's done something we disagree with. We all don't agree with that. I want him to get a fair shot. He deserves that.'' –Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on Ezekiel Elliott
"Second-round picks are very valuable in this league, especially where we are as an organization. And so, this is the guy we wanted. And we were willing to give what we thought was a very valuable commodity in exchange for him. We thought about it for about 10 minutes and said, 'This is too good of an opportunity to not take advantage of.' So we jumped at it.'' – 49ers GM John Lynch on trading for QB Jimmy Garoppolo
By the numbers
The Browns are the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to start 0-8 in back-to-back seasons. The last team to do it was the 1993-94 Bengals. The other two: the '83-84 Oilers and the '76-77 Bucs.
Cowboys DE Demarcus Lawrence, who leads the NFL in sacks with 10 ½, has recorded a sack in each of the Cowboys' first seven games. If he gets one Sunday against the Chiefs, he'll become just the fourth player in history to record a sack in each of his team's first eight games. Vikings DE Everson Griffen, whose team has a bye this week, already has a sack in each of Minnesota's first eight games, joining former Colts Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as the only players to have every done it since sacks became an official statistic in the early '80s.
With a loss to the Rams on Sunday, the Giants would be 1-7 for the first time since 1980.