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The biggest game this week is the Iron Bowl, where the playoff hopes of Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia hang in the balance.

02 Nov 2017

Film Room: Carson Wentz

by Derrik Klassen

The Philadelphia Eagles are a testament to having a plan for a young quarterback. Simply selecting a passer at the top of the draft does not guarantee he will be a good quarterback. A young quarterback must be properly brought along and catered to. The focus of the team must become building up the young passer to be what he was drafted to be. A quarterback must also grow with the offense, and vice versa.

Before drafting Carson Wentz in 2016, the Eagles hired Doug Pederson to be the head coach, Frank Reich as the offensive coordinator, and John DeFilippo as quarterback coach. All three coaches are former quarterbacks; Pederson and Reich played in the NFL. Additionally, all three have experience as a quarterback coach and as an offensive coordinator. There is no dearth of experience in understanding and accommodating quarterback play in that building.

Unfortunately, Year 1 returns were not great. There were not enough quality receivers on the roster to open up the offense, star offensive tackle Lane Johnson missed most of the season due to suspension, and tight end Zach Ertz was not quite the player he is now. Wentz was forced to play in a heavy quick-pass offense that played almost exclusively to his pre-snap ability and mobility. It was a decent model given what they had, but the inability to press down the field stalled the offense. The wide receivers could not separate down the field, and Wentz struggled to throw with accuracy beyond about ten yards. Wentz's mechanics and confidence in his reads deteriorated over the course of the year, ultimately leading to a lackluster overall season.

The offense was completely revamped this offseason, in regards to both personnel and game plan. Wide receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery were signed in free agency. Ertz took a major step forward, boasting better use of his strength and high-point ability. Even wide receiver Nelson Agholor has rebounded from a poor 2016 season. In turn, Pederson and company have opened up the offense for Wentz. The offense is more vertical, more versatile, and more deadly than ever. It is the offense they envisioned when they turned in the draft card for their No. 2 overall selection in April of 2016.

At the core of the elevation is Wentz's confidence and mental processing. As a rookie, Wentz had moments where he was not sure what he was looking at post-snap and got himself sacked. Wentz still does and always will hold the ball too long, but he is noticeably better at throwing without second-guessing himself. He trusts the offense, and the coaches trust him.

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This clip is from 2016. The Seattle Seahawks run a pressure package, bringing five pass-rushers with man coverage on the back end. Safety Earl Thomas (the deepest defender in the formation) looks to be playing inside leverage on a bracket over the innermost receiver (Agholor) on the trips (left) side of the offense. Wentz eyeballs Thomas and makes himself aware of the safety's positioning, but does not throw to Agholor when Thomas gets turned around. Wentz instead turns to fixate on the deep seam route, then holds the ball long enough to get sacked by Bobby Wagner.

Wentz has ironed out some of those kinks this year. Whereas he may not have trusted players to get and remain open a year ago, Wentz is now willing to trust the play concept and his players. The unabashed confidence has changed the tune of the offense entirely.

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Ertz (the innermost slot receiver, like Agholor in the 2016 Seahawks play) is not really open when Wentz goes to make this throw. Wentz has to trust that Ertz will continue his path and that the linebacker will not catch up. Without hesitation, Wentz threads a perfect pass, dropping it directly over the linebacker and into Ertz's hands. Wentz would not have had the certainty to try this throw last season. The gargantuan strides Wentz has already made in exerting his confidence and understanding of the offense are astounding.

Perhaps as interesting as Wentz's personal development is the expansion of the offense. Last year's offense was terribly conservative. Wentz's 7.5 average air yards ranked 30th among 34 quarterbacks. Wentz hardly pressed beyond the sticks on third down, too. He ranked 27th of 34 eligible quarterbacks in ALEX, which measures how quarterbacks are attacking the sticks on third down.

Fear and caution no longer plague the Eagles in 2017. Wentz has jumped to fourth in average air yards this season; his 10.5 average air yards is up a full 3 yards from last year. Additionally, Wentz is throwing an average of 3.3 yards beyond the sticks on third down in 2017. Wentz is being asked to play a completely different brand of football, and he is taking to it well.

