During the Eagles’ 32-27 win against the Washington Redskins on Sunday, it was hard not to watch and immediately draw comparisons to the 2017 Super Bowl season. An explosive offense, a healthy Carson Wentz and a flurry of points. Though the most jarring comparison was the success on third down. In 2017 the Eagles were second in the league in third down conversion rate, converting just over 44 percent of those attempts.
That number regressed to 40 percent in 2018, and ironically former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich’s new team, the Colts, led the pack converting on 47 percent of its third down attempts. Numbers like that are largely unsustainable as the Bucs, Saints and Falcons are the only three teams since 2015 to finish in the top five in conversion rate multiple times.
As Sunday’s game progressed, it was hard not to notice the third and long conversions in particular, with three touchdowns coming on 3rd and 5 or longer. Overall, Wentz finished with a line of 12-of-13 for 197 yards and three touchdowns on the money down, a result of improved play calling, top notch offensive line play, a player that opened up the field and a touch of Wentz’s special traits.
“Third down and red zone is something we always work on,” Wentz said. “A lot of teams give up on third-and-long and just take a screen. We’re going to just take what is there sometimes, but we’re going to try to push the ball down the field when we can and make plays. It was good to see that we were able to do that today.”
I noted the play calling, which was lackluster throughout most of the first half. On separate third down attempts, the Eagles ran plays that began well behind the line of scrimmage. A toss to Darren Sproles on 3rd and 1 and a wide receiver screen on 3rd and 10 to Desean Jackson left much to be desired. Fortunately for the Eagles, head coach Doug Pederson dialed up his best plays, taking advantage of the skillsets he has on offense.
Second Quarter, 14:15 (3rd and 10)
This was the Eagles’ first third down conversion through the air. Pre-snap the Eagles are in a 12 personnel formation (two tight ends, one running back) with a wide receiver on each side. Wentz motions Desean Jackson across the formation and the cornerback follows, alerting Wentz pre-snap that he’s going to see man coverage. With Alshon Jeffery on the outside running a fly route, it clears the boundary giving Wentz a sizable area to throw in. With the cornerback playing with inside leverage, it’s an easy toss to Jackson for the first down.
Third Quarter, 4:27 (3rd and 10)
In their postgame pressers, Doug Pederson and Carson Wentz were both asked about the success the team had on third down situations and the success when throwing to Desean Jackson in those situations.
For the Eagles first touchdown, Wentz noted what he saw that allowed the play to work.
“We were always in communication during the game trying to figure out what they were doing coverage wise, and that specific play we were talking about heavy alert if they do a certain coverage. We hit the home run on that one and it was fun.”
The alert Wentz alluded to was how Washington played the route combination as well as the personnel and coverage they deployed. On 3rd and 10, the team came out with trips to the right, with Jackson as the point man in the bunch. Washington gives a two-high safety look pre-snap, which quickly turns into a single-high look with a linebacker dropping as the deep MOF (middle of the field) defender. The Eagles run a staple of their offense, the dagger concept. I wrote about this concept at length two years ago during the Super Bowl season. Essentially the outside receiver runs a deep dig route at about 15 yards with an inside receiver running a fly route to clear out the field.
Doug played the hits. Looks like Desean Jackson’s first TD came on a dagger concept. Alshon runs the intermediate dig, sucking in the the MOF defender. After that you have Jackson deep 1-on-1. Usually the deep route clears for the dig but it worked the other way around here. pic.twitter.com/CukjgvvZ3d— Tyler Jackson (@TjackRH) September 9, 2019
The way this concept works, the dig route is the primary read, but the alert Wentz talked about after the game was Jackson’s route. When he sees the MOF defender — again, a linebacker — Wentz is alerted he has Jackson one-on-one deep with Josh Norman. touchdown The chances of a linebacker beating Jackson to the spot are slim to none. Wentz’s task is to get enough under it and allow Jackson to chase it. He did that successfully, getting the Eagles on the board. The protection on the play held up well, giving Wentz the time he needed, allowing the routes to develop in an obvious pressure situation. This isn’t he first time Wentz has used an alert for a huge play. During the 2017 matchup agains the Cardinals, Torrey Smith’s long touchdown was on an alert as well.
Third Quarter, 7:54 (3rd and Goal)
This was another example of the Eagles taking advantage of the matchup presented to them as well as a trademark Wentz mobility play. In the red zone the Eagles come out in 12 personnel, but not out of the alignment you’d expect. Both tight ends, Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert are detached from the line, with Ertz out wide. Add in Jeffery and the Eagles are apparently looking to utilize their size in the red zone.
Before the snap, if you look at the trips alignment to Wentz’s left, you’ll see some confusion amongst Washington’s defenders. That wasn’t lost on Pederson.
“We lined up quickly to the line of scrimmage,” Pederson said. “Thought that there might have been a little confusion on defense that we were able to kind of take advantage of, which helped us there.”
