Quick: what’s the biggest issue for the Philadelphia Eagles, right now?
I’d argue it’s pure execution. They’re just dropping the ball — literally and figuratively — in key moments. That’s little stuff that you expect to regress back to the mean; you expect to get ironed out by veterans and competitors.
But it is neither fun nor constructive to write about the crazy fumbles that haven’t fallen Philadelphia’s way; the small penalties that put them behind the sticks.
So we go to the next answers to the question: what’s the biggest issue for the Philadelphia Eagles?
Some would say the secondary; I certainly would. That’s something I wrote about last week, and will continue to touch on throughout the season.
Some will say the offensive line, and that’s what I’ll be covering here.
The offensive line is playing well
Sorry, I needed to get that in there, clearly and unequivocally, before we got into the film. The offensive line is generally playing pretty well — better than a lot of lines in the league. They remain an elite run-blocking unit that has opened up rush lanes regardless of who’s touting the football; their athleticism and power show up in pass-protection.
They’ve been struggling with blitz recognition and the consequent coordination among one another and the ancillary pieces (running backs and tight ends). These are unit-wide issues that usually cannot be attributed to any one player every single time; they belong to the recognition and communication of every player along the line, the running backs, the quarterbacks, and the coaches in film study the week previous.
Charted pressure does not interest me very much
I know, when I say that, the first response will be the pressure statistics offered by charting services at the end of every NFL week.
I was talking with a bunch of football guys a while back, and we brought up Pro Football Focus. Anybody involved with football to a certain degree knows that PFF is a controversial service, in terms of accuracy and value of information. But this isn’t even about PFF — they just happened to be the example here.
I was told that, among the services that provide charting data to NFL teams, the degrees of variance between services is staggering. Upwards of 70% differences between PFF, SIS, ESPN charting data, NFL Next Gen Stats, et cetera. NFL teams basically throw away pressure data they get from these services, because of how much it varies from their internal numbers.
Who’s right? I don’t really know. But I know I’ll trust good film analysis before I’ll trust highly subjective charting numbers.
Even within the same service — PFF grades the Eagles’ offensive line with worse pressure rates this season, as compared to last — I still take pause. I don’t dispute more pressure has been surrendered, but the origin and affect of this pressure is far more interesting to me than whether or not it happened.
Let’s look at an example.
Carson Wentz was pressured on this play:
Was Carson Wentz was pressured on this play?
This poll is closed
Regardless of what you select, both Lane Johnson and Jason Peters make high-quality plays here.
Peters wins in his typical fashion: he takes that hard 45-degree set to quickly establish leverage against the edge rusher. Sometimes he even jump sets out there, just to take the speed out of the rusher from the snap — he’s forcing the defensive end to play slower than he’d probably like to.
Regardless, after the hard set, Peters begins dropping vertically, maintain a tight relationship to LG Isaac Seumalo to protect against inside moves. Once the defensive end (#91 Stephen Weatherly) acknowledges he can’t go inside, he tries to go through. Peters absorbs the contact, locates his hands, and begins turning Weatherly to the outside.
Weatherly tries to bend, giving his back to Peters in an attempt to slink through the block, but Peters has the power and hand placement to shove him beyond the peak of the pocket, with his back to the action. That’s a win.
Lane also plays in his preferred fashion: he takes that vertical set and then waits patiently. Philadelphia very frequently slides away from Lane, so he’s left on an island with a two-way go. He can’t maintain that tight relationship to his guard the way Peters did Seumalo, so he has to be more respective of the potential inside move.
Danielle Hunter (DE #99) knows this, and does a great job stuttering inside before ripping back to Lane’s outside shoulder. Put in a recovery position, Lane’s natural athleticism and length shine: he’s able to get on his horse and track Hunter across the outside edge of the pocket, and he locates that long left arm of his on Hunter’s inside shoulder to ride him deep and out of harm’s way.
Lane does leave himself susceptible to the inside spin — and to a lot of counter moves in general, given how much space he accounts for when Brooks slides away — but by the time Hunter can hit that, Carson is already out and away.
Lane’s been getting the majority of the heat along the OL. Let’s talk about Lane.
Lane Johnson is so, so good
Lane’s playing great football guy. He’s either the best right tackle in the league, or right behind Mitchell Schwartz; he’s easily a Top-6 tackle in the league, and has been performing as such this season.
Lane is what you could call a “take you where you want to go” offensive tackle. Part of that is due to the nature of his responsibilities: again, Philadelphia very frequently asks Lane to play with a two-way go when they slide protection away from him. But part of that is due to his style. Because Lane is so long, and he’s such an athlete, he can match you to the inside or to the outside, and he can drop anchor if you try to go through him.