Philadelphia's offense is not aggressive just for the sake of it, though. This is now a creative offense. The Eagles have done a better job of mixing up certain concepts to be ran out of multiple formations. Defenses have to stay on their toes.

The spot concept is traditional of West Coast offenses. Spot features a flat route, an angled curl route (a.k.a snag), and a corner route over the top. The idea is to create vertical and horizontal conflicts in a condensed area, forcing the defense to quickly match the patterns. Typically, spot is run out of a bunch-trips formation. The Eagles have run spot out of bunch-trips plenty of times this year, but did not do so here. They instead favored a gun doubles formation, not at all hinting to their spot concept. The ability to to run core concepts out of entirely different looks is troubling for defenses.

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As Wentz carries out his drop steps, he realizes the defense is in a Cover-3 shell. The defensive back lined up across from the lone wide receiver to the play-side becomes a flat defender, while the defensive back over the top trails into a deep third. It is then the play-side linebacker's responsibility to find the snag player. The linebacker finds the receiver on the snag route, but by the time he commits to attacking the catch point, Wentz had already completed the pass. Wentz was too quick-witted and accurate for the defense to do anything.

Another favorite Philadelphia pattern is slot-fade. The slot player extends up the field and toward the sideline, while the outside receiver at the top of the screen takes a step back off the line of scrimmage to occupy the outside cornerback. This is how the play normally looks when the Eagles run it. Philadelphia's interpretations of this concept work so well because they will run it with anyone as the slot player. They also know how to mix up different looks and even create plays where the fade player is not the intended target.

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In this example, Agholor is in the slot. Wentz, knowing the single-high safety is too far away, turns to Agholor immediately and gets the throw off right as he gets clobbered by a defender. The throw lands delicately in Agholor's outstretched arms to put the Eagles in the red zone. The Eagles have run this play with Agholor, Jeffery, Smith, and Ertz as the slot player. For opposing defenses, the multiplicity can be confusing to match up with.

Schematic multiplicity can be frustrating for defenses, too. This iteration versus Washington requires the outside receiver to run a shallow crossing route. This tweak is designed to use the slot player to rub the outside cornerback to create space for the outside receiver running underneath. The outside receiver becomes the focal point of the play.

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Versus a press-heavy team like Washington, this is a brilliant tweak to pick up yards in the quick-passing game. Even when teams do not press, the shallow route provides the quarterback with a legitimate passing option, rather than simply stepping off of the line of scrimmage. The Eagles can run other similar concepts from this same look, too. The Eagles ran a hitch-and-seam combination versus Washington in the red zone for a touchdown.

Marrying two passing concepts together is a strength for Philadelphia, as well. They can mix and match different back-side concepts that can be read entirely independent of the play-side. In other words, Wentz often gets two separate concepts to read pre-snap and can choose which he wants to attack. Wentz's mental development has allowed for Pederson to install more plays like that. Thus far, Wentz is proving he can handle it.

Levels and switch verts are two aggressive route combinations. To the left side of the formation is the levels concept. Both receivers run square-ins, but at different depths. This was an integral concept throughout Peyton Manning's career. To the right side is a switch verts concept. The two receiving options, both tight ends here, switch places after the snap and get vertical.

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Before the snap, Wentz reads that a linebacker will likely get stuck covering Ertz. Ertz is going to outrun a linebacker nine times out of ten. As predicted, Ertz finds separation over the top and Wentz rifles the ball to him.

A play call like that while backed up in their own red zone shows how much this staff trusts Wentz. Many young quarterbacks would not be given the opportunity to be that aggressive deep in their own territory. Pederson was sure Wentz would make the right decision and throw to dig the Eagles out of a bad spot. That is bold confidence in a second-year passer.

The rate at which Carson Wentz and this offense has developed is fascinating. In 2016, Philadelphia's offense ended the year 20th in DVOA. Wentz himself ranked 27th in DYAR. Through eight weeks in 2017, the Eagles offense is settled in at ninth overall in DVOA and Wentz sits at seventh in DYAR. Both Wentz and the offense as a whole went from below-average to borderline elite over one offseason.

