Eagles receivers don't mind sharing the wealth | Jeff McLane
Wide receivers are about as egocentric as players come in the NFL. But winning is an elixir for selfishness.
Wide receivers are about as egocentric as players come in the NFL. But winning is an elixir for selfishness.
If the Eagles were 1-6 rather than 6-1, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith might have a legitimate beef with how Carson Wentz has been distributing passes. But it's not as if either has been neglected, and who could argue with the results thus far?
"It's definitely a little adjustment," Smith said Wednesday, "but we are winning, and I'm just happy to know that we're moving the ball. I think everything is better when you're moving the ball and you're having success.
"I think everyone would probably feel differently if we were struggling. It's not necessarily, 'Hey, I want the ball.' It's 'I feel like I can help us.' "
Smith has been the most affected by the emergence of receiver Nelson Agholor over the last month. The seven-year veteran was averaging about nine more snaps over the first three games. But Agholor has been getting an average of seven more snaps over the last four games.
And Smith's targets have gone from eight in the second game, to five, three, four, two, and just one Monday against the Redskins. He has just five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown in the last four games, while Agholor has 15 grabs for 251 yards and three scores.
"Sometimes it comes in bunches. Sometimes it may not be at all," Smith said. "Just have to be ready, stay ready. That's one of the strengths of our team. You never know where the ball is really going to go."
Tight end Zach Ertz leads the Eagles with 58 targets, and he's caught 39 passes for 494 yards and five touchdowns. Jeffery isn't far behind with 54 targets. He has pulled in only 26 passes for 354 yards and two scores. But he's also often been a decoy.
"It's just part of football. You want to win you've got to sacrifice sometimes," Jeffery said Thursday. "It's a team sport. It takes everyone. It ain't like basketball where you can put up 40 every night."
But Jeffery and Smith have been the focal points before. Not quite to a LeBron James-like level, but when they were often the No. 1 read/target. In 2015, Jeffery led the Bears in targets even though he played only eight games. In 2013, Smith was targeted 64 more times than any other Ravens receiver.
Both had fallen on hard times in recent years, but they were acquired this offseason to upgrade an outside receiver position that was dreadful last season. The Eagles seemingly afforded them the opportunity to put up big numbers as "lead dogs," as offensive coordinator Frank Reich called them. But that hasn't yet been the case.
"We've been running the ball pretty well, so … you're just not going to rack up huge numbers in the pass game," Reich said. "And so, to their credit, they've not only had a great attitude about that but understanding that the 17 to 23 completions that we're going to get, they're going to get spread around."
Overall, Agholor has caught 24 of 35 targets for 366 yards and five touchdowns, and Smith has caught 14 of 26 targets for 210 yards and a touchdown. But there are more options than just the top four skill position players. There are running back Wendell Smallwood, tight end Trey Burton, and fourth receiver Mack Hollins, who has made the best of his chances, however few.
Hollins has caught all six of the passes thrown to him for 134 yards – the latest a 64-yard touchdown catch against the Redskins. He got on the field only because Smith was gassed after the previous play.
"He had happened to go on a deep ball and [receivers coach Mike Groh] tapped me, which has happened a million times," Hollins said. "I was just the lucky one who got the deep ball the next play."
Smith was one of the first Eagles to congratulate Hollins as he came off the field.
"It's been really cool seeing the support of everybody when a guy like Mack scores a touchdown," Wentz said. "Everyone's pumped. Everyone's thrilled. It's not a selfish locker room by any means."
Jeffery, for instance, purposely signed a one-year contract because he had hoped a strong 2017 season would buoy offers this coming season. At this pace, however, his statistics won't warrant a top-of-the-market deal.
"That'll take care of itself. I'm not worried about a contract," Jeffery said. "I'm just trying to play football, trying to win a championship."
Championship-caliber teams need more than one, two or even three lead dogs on offense. There are typically enough milkbones to go around. And if there aren't, winning cures all.
"Everybody wants to be the star," Reich said. "Everybody wants to be the top scorer. We get that. That's natural, and we should want that, and we want players who think like that. But really the overriding factor is to contribute."
Bar none Barnett
Early in the Redskins game, Derek Barnett got into the left tackle's face after the whistle and kept talking.
It wouldn't have stood out very much except that the offensive lineman was all-pro Trent Williams, and Barnett is a rookie who had just half a sack to his name. But the defensive end wanted to show (and tell) Williams that he wasn't going away despite their disparity in accomplishment.
"Trent is a good ball player. I love competing against the best," Barnett said Wednesday. "He'll get after me after the play a little bit. I felt like it was just two guys competing and going at it to the whistle."
A few plays later, Barnett recorded his first full NFL sack. But it wasn't Williams whom he got around on the way to tackling Kirk Cousins. It was tight end Jordan Reed.
"I don't want to give any gold stars for beating pass-receiving tight ends in pass rush," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.
Barnett did eventually beat a left tackle for a sack – his second of the game coming in the fourth quarter. But, again, it didn't come at the expense of Williams, who left in the second half with a knee injury. Barnett beat T.J. Clemmings by using his hands to power past him.
The rookie, who was held without a sack in the first five games, now has 2 1/2 in the last two.
"I felt like I was getting to the quarterback. I just didn't get any sacks," Barnett said. "Everybody just told me to keep grinding, and they will come. As a pass rusher, you can't get upset if the numbers aren't there."