You’ll see in the confusion that Washington leaves Dallas Goedert open. Wentz, moving on from his first read in Zach Ertz, can't get to Goedert as the pressure from the right forces him to climb the pocket. Wentz, as he’s done most of his career, does a good job of keeping his eyes down field when he has to move and notices Alshon in a mismatch against a linebacker. Wentz makes the tight window throw on the run, bringing the Eagles to within a score.
“Especially down there, Alshon does such a great job of body control and boxing out guys,” Wentz said. “He’s being strong to the catch. I was rolling out and saw a linebacker on him, so I want to give him that shot every time. I believe he’s going to come down with it 99 percent of the time. That’s the kind of player he is, especially when we get down into the red zone. To go snatch that ball out of the air, it’s good to see.”
Third Quarter, 5:15 (3rd and 10)
This was Carson Wentz at his best. Two years ago when the Eagles played the Cardinals, Wentz put on a clinic, showing command of the offense by throwing the alerts and consistently making changes pre-snap based on the looks he saw. Those traits were on display again.
“We were on the ball and we made the call based off of the look the defense was giving us,” Pederson said. “We really had either [Eagles WR Nelson Agholor] or DeSean on that one, and it was take your pick. We made the play.”
On Desean Jackson’s second touchdown of the game, Wentz immediately makes a change based on the look Washington gives him. Though it was never elaborated on what changes he made, he was tipped Washington was playing zone. Typically in man coverage a safety or a linebacker is shaded down towards Ertz, but it was instead a cornerback. Another indicator is how the defensive backs are positioned and where their eyes are pre-snap. If they’re looking at the quarterback, it’s usually a tell of zone. Unfortunately this information was not revealed. If that’s the tip, Wentz likely changed the route combination on the trips side to attack Washington’s zone. According to Desean Jackson, that was the case and this play was made in the week of preparation leading up to the game.
“They play a zone defense and it is different because I was in the slot and not the outside receiver,” Jackson said. “So when I was in the slot, you have a nickel corner on me and then you have a safety that tries to cut different crossing routes and just has eyes in the backfield. We knew all week, once they get into this coverage and we see them giving their signal, Carson [Wentz] had the opportunity to check me a couple times on a certain route and we just got it and they gave us the courage we needed.”
He did so successfully with Norman playing shallow on the right side. This leaves the defense with one defender to cover two vertical routes. From top to bottom, this was all about Carson Wentz’s adjustment.
“DeSean [Jackson], we caught him in the right coverage on the one touchdown,” Pederson said. “DeSean kind of split the two-deep safety there, or at least the one-high safety I thought, and for the one touchdown, protection was really good. So just a combination of our execution and then just playing fast.”
Third quarter, 3rd and 9 (3:11)
Here Wentz takes advantage of a honey hole in the Washington defense. Jackson runs a deep stem and the speed forces the deep defender to keep a cushion. The underneath defender comes up on Miles Sanders and it’s just pitch and catch afterwards for Wentz and Jackson.
Third Quarter, 3rd and 4 (1:28)
Speaking of pitch and catch and the impact of Desean Jackson’s speed, this nine yard gain on 3rd and 4 was a result of that. With Jackson lined up as the far side slot in a 3x1 set, Wentz knows he has man coverage, mostly by how the defense is aligned. Notice Josh Norman (top right) is up on the line, staring straight at Alshon. Reading the body, and you can see Wentz peek that way until the snap to confirm, it’s man coverage. Next Wentz sees Jackson’s cushion. The defender has to respect his speed and just as he begins to bail deep after the snap, Jackson stops on his curl and as soon as he looks back the ball is there.
Fourth Quarter, 3rd and 15 (11:21)
On 3rd and 15 Wentz again went to his bag for another trick. With another 11 personnel look, Zach Ertz, the lone receiver to the left is the first read. When Wentz hits the top of his drop he sees there’s no window there, but before he can move through his progressions pressure arrives up the gut. Wentz again does an excellent job rolling to his left and directing traffic, moving Ertz to a soft spot in the zone. Wentz sets, fires and converts to keep the drive alive.
Fourth Quarter, 3rd and 7 (6:42)
Much like the previous third down conversion, this was a terrific job by Wentz breaking the pocket to extend the play after Washington effectively covered his receivers. Pre-snap Wentz sends Miles Sanders out wide and the linebacker followers, confirming man coverage. Wentz’s first read is to the three receiver side, where he has nothing. After that pressure arrives and he rolls left. Jeffery does a good job recognizing this after the pump fake and breaks loose from Norman. In the past the chemistry between the two has been discussed at length. In this game, their connection was on display and it shows here with Jeffery uncovering himself and Wentz knowing where to go.
For the Eagles, it’s highly unlikely they convert over 60 percent of their third down attempts moving forward, but Sunday’s win was encouraging. It was a return to a high level of coaching and execution for the team after 2018 produced largely mixed results. My other takeaway is how well the team utilized Jackson. Referencing 2018, the team struggled finding a roll and utilizing Golden Tate. That’s not the case with Jackson. The team wasn't afraid to call his number or consistently go to the well and the timing between the receiver and his new quarterback was evident from the start. If the team continues to gel and fire on all cylinders the way it did in the second half, it will be hard to make an argument against the championship aspirations.