A lot went wrong with the Eagles offense on Sunday.
It’s hard to completely implode on a comfortable 17 point lead without a lot going wrong. Carson Wentz, initially looking like the player the Eagles have worked to reclaim since 2017, suddenly spiraled into the agonizing player of 2019. The offensive line and the running backs, both missing starters, could not scrape together an extra second in the pocket for Wentz. The offensive coaching staff, revamped and revitalized, could not escape their own excitement for finally having downfield receivers to target. The running game was nowhere to be seen.
It takes a village to give up eight sacks, to go scoreless over 36 minutes of game play. Every Eagle played their part.
In the wake of such a disappointing loss and the inevitable hunt for answers, a common refrain has rose: why wasn’t Wentz moved out of the pocket more? The rush for Washington was undeniably waxing the Eagles’ offensive line, their blitzes baffling the protection schemes in the backfield. With Wentz’s throw-on-the-move ability considered among the best in the league, why were the Eagles continuing to drop him into a predictable spot behind a struggling line?
Our king and leader here Brandon Lee Gowton asked HC Doug Pederson that very question during availability earlier this week, and got this in response:
I asked Doug Pederson why we didn’t see Wentz out of the pocket more if he’s fully healthy. His full response: pic.twitter.com/tMO2I8v80B— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) September 16, 2020
This was an interesting response because of the obvious implication: that Carson Wentz is not able to roll out of the pocket on first down under any circumstances — and, rather, is only available to roll out of the pocket on favorable down and distances following a win on first down. Yet in 2019, over 50% of Wentz’s rollout dropbacks came on first downs, per Sports Info Solutions.
Pederson later cleared up his comments, saying that he needs to do a better job getting Carson on the move even on first down, mentioning that they did get Carson on a rollout in the opening script: a well-design, motion-heavy, play-action rollout on which Wentz connected with Goedert to set up the opening touchdown.
When I asked Doug Pederson about calling rollouts on 1st down, he pointed out this play. It came on 1st down and went for a nice gain. But Pederson also admitted he can probably do a better job calling them more. pic.twitter.com/oK7lKYzX38— Dave Zangaro (@DZangaroNBCS) September 18, 2020
The only other time the Eagles tried to get Wentz out of the pocket was in the second quarter on a 2nd and 8. They called another Naked concept, in which Wentz would have no blockers in front of him on the rollout — but TE3 Richard Rodgers, who continues to be brought back to Philadelphia despite the fact that he has yet to make a good play here, blew his assignment, failing to either remain connected to the rushing Montez Sweat or release quickly into the flat as a hot option. After this play, the Eagles never called a rollout for Wentz again.
Now, the truth remains: a lot of people have to do a lot of things wrong in order for a team to implode as badly as Philadelphia did. Taking Wentz and moving his launch point is not a panacea — it doesn’t magically solve all of the problems. But it is important to understand what it does accomplish, relative to the Eagles’ offensive faceplant in Week 1.
Rollouts Help Bad Protection
We alluded to this above, so let’s break it down more fully.
When a quarterback has a predictable set point, an offensive linemen is more likely to be between a rusher and the quarterback — he knows where he is. But so do the rushers, and they can not only plan their individual rushes to arrive at that set point, but they can also build games and blitzes oriented on getting to that set point. When a pass-rush is planned on the unit level, there are rushers who aren’t responsible for getting to the quarterback so much as they are responsible for keeping the quarterback where he is — such that the other rushers can arrive as expected.
When a quarterback is on a mobile set point, you leave more up to chance. You could end up wheeling directly into a blitz, or see a looping defensive tackle avoid protection altogether — or you could not. With play-action flow, the offensive linemen can get generally between the quarterback and their assignment, and with the added distance the quarterback has put between himself and the defensive line considered, he’ll have time to execute the concept.
So rollouts don’t really help an offensive line that’s winning — in that it introduces randomness, it favors the less talented offensive line. But for an offensive line that’s losing, as the Eagles’ line clearly was after the opening drive, it gives them the advantage of slowing the rush by moving the QB’s set point. When you incorporate play-action, it even allows that offensive line to come off the ball with velocity instead of sinking into their sets, becoming the aggressors in pass protection.
Consider the protection the Eagles had against the Giants on this play-action shot in Week 17 last season. With Matt Pryor in at RG for Brandon Brooks, the Eagles need to help their young guard in pass protection, so they pull him in a singleback power look, giving him an easy read, responsibility, and angle for pass protection, as well as help from the back.
Even though Pryor loses his balance coming into the contact point, the run action in the backfield slows the rusher such that Pryor is able to keep his feet and positioning. Meanwhile, TE Josh Perkins seals the opposite EDGE on the outside shoulder — a big win for the offense, sealing off their opponent’s primary pass-rusher in Markus Golden with a glorified WR. These angles are only possible because of the action of Wentz, who completes the play-fake and rolls out to his right, reading the three level flood concept and hitting Deontay Burnett for a huge gain.
Consider the key players in this must-win game for the Eagles: Matt Pryor, Josh Perkins, and Deontay Burnett. The Eagles were scraping the bottom of the depth chart by the end of last season, but by moving Wentz out of the pocket, they created easy angles in pass protection and opened up a practice-squad receiver for an explosive gain.
Against Washington last week, the Eagles again went for a singleback power play-action concept — but without the boot. Watch what happens.
There’s something wrong with the aiming points. Seumalo comes across the formation extremely flat and is too far upfield relative to the unblocked Kerrigan; Corey Clement fakes at the mesh point but doesn’t relate well to Seumalo and Kerrigan, more so blocking his teammate than his opponent; Wentz dovetails his drop to the right as he sets his throwing hallway to the left. None of the advantages of the play-action are won on this play — all the Eagles did was give a top-tier rusher a free release and fail to get a body between him and the quarterback. It’s a completely blown protection.
