There’s plenty of finger pointing going on regarding the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles not playing like defending champions. There are calls for Jim Schwartz’s head, pleas for trades, and sides being taken as to whether it’s the offense or the defense that’s letting the team down.
As often is the case with struggling teams, the truth is it’s likely a number of factors. Whether some of these problems prove over time to be bigger than the others is yet to be determined, but taking an honest look at each potential contributing factor is needed.
First, we start with the offense. Last year the Eagles eclipsed 30 points scored nine times. This year they haven’t reach that mark once, averaging 22.0 points per game (22nd). There has been constant turnover on this side of the ball, but injuries aren’t the only culprit. The devil is in the details.
Against the Carolina Panthers, the Eagles had plenty of opportunities to put more points on the board. They came up small on too many occasions.
Early Opportunity Squandered...
Along with the first drive Carson Wentz fumble where we got a lesson on dry balls from analyst Charles Davis, there were opportunities early to secure more points that fell through. The second drive was a prime example of this and a microcosm of what’s been wrong with the Eagles’ offense this year.
To start, the drive had everything that the Eagles do well. An early injection of Zach Ertz over the middle off play-action gained 14 yards, followed by a double play-action screen to Corey Clement with some reverse action that went for 11 yards. The offense was moving and the early script installed during the week had the offense to midfield in four plays.
Three straight runs set up 4th & 1 and of course Doug Pederson dialed up the sneak for Wentz, which worked just as it always has. On 4th & 5, Alshon Jeffery worked a deep out from a nasty split to get open on a beautiful toe-tapper for 14 yards. This brought the Eagles to the Panthers 25-yard line with a fresh set of downs and spiked their expected points by +3.25, the third biggest positive swing in the game. Unfortunately, that’s when things got muddy.
A major issue for this offense has been stopping itself with untimely penalties and bad luck. This reared it’s ugly head in a play that won’t be remembered, but caused a butterfly effect throughout the rest of the game.
Jason Peters was called for a chop block, but the blame doesn’t lie entirely on him. He’s simply doing his job in trying to seal off Luke Kuechly and Ertz is doing his job cut blocking the end man on the line of scrimmage. Kuechly ends up in Ertz’s path and despite the harmless intent, the play is correctly flagged. The penalty erases a 15-yard gain from Wendell Smallwood.
Warranted or not, yet another drive stalled, but the worse part is compounding mistakes. You can blame the swirling wind conditions, but Jake Elliott is running out of excuses.
He’s 2nd worst in field goal percentage among kickers with double-digit attempts at an abysmal 73.3%. The 36-yard miss against the Panthers was not an anomaly and it cost the Eagles -3.02 in expected points. That’s the second biggest negative EPA of the game.
It might seem innocuous; losing a mere three points on a forgettable drive didn’t make or break this game, but the impact of scoring points early in games and establishing leads can’t be understated. It’s also been the underlying problem for this offense all season. Combined with Wentz’s dry-ball fumble, the first two Eagles drives came away empty-handed, no small thing in what would end up a close one-score game.
Failure to Finish...
Fast-forwarding to the 4th quarter, the Eagles had another chance for a scoring drive that sputtered and would leave the window open for a comeback. Following a 17-play, 94-yard touchdown drive that ate up over 9 minutes of clock, the Panthers would answer with a long drive of their own and trail 17-6.
On the ensuing drive, Wentz converted a 3rd & 3 on a well timed and well placed slant-flat concept that found Ertz for 14 yards. The Eagles were in Panthers territory with fresh sticks and all signs pointed to another score for the Eagles. That’s when execution and coaching failed them.
On first down, Nelson Agholor given a touch pass, which was essentially a jet sweep, and was stuffed for a 1-yard loss. This gets marked as a pass, but it’s really the Eagles trying to supplement a run game that struggled to find a grove outside of some chunk gains with the trap game. The execution failed because Jordan Matthews failed to secure his block on the perimeter and it allowed Kuechly to fly across the formation and sniff it out.
The bigger break down came on 2nd & 11. The Panthers brought a blitz off the left edge with safety Mike Adams, but this was bait for running back Corey Clement, who went to help Peters. The real threat was Kuechly coming on a delayed blitz, who combined with the slant of the 1-tech defensive tackle, had a free run at Wentz. They were simply out-schemed here.
Wentz may have had an opportunity to deliver the ball to Agholor, who is open on a curl. I won’t make that judgment as I can’t see the full route tree and therefore don’t know his progressions. Regardless, after his initial glance, by the time his eyes bring him to the backside, Kuechly is already flying at him.
Wentz does his part to nearly make a bad play worse by trying to flick the ball forward and was lucky that Dallas Goedert was coming back to the area in which it landed. Last week that cost the Eagles a 15-yard penalty and it’s something that is not worth the risk. This type of hero ball is frustrating when taking the sack and living to play another down is the more sensible option. It didn’t cost him as much here, but it’s worth noting.
That play went for negative 7 yards and caused a -1.61 shift in expected points, the 4th worst negative shift in the game for the Eagles offense. It essentially ended the drive with another missed opportunity and the door was left wide open for a Panthers comeback.
Taking the Easy Throw...
Wentz played excellent ball for most of the game. Wentz also slipped in and out of hero ball too many times. Both can be true. The nature of this topic will make this article look particularly critical of Wentz, but that’s not the intent. All that said, his great plays won’t get as much attention as the few poor ones sprinkled in where you wish he’d just take what’s there. That was the case on the potential game-winning drive and it limited the chances the Eagles had to come out on top.
That’s Smallwood in the flat waiting for an easy throw and conversion at the top of the screen. Wentz sees him, taking a look at him and cornerback Donte Jackson. The rookie Jackson does a solid job leveraging his zone with Ertz getting vertical, but he’s still forced to bail enough to create a considerable window underneath. Instead of taking the simple play, Wentz goes for it all and forces one into double coverage.
The fourth down play fails to convert due to a few factors. First, Wentz is reading the left side and believes Ertz to be covered on his out route. He gets to his next read, which is Jeffery over the middle. You could argue it needs to come out quicker here and you could argue the offensive line to his right needs to hold up better. Either way, the execution wasn’t good enough.
And that’s the theme for the Eagles. It’s been real close a number of times, but it hasn’t been good enough. It’s not one player or one side of the ball responsible for only winning one of the last four games; it’s been a team effort. It’s also not just one or two plays; it’s a collection of plays over the life of a game. The Eagles need to clean up their execution, eliminate the self-inflicted wounds, and finish games.
Losing close games is nothing to brag about. It’s a sign that they’re talented enough to be in every game, but championship teams finish on the winning end more often than not. Championship teams also don’t blow three score leads. The players echoed that sentiment in their post-game statements. The question is, can they fix it before their season is lost?