Imagining the ceiling of this offense is exciting. It is no sure thing that the Eagles ever soar higher than this, but it is not out of the question. Wentz is still young and developing, the coaching staff appears to be top-notch, and the front office is committed to surrounding their quarterback with talent. The foundations of success have been laid in Philadelphia.

Posted by: Derrik Klassen on 02 Nov 2017

12 comments, Last at 03 Nov 2017, 3:20pm by bingo762

Comments

1
by billprudden :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 2:10pm

As I watch the last play:

1) Ertz vs. an ILB is always a win, right?

2) Single safety is squatting to his right whole way.

3) Even if QB doesn't throw to either TE, nobody covers RB under them.

4) Hell of a throw into TE's arms over LB.

5) But golly wasn't that defensive scheme gonna give up a first down to the right side against that offensive play call no matter which of the three options the QB chose?

Bill

2
by Harris :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 3:43pm

Some people who write for this site are really going to hate this article.

3
by nat :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 3:55pm

Both Wentz and the offense as a whole went from below-average to borderline elite over one offseason.

As noted in your previous paragraph, Wentz is 7th in DYAR and 9th in DVOA. His DVOA is 14.5% which would have placed 9th last year, too.

Meanwhile, his offense is 9th at 10.4% DVOA, a level that would have placed 10th last year.

"Elite" used to mean something. This is good but not great QB play. It's a great improvement over last year for Wentz when he was below replacement level, and a decent improvement for the offense. But borderline elite? Get a grip.

5
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 4:15pm

Wentz wasn't the problem last year. Agholor and the Stone Hands were.

By the Seattle game, Wentz was mostly ignoring Agholor and anyone except Ertz or occasionally Matthews more than 10 yards downfield, because they couldn't catch passes that hit them in the hands.

10
by bobrulz :: Fri, 11/03/2017 - 9:01am

Ah yes, arguing the semantics of the word "elite". A favorite in sports comments sections.

11
by nat :: Fri, 11/03/2017 - 9:39am

True enough. It's second only to misusing the term "elite" to buff up a player or team well beyond what their stats or quality of play justify.

Just sayin'. :-)

4
by bobbywal :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 4:00pm

Can you explain this more? How do we know he "always will" hold the ball too long. That seems to be contradicted by granting that "he is noticeably better".

Wentz had moments where he was not sure what he was looking at post-snap and got himself sacked. Wentz still does and always will hold the ball too long, but he is noticeably better at throwing without second-guessing himself

6
by Derrik Klassen :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 4:48pm

Wentz is much better at getting the ball out earlier in plays when he can. That said, Wentz is a quarterback who has a propensity to hold the ball and wait on deeper routes to develop, rather than bail or immediately take check downs. That is not meant to be derogatory. Plenty of good quarterbacks -- Wilson, Luck, Newton, Taylor to name a few -- are inclined to hold the ball and trust themselves to make plays. It often leads to exciting and explosive plays that more twitchy quarterbacks can not get away with. At the same time, it will often lead to more sacks. The trait is a bit of a double-edged sword, but it is rooted in comfort and confidence, so it tends to work out more often than not for quarterbacks of the caliber of those I mentioned.

7
by theslothook :: Thu, 11/02/2017 - 10:32pm

To me - the highest level of qb play are by QBs who skillfully straddle both...managing to make the great plays while limiting the negatives. Inly a few have been capable.

9
by Aaron Brooks Go... :: Fri, 11/03/2017 - 8:22am

*cough*Rodgers, Roethlisberger*cough*

8
by Raiderfan :: Fri, 11/03/2017 - 6:12am

Good article. What I took away from it--thanks to the GIFs--is he has really good touch and accuracy. Did he not have that last year? Was it simply a matter of confidence in his receivers, which the article seems to imply?

12
by bingo762 :: Fri, 11/03/2017 - 3:20pm

(Philly native and Eagles fan here) I think it's mentioned in the article, his receivers weren't good enough to get open downfield and they also dropped alot of balls. Since they made him a starter, the coaching staff has had total confidence in him. His very first series of his very first game was no huddle/him calling the plays. As far as accuracy, he has a tendency to miss high(the opposite of McNabb who threw wormburners) and airmail some passes. He did it just last week on a pass that should have been a touchdown