This is a perfect example here. Brandon Brooks stays thick to the 2-technique off the line, which leaves Lane with miles of space to account for against the stand-up 9-technique, who has a huge runway to attack here. After pushing up the edge track, DE Stephen Weatherly (#91) goes to convert speed to power, and Lane attaches his hands and drops anchor, stymieing the rush.
Reading the deep drop of Carson Wentz, Weatherly works to an arm-over outside counter to try to release from Lane. Because Lane has such a strong grip on the inside chestplate, however, he rides Weatherly back a few yards beyond Carson, who only has to step up in the pocket a bit to release to his check down.
I cannot emphasize this enough: few offensive tackles are asked to do this in the NFL. Very few do it successfully. And, when given the choice between asking Lane Johnson or Jason Peters to do it, the Eagles regularly ask Lane to do it.
That being said, Lane has given up a couple of sacks this season — more than we’re accustomed to seeing, five games into the season. What gives?
Good players can give up sacks; commit drops; throw interceptions. Yet we’re much quicker to forgive, say, the crucial 3rd and 20 Alshon Jeffery drop late in the fourth quarter than we are the sack Lane Johnson surrendered halfway through the second — why?
I’d argue because it’s much easier to remember Alshon’s redeeming qualities; his good plays. Yeah, he had that drop — he also had that wicked touchdown catch against the Titans and that key fourth-down snag on an earlier drive against Minnesota. And he was amazing in the Super Bowl, so on, and so forth.
The tricky thing about playing offensive line is that nobody remembers your good plays, because they didn’t see them. Their eyes were fixated on Carson Wentz, wondering where the ball was going to go, praying he was about to wind up for a deep shot that would get the viewer out of his seat.
Meanwhile, Lane Johnson and the rest of the offensive linemen were giving him the time and space to deliberate such a decision.
As such, we have this play:
Great little inside move by #91 Stephen Weatherly. Because help was sliding to Lane Johnson this time, he set aggressively to the outside — when help is coming to you, you typically don’t have to worry as much about the inside move, given the amount of bodies there.
However, Weatherly 1) does a great job of reading Carson Wentz’s short set — going outside would bear no fruit here, so it’s not worth it. And 2) benefits from Brandon Brooks getting displaced to the center of the field, leaving a slimmer of daylight through which he can sneak. Lane fails to locate hands on Weatherly’s torso, which lets him maintain his momentum through the inside swim and into Carson Wentz, who’s caught just in the preliminary moments of his throwing motion.
But we don’t remember these reps:
Results of these reps? In order: A pressure (maybe?), a sack, and an incompletion. But never evaluate on results; evaluate on process. All three are wins against the inside move for Lane Johnson.
On the first rep, Carson Wentz can be reasonably expected to move in the pocket, given the block Lane executes — but because he’s already finished his motion by the time the rusher arrives, it seems as if the rusher won. Carson’s been stationary for basically the whole play — that’s like trying to pass-protect for a traffic cone, which nobody should reasonably expect.
On the second rep, Halapoulivaati Vaitai is asked to play on the island on which Lane Johnson regularly lives. See how well that goes for him.
But look at Lane, who (just like on the strip-sack) has a slide to him. But this time he’s better prepared for the inside move, locates his hands on the chest plate, and completely nullifies the rusher. There’s a big escape route for Carson to his right, but he isn’t able to beat Danielle Hunter there.
That’s what you see on the final rep: Carson gets to the escape route offered him on the outside. But because the Colts were looping the defensive tackle over the top of the inside move here, there’s still edge contain, so Carson gets rid of the football.
Pressure is a messy concept to understand and to quantify. It affects different quarterbacks in radically opposite ways, it can be intentionally allowed or schemed into a play, and it can be nullified or created by a far, far wider variety of factors than simply the play of the offensive line.
With a quarterback like Carson Wentz — big-bodied, determined to extend the play, willing to hang in the pocket, tackle-breaker — pressure charting can lie. It seems the offensive line is relinquishing rush after rush, when really, they’re doing what they can be reasonably expected to do.
There are other film pieces we can discuss: how Wendell Smallwood’s pass protection struggles screwed the Eagles against the Titans; how Stefen Wisniewski and Jason Peters seemed (to me) to be passing off stunts very well; how Isaac Seumalo is limited in pass-protection. But the greatest grievance I saw following the Vikings game was that of the declining play of Lane Johnson.
And frankly, I just can’t find what y’all are talking about there.