Barnett, 21, did have several positive moments against Williams. He turned the corner on him with his patented speed rush and hit Cousins. And Barnett knocked the tackle to the ground when he recorded a tackle for loss against the run.
He even used one of the secondary moves he worked on extensively during the offseason – an inside spin – to beat Williams. But he spun into double-teaming guard Shawn Lauvao and was pushed to the grass.
"He's been rushing the passer well," Schwartz said. "A lot of times, you can have a great pass rush, and you don't get the sack. And there's other times you have crappy pass rushes, and you get the sack."
For the first time this season, Barnett played more snaps – 36 to 27 — than starting right end Vinny Curry. But Schwartz said not to read into the defensive line playing time distribution.
"We've had a lot of guys coming back from injuries and still not 100 percent," Schwartz said. "So that probably played more to it than anything else. But also it really depends on how many third downs you get, two-minute situations, short-yardage situations. All those can affect the way that the numbers work out."
Carson Wentz, understandably, wouldn't give the name of the now-famous play that he lobbied Eagles coaches to run and that ultimately produced perhaps the most impressive pass of his career. But he gave a pretty good answer as to why he first approached Doug Pederson and Frank Reich.
"I like that it's been effective," Wentz said Thursday of the pass play he ran often in college. "It's got good answers all over the field."
The play, which resulted in a 9-yard touchdown pass to Corey Clement in the third quarter Monday, was originally designed for the red zone, per Reich. But it took some convincing for Wentz to get his way.
"Sometimes it's tough," Wentz said. "I had to call [North Dakota State], get the old film out so I can kind of show them what's going on, and then kind of run in practice and just kind of convince them."
Wentz said the play was installed early in the season and needed about two weeks of practice repetition before it was ready. The Eagles employ many variations and can call it anywhere on the field. But Wentz's comfort may be the No. 1 reason why it has been successful, even if Clement was one of the last reads.
"In practice when we run the versions of that play, you can just see Carson work the progressions and get to every receiver in the progression," Reich said. "I mean, literally all five receivers have caught that ball in practice on that particular route."
Tight end Zach Ertz was Wentz's first read this particular time. But there was immediate pressure up the middle, and the quarterback had to step up in the pocket. Wentz said he caught Clement, who had circled into the end zone from a flat route, out of the corner of his eye and then instinct took over.
Of course, Wentz wouldn't have been able to throw off his back foot and across his body with pinpoint accuracy without elite athleticism. It was the kind of toss shortstops must sometimes make, and Wentz, who played baseball as a youth, agreed that there were commonalities.
"I think being a multi-sport athlete just really helped my athleticism, being able to make some of those throws," Wentz said. "I think a lot of quarterbacks can kind of attest to that to some extent."
Five questions: Torrey Smith
1. If you couldn't play the position you now play in the NFL, which position would you want to play? Quarterback. You get to touch the ball every play.
2. What is your least favorite part of the week's practice leading up to a game? Can practice be a least favorite part? You want to get prepared, but those first couple of days after games are pretty rough.
5. When did you first think that you were good enough to play in the NFL? When my coach [Mayland's Ralph Friedgen] sat me down and was like, "I think if you have a good spring, really lock in this season, you have a chance to leave early." You play with guys, and they get drafted and you're like, "Wait a minute. I wanted that." But it wasn't really my approach. I was just trying to focus on school and graduate.
Inside the game
Regarding a balanced offense, it helps to be ahead. Teams that have a lead typically run the ball to drain the clock. And teams that trail typically throw to pick up chunk yards and have more ways to stop the clock.
That's one explanation for why the Eagles' run-pass ratio has been among the most balanced in the NFL during their five-game winning streak. In their first two games, excluding Carson Wentz's kneel downs, they rushed 24.8 percent of the time vs. passing 75.2 pct. In their last five, the ratio has been 46.6 to 53.4.
Success has played a role in Doug Pederson calling more runs, but he has clearly emphasized establishing the ground game since the loss at the Chiefs. In the first two games, the run-pass ratio in the first half was 30.2 to 69.8. In the next five games, it was 43.8 to 56.2.
Inside the locker room
DeMeco Ryans was sometimes called "Coach" by his Eagles and Texans teammates. It's no longer a nickname. The former NFL linebacker, who retired last year, was hired by the 49ers – who face the Eagles this Sunday — to be a defensive quality control coach this offseason.
While 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan worked on offense and rarely with Ryans during their four seasons together, he said he got to know the linebacker well enough to predict what kind of coach he could become.
"He's one the best people that I've been around in my life," Shanahan said during a Wednesday conference call. "I didn't know he wanted to go into coaching, but when I got this job, he told me he wanted to, and that's all I needed to hear."
While the 33-year-old Ryans' job is entry level, Shanahan said he could advance up the ladder.
"DeMeco's ceiling is whatever he wants it to be," Shanahan said.
By the numbers
12: Number of Eagles quarterbacks Jason Peters has blocked for in his nine seasons at left tackle: Carson Wentz, Chase Daniel, Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley, Nick Foles, Vince Young, Mike Kafka, Michael Vick, Jeff Garcia, Kevin Kolb and Donovan McNabb.
11: Number of Eagles left guards – Stefen Wisniewski, Chance Warmack, Isaac Seumalo, Allen Barbre, Matt Tobin, Dennis Kelly, King Dunlap, Evan Mathis, Reggie Wells, Nick Cole and Todd Herremans — Peters has blocked alongside.
30: Number of starting offensive line configurations Peters has played on with the Eagles.
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