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One Key to Protecting Carson Wentz

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Do the Eagles already have the blueprint?

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Paramount to the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles offensive success in 2018 is protecting franchise quarterback Carson Wentz. Yes, protecting your quarterback should always be a priority, but what does that mean? I’ll admit it’s a lazy statement, but there are methods to help keep your investment upright.

Sometimes it means getting the ball out quicker by dialing up quick hitting concepts. Sometimes it’s being alert of pre-snap blitz indicators or being capable of picking up stunts. We’ll dive into all of those eventually, but for today let’s stick with how quickly we can get the ball into our playmakers’ hands. Consider this an analytics appetizer before the main course film pieces arrive.

Right out of the gate, let’s address the method that doesn’t “move it” for me. That theory states that the Eagles should run the ball more as some form of a quarterback condom. Running the ball is less efficient in many situations and running it to protect your quarterback is cutting your nose to spite your face. That’s not to say the Eagles should never run the ball as that would have a butterfly effect with untold consequences. They have found a solid balance with their play-calling, there’s no need to purposefully be less efficient. Let’s get to real solutions.

In regard to quick hitting concepts, there’s good news! The Eagles showed the ability to adapt as the season progressed, hooray! I’m as shocked as you are. The bad news is that didn’t happen until very late in the season and pass protection was becoming an increasing problem when Wentz was under center.

Out of 29 qualifying quarterbacks, Pro Football Focus ranks Wentz 12th in terms of highest pressure rate experienced. For a player that extends plays like Wentz, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he holds onto the ball longer than over half of the other quarterbacks. He’s going to see more pressures due to this factor, but looking back on the season there’s solid evidence that suggests the Eagles would benefit by applying their playoff philosophy to Wentz.

In terms of protecting Wentz, things got worse towards the end of the season. You could point to several factors; a rough stretch for Halapoulivaati Vaitai where he bled pressures from every pore at a historic rate, troubles picking up stunts and blitzes, and an increasing time between snapping and delivering a throw. Narrowing the focus to the topic of getting the ball out quickly, there’s a negative trend. In Week 13 against the Seattle Seahawks and Week 14 against the Los Angeles Rams, Wentz’s time-to-throw skyrocketed. In those games he was pressured a combined 47%, an unhealthy 13% above league average. That’s not sustainable, even for an escape artist like Wentz.

To really drive this point home, I pulled data for time-to-throw and pressure rates for each week Wentz played. In 2017 the league average time-to-throw was 2.71 and the pressure rate was 34.1%. Wentz held the ball longer than league average on 7 occasions and was under pressure higher than league average on 5 of those 7 occasions. Conversely, when Wentz came in under the average time-to-throw, he was under pressure less than league average 5 out of 6 times. Time for an obvious statement: holding onto the ball longer increases your chances to be pressured. So what did the Eagles do to fix this?

Nick Foles didn’t benefit from a shift in philosophy right away. The Rams pressured him on half his dropbacks and during the rest of the regular season he was under fire at a higher rate than the league average. He also showed a similar trend to Wentz in his two full game starts in terms of elongated time-to-throw raising the heat he experienced.

During the regular season, Foles came in slightly under Wentz with a 2.70 time-to-throw. In the playoffs it plummeted, in a good way, to 2.53. In all three playoff games he got the ball out of his hands much quicker than he had in the regular season. In all three games he was pressured less than the league average. It paid off and he experienced a clean pocket at a much higher rate, facing pressure only 28.7% of the time. I doubt it’s pure coincidence.

It’s one thing to say “just get rid of the ball quicker”; I admit that’s another lazy statement. To expand upon that, I’ll point to something I’ve alluded to before; the Eagles should attack the short middle of the field with higher frequency.

“When they attacked the short middle of the field it resulted in a 123 QB rating for Wentz for the season. Targeting Zach Ertz in the short middle resulted in a 124 rating and it spiked to a team high 138 when he was targeted deep middle. The Eagles listen to what they analytics tell them and adjust accordingly, which could benefit Ertz and translate to high volume games.” – It Me

Whether it’s shorter route combinations or run-pass options, there’s opportunity to exploit further in 2018. The Eagles are excellent at creating favorable match-ups via alignment in the middle of the field. If they focus in on this area, it should lead to a higher frequency of minus 2.5 second snap-to-throws. Ertz, Dallas Goedert, and Nelson Agholor should all reap the benefits from those two analytical trends colliding.

Maybe it’s just a part of Wentz’s game with which we will have to live. To his credit, he’ll hang in a pocket longer than most to find that one extra beat needed before unleashing a frozen rope to an uncovering receiver. It’s still worth noting that when you take in the whole picture, Wentz is more efficient in almost every away when he gets it out in less than two and a half seconds.

A concerted effort to keep Wentz upright and clean should be on the forefront of the minds of the Eagles coaching staff. It’s my belief that they already recognized the problem, formed a solution, and applied them to Foles in the post-season. With the success they had with the eventual Super Bowl MVP, they have the blueprint. They just need to execute (again, because they won the Super Bowl).