Welcome to yet another edition of Crunching The Numbers, a weekly game preview in which I compare the Eagles against their upcoming opponent using a few select statistics. If you want to read more about why I chose the statistics I use, or see an archive of past entries, check out this hub.
Typically, I’ll use some space at the beginning of the post to critique my suggested “game plan” from the previous game. However, for the 49ers I instead opted to discuss how the Eagles might lose because the matchup was incredibly lopsided statistically. Since the Eagles did, in fact, not lose, going over my “nightmare scenario” seems like a waste of my effort and your time. So before I dig into Sunday’s game, I’ll offer my own thoughts on the big Jay Ajayi trade, since we’re all hungry for fresh Jay Takes, or “Jakes,” as I like to call them. (...I’ll show myself out.)
Overall, I liked the trade. How can you not? Ajayi is an exciting running back (health concerns notwithstanding), and he only cost one of the Eagles’ three fourth round picks next year. And even though the backfield is crowded now, and there’s the old saying, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” I can appreciate how Howie Roseman was willing to go the extra mile to try and solidify what could be a Super Bowl team. Sure, the Eagles are fifth in rushing yards per game, but in terms of the running back stable that is more fools’ gold than anything else. Put on the tape and, outside of Blount terrifying cornerbacks in the second level, much of the ground game has been a product of a mauling offensive line and Carson Wentz magic scrambles. As we saw Sunday, the line is not the same without Peters, and there’s no guarantee that it will improve.
What I really loved about this move was that it showed off Howie’s ability to find creative solutions. As an engineer, there are few things that make me geek out more than creative solutions. I would bet good money that Howie’s top trade priority was tackle, but when Duane Brown blew the price out of the water he pivoted to finding a running back that can make something happen when the run blocking fails. There is an anecdote in engineering circles about an appliance company that, in order to decrease the energy consumption of their dryers, beefed up the spin cycle on their washing machines so that the clothes weren’t as wet going into the dryer. This is essentially what Howie did with the offensive line situation.
The downside to this strategy was that, while better than our current running backs, Ajayi is still just so-so with pass blocking. This move was a silent message to Wentz that he’s going to have to take his health into his own hands the rest of the season and actively avoid hits, because they will be coming. Also, we can’t sleep on Ajayi’s knees, either. The fact that Miami kept him out of practice to rest them is not insignificant.
Now with the trade talk out of the way, how do the Eagles stack up against the Denver Broncos? (Boldface numbers indicate who has the advantage, while numbers in parenthesis are league rank.)
There are two things that the Broncos do reasonably well: control the clock and limit yards per completion. Neither are particularly surprising. All of the turnovers have given opponents short fields, leaving to quick scores that chew up little game time. As for the OY/CMP, well, they’re called the No Fly Zone for a reason. That being said, it is surprising (and encouraging) to see that the Eagles are just behind them, only allowing a somewhat-negligible 0.2 yards per completion more than their opponent on Sunday.
As for the other statistics, the Broncos’ atrocious OY/PT can also be linked to short fields off turnovers and the other two can more likely than not traced back to quarterback play. YPA is somewhat of a wild card here since those are Siemian’s statistics and not Brock Osweiler’s. Yes, “Brock Lobster” has been the butt of jokes since he signed his massive deal with the Texans, but it doesn’t change the fact that we simply don’t have data on the 2017 version of him. I’m not saying he’ll magically turn things around - he probably won’t - but he is playing for the Broncos again, where he beat the Patriots in his first start (granted, that was in Denver and there were some fluky plays).
Given this information, how should Philadelphia approach the game?
When The Eagles Have The Ball
While I will say (again) that they should be aggressive, I’ll amend that by saying they should be cautiously aggressive. Like most of the Eagles’ opponents this season, the Broncos will give up touchdowns, but that pass defense is to be respected. Attempting some fourth downs should only be a viable option if they’ve shown they can run the ball. I would not attempt a 4th-and-2 at any point on the field if the run is being stuffed (remember Denver is right behind Philly in run defense) and the defense can reasonably expect you to throw a pass. They will have it covered and it will fail.
Of course, as of late the Eagles have either not needed to worry about fourth downs or have faced opponents where risking a turnover on downs isn’t necessary. The Eagles can continue this trend by getting themselves into third-and-shorts by one of two ways. If the Broncos are showing off-coverage, run up-tempo (like Doug has fancied recently) and call some quick slants, which are almost impossible to defend when you’re giving a ten yard cushion. If they adjust to playing press-man, start moving matchup nightmares around the field to get someone like Zach Ertz matched up on a linebacker. Should the Broncos open the game with press-man, just flip the strategies. I fully expect the outside receivers to have a middling day regardless. If the Eagles are to win the passing battle, it will be by attacking soft spots in zones or creating matchup problems with Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor.
The one thing they need to avoid at all costs are third-and-longs. The Broncos’ defensive front is terrifying and the offensive line is hurting right now. If they can pin their ears back and attack, it will only be a matter of time before the Eagles cough the ball up.
When The Broncos Have The Ball
This is where I think the Eagles win the game. I’m not going to try and be clever with this, because it’s obvious: stop the run and force the Broncos to beat you with their quarterback. If there’s one thing the Eagles do better than everything else, it’s stop the run. The caveat here again is that we have no present information on Brock Osweiler, but history suggests that, while he may be a marginal upgrade over Trevor Siemian, he won’t be able to put the team on his back.
Part of this strategy also involves keeping the Broncos scoreless long enough for the Eagles’ offense to establish a decent lead (7+ points) by halftime. They won’t be able to relentlessly attack the passer early on, so unless the Eagles are able to pull away early the name of the game on pass defense is confusion. Let’s see some blitzes by a safety (or even a cornerback). Run combo coverages. Drop a lineman into the flat every now and then. Show some new looks that aren’t on tape. When you can’t realistically assume they’ve abandoned the run you can’t let the quarterback gain confidence with easy completions either. Osweiler needs to look lost from the get-go. If that happens, turnovers will follow, which should be enough for the offense to build a nice lead at the half. Once that happens, let loose the defensive line.
Just looking at the statistics, the Eagles have a clear advantage here. The only metric where they fall behind (OY/CMP) is by one spot, and the margin is only 0.2 yards. Throw in the fact that they are playing in Philadelphia and this game is very much winnable.
However, Denver has a lot of talent on both sides of the ball and Vance Joseph is a rookie head coach trying to prevent his team from falling into a death spiral. The Eagles will need to put a clean and polished product on the field if they want to take control of this game like they have so many times this season. Otherwise, a close game may be the only spark the Broncos need to pull off the upset.