Eagles offense survives mortal Carson Wentz performance
Carson Wentz and the Eagles offense were sluggish early once again, but will future opponents follow the 49ers' blitz-happy recipe for success?
The Eagles are more than just Carson Wentz. They don't want to have to prove it on a weekly basis, but on a Sunday when the offense was fallible, and the defense dominating against a woeful 49ers offense, it didn't matter that Wentz didn't bring his "A" game.
But it could next week against the Broncos, or after the bye at the emerging Cowboys, or against any team that stands between the Eagles and seemingly elevated expectations. They thumped the 49ers, 33-10, and afterward there were about as many questions focused on offensive inefficiency as there were on defensive accomplishment.
Part of that has to do with playing in hyper-critical Philadelphia, but after a half season of mostly stellar football the bar has legitimately been raised. If the 7-1 Eagles are to win the NFC East and possibly make a postseason run, they can ill afford to deliver these types of offensive performances against better teams.
The 49ers defense certainly made execution an arduous endeavor. They implemented a blitz-heavy game plan and through the first 25 minutes kept the Eagles' high-powered offense out of the end zone. Given, say, Denver's personnel, the outcome could have been different.
But Wentz and the Eagles overcame a second straight slow start, and unlike last week against the Redskins, they had to rely more on Jim Schwartz's defense than on the quarterback's other worldliness.
And that was fine. They dress 45 other players for a reason. But the early sacks and the errant second-half throws offered a reminder that Wentz is only 24 games into his NFL career. The previous five games, especially, skewed the learning curve, but he's going to have his occasional struggles.
And those battles are often going to come against the blitz.
"I think we're probably the No. 1 team, offensively, that's being blitzed in the NFL right now," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. "Teams are just coming after us, I think, to probably put pressure on Carson. We'll continue to see it, and we'll continue to work at it."
Pederson posited that teams were blitzing more because of Wentz's mobility, and while that may be the case, there's a more obvious answer: It's working. There have been myriad reasons for the Eagles' challenges in beating blitzes.
The running backs post-Darren Sproles injury have inconsistently picked up assignments and carried out their blocks. The offensive line has erred in its protection. And Wentz has either failed to check to better plays, to recognize pre-snap where the blitzes are coming, or to make the correct "hot" read.
He's also been prone to hold the ball too long. The Eagles have been willing to absorb a few sacks because for whatever early success defenses have had sending extra rushers, they've adjusted and Wentz has been elusive — sometimes spectacularly so.
But opposing defensive coordinators are investing time preparing for the Eagles with exotic blitz packages, and not necessarily ones they've shown on film. The Panthers did it two weeks ago. The Redskins last week. And now the 49ers.
"Early on, they were doing some different things that we weren't necessarily expecting," Wentz said, "so we just had to make some adjustments and do some different things."
The Eagles gained just 87 yards on their first 26 plays. Wentz was sacked twice, but he escaped several more pressures by either inching past the line of scrimmage or throwing the ball away. He said the rain, which was intermittent, was not a factor.
"We have to be better," Wentz said. "Starting off sluggish like that for two straight weeks — we have to get that cleaned up."
For the first time in Wentz's career, Jason Peters wasn't starting at left tackle. Pederson helped replacement Halapoulivaati Vaitai with some early chip blocks, but mostly the second-year offensive lineman was left on an island in pass protection.
Vaitai mostly held up. But defensive end Leger Douzable rushed past him for a sack in the second quarter, although Wentz appeared to also hold the ball a tick too long.
"It was my fault," Vaitai said. "It was a technique error. I took a wrong angle."
Vaitai wasn't as effective in the run game. Defensive tackle Tony McDaniel muscled past him and dropped running back Corey Clement for a 3-yard loss in the first quarter, for instance. He also had a holding penalty on a LeGarrette Blount carry in the third.
"Let's face it, nobody can be Jason Peters. He's arguably one of the best of all time," Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said. Vaitai's "not trying to fill his shoes. He's trying to be Big V."
The Eagles strung together a six-play, 56-yard touchdown drive before the half. A 24-yard catch by rookie receiver Mack Hollins, who's becoming a more featured player at the expense of Torrey Smith, was instrumental in a drive that culminated in a Wentz to Zach Ertz 1-yard touchdown.
And there were blips of effectiveness after the break – Clement bolted for 22 yards, Alshon Jeffery reeled in a 50-50 jump ball and bullied into the end zone for a 53-yard touchdown, and Blount zig-zagged 12 yards for a score. But overall, the offense wasn't itself.
The 49ers held the Eagles to a season-low 304 total yards, 4.6 yards per play and a 28.6 success rate on third down. And Wentz was scattershot. He hasn't been especially accurate, but he completed only 56.3 percent of his attempts and missed several open receivers down the field.
Wentz overshot Jeffery in the end zone in the first quarter and tight end Brent Celek just short of the goal line in the fourth. He threw behind Ertz off a play-action boot and he tossed an interception that was well shy of Hollins, although he had expected his receiver to run a different route.
"Mack and I were just not on the same page," Wentz said, "plain and simple."
The 49ers scored a touchdown off the turnover, but there were few sweaty palms at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles still led, 20-7, and Wentz's counterpart was C.J. Beathard. If anything put Wentz's mortal performance in perspective it was watching the 49ers' rookie quarterback.