Ideally, the protection doesn’t blow — but you can also solve this problem by rolling Wentz out, as he did in the Giants clip. The Eagles are sending four routes to the field here, and while it’s understandable that they would want Wentz quickly able to throw on those vertical routes, the first read is the intermediate crosser from Zach Ertz, which he could easily hit if he were on the move. Even though he’d be rolling away from his throwing hand, we saw him make a very similar and extremely impressive throw moving to his left in this very game.
This throw brings us nicely to our next point.
Rollouts Circumvent Bad Pocket Mechanics
Back in 2017 training camp, Eagles fans and media were obsessed with Wentz’s throwing mechanics. There was a lot of concern about his J-path and elbow hitch on his release, as well as his overstriding in the pocket. There was also the sense, following the 2017 campaign, that those issues were entirely fixed, even after his injury and recovery.
Positive note for #Eagles QB Carson Wentz: He recently sent film to gurus Tom House & Adam Dedeaux at 3DQB, and his mechanics are sound, I’m told. He’s throwing the same or better than before, technically. Injuries can cause players to alter how they throw. That hasn’t happened.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) May 7, 2018
And then, after a shakier 2018 showing, the mechanics issue reared again, to the point that there were still discussion about Wentz’s footwork and motion through this year’s training camp.
As is frequently the case with quarterbacks, they are who they are mechanically — it’s hard to change a throwing motion. With Wentz, despite numerous attempts to break the habit, the frequency of overstriding in the pocket remains prevalent from his days at North Dakota State, as Wentz would long-lean into his intermediate throws, especially those on which he wanted to add a little extra velocity.
Wentz missed several intermediate window throws against the Football Team in Week 1, including this ball to Jalen Reagor in the third quarter — this is on another play-action, under-center dropback.
This throw, which is into a fairly large intermediate window with only a second-level linebacker to worry about, should not be difficult. Wentz’s drop footwork makes it so. He explodes through the mesh point gaining a ton of depth into the fifth step of his drop, gathering his weight on the seventh step. Because of how quickly he went through his drop, he’s ahead of Reagor on the timing of the route, and accordingly when he hitches, prolongs his hitch and lead step into his throwing motion by lengthening an already wide base. Watch how his weight stops and settles before he actually takes the step forward to begin his throwing motion; that pause in his drop shouldn’t be there.
Now, none of this is really a problem in a vacuum. The issue is that Wentz’s drop is out of rhythm with Reagor’s route, and to account for this, Wentz ends up overstriding into his throwing motion. Because Wentz’s lead foot is so far forward, his torso tilts downward on the throw as it tries to stay balanced over his lead foot, and he’s forced to generate all of his velocity with his arm, which leads to inaccuracy.
Drop footwork is a difficult thing, especially on deep play-action drops. It’s also something to Wentz isn’t accustomed: he was 21st in the league last year on 5/7+ step dropbacks, according to Sports Info Solutions’ charting. But Wentz’s footwork on drops wasn’t just bad from under-center play-action looks last week — it was bad everywhere.
It is easy to explain Wentz’s poor footwork away with COVID excuses, but Wentz’s pocket footwork has never been great — again, if you read scouting reports on Wentz from North Dakota State, these issues are mentioned. Even if the limited training camp is exacerbating the issue, moving the quarterback helps account for the problem in the short-term. On the move, Wentz can throw in his own rhythm and from his own launch point, which is something he’s done with unbelievable success in his career, even last year. Warren Sharp’s 2020 Football Preview had Wentz as the best passer in 2019 by both EPA and success rate when “shuffling” and when “moving” — that is, when he wasn’t on a clean dropback, hitch, and throw script.
Of course, with better weapons and a better offensive design, then Wentz’s value as a pocket passer should catch up to his value as a scramble passer — but that will be good news, not bad news. As it stands now, with a young offensive line, young receivers, and a quarterback who isn’t managing deep drops well, attach rollouts onto those deep drops to ensure that Wentz doesn’t need perfect feet to throw accurate balls downfield. Let the bronco buck.
When the offensive coaching staff was turned over in the offseason, Pederson alluded to some of the characteristics that could shift in the Eagles’ offensive approach: protections and play-action were two things that he mentioned. In the summer, I wrote about those characteristics related to Kyle Shanahan-inspired offense that Rich Scangarello brought from Denver. One of the highlights: under-center, play-action dropbacks.
The Eagles brought that to the table this year. Wentz took the snap from under center on 22% of his dropbacks in Week 1 (14.9% average in 2019), and critically, had 10 play-action plays from under center (4.6 per game average in 2019). That put him at the top of the leaderboard with Jared Goff, Ryan Tannehill, and Baker Mayfield: all quarterbacks on offenses firmly entrenched the recently popularized Shanahan/Kubiak West Coast offense.
Here is the change, immediately reflected: the Eagles are copycatting the good stuff in the league, and rightfully so. But on those 10 dropbacks, the Eagles had three completions, three sacks, three incompletions, and a pick. They were bad on those plays, at -3.3 EPA overall.
The sample size is tiny, but the film evidence is fairly compelling: the Eagles are still grafting the new approach into their playbook, and as such, the protections are imperfect; Wentz’s footwork is problematic. On the quick-hitting window throws to the intermediate level, there’s little time for a play-action fake and a rollout — but on the deeper shots, this is where moving Wentz’s launch point may be critical. Without it, things better get right fast in the Eagles’ protection calls and the quarterback’s drop discipline, or else Philadelphia will keep pursuing an offense for which they are ill-prepared, and reap the meager benefits of that hasty sowing.