Any Given Sunday: Panthers over Eagles

Any Given Sunday: Panthers over Eagles

by Rivers McCown

Where have the Philadelphia Eagles gone wrong as an offense?

It's a weird question to ask as you see another hyper-efficient Carson Wentz start hit the books. Wentz has 227 passing DYAR in just five starts. More to the point, the traditional statistics look even gaudier than that. Wentz is completing 70 percent of his passes, has thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception, and he's got a top-10 adjusted net yards per attempt figure. And yet, since he came back, the Eagles are 2-3 and have scored more than 23 points once.

Part of the problem has actually been Philadelphia's rushing offense. Those Le'Veon Bell and LeSean McCoy rumors? They weren't planted just because Jay Ajayi went down. Philadelphia has struggled to generate much in the rushing game since Wentz has come back. In Weeks 1 and 2, non-quarterback rushers combined for 25 DYAR. Since Week 3, they've generated -13 DYAR, and even that undersells how bad they've been a bit. If you limit it to just the last month of the season, the Eagles don't have a single runner with a positive rushing DYAR, and that total number drops to -51 DYAR.

They had just one explosive rush play against the Panthers, and suffered a lot of negative plays as Carolina penetrated the backfield on numerous occasions to merely catch Wendell Smallwood and lay him down gently.

via Gfycat

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Brandon Brooks had a devil of a time with Kawann Short. (Most guards do.)

Philadelphia actually shook up the starting lineup a bit by replacing guard Stefen Wisniewski with backup Isaac Seumalo, but didn't get much different results. I thought Josh Adams ran with a little more force than Smallwood and Corey Clement, and wouldn't be surprised if that was a direction the Eagles leaned in more on early downs.

The other big difference with the offense has been a shift away from explosive pass plays.

Last season, Wentz averaged 9.9 intended air yards per throw per NFL Next Gen stats, the fourth-highest number in the NFL. Wentz generated 625 of his 1,061 DYAR in the 2017 season on deep balls. In 2018, Wentz has averaged 7.7 intended air yards per throw, a number that barely puts him above Nick Foles at 7.5. While Wentz isn't quite Sam Bradford or Derek Carr, 7.7 is tied for the 12th-lowest air yards per throw, and a drastic departure from what we're used to seeing. Wentz's 246 DYAR throwing deep point to the fact that he's not doing so bad at it -- except for with one player.

And the big loser in this has been Player Killing Your Fantasy Team Nelson Agholor. Here's a table of the shape of Philadelphia's receiving game:

Shape of Eagles Targets by DYAR, 2017-2018
Deep Short
DYAR Targets DYAR Targets DYAR Targets DYAR Targets
Zach Ertz 60 98 -12 12 4 73 37 7
Alshon Jeffrey 120 80 94 43 55 28 39 13
Nelson Agholor 43 72 98 23 -76 46 -15 9

Outside of torching the Giants for a long catch in Week 5 (coincidentally, the only game where the Eagles actually scored more than 23 points with Wentz!), Agholor just hasn't been schemed deep all that often. In 2017, Agholor had five different deep receptions of 27 or more yards, and three of them were touchdowns. This year, his touches have become integrated into a complex Eagles screen and counter-screen game as part of an extension of the running attack, and he's not doing much of anything with them:

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

Only eight of Agholor's 18 targets with Wentz that traveled 3 yards or less from the line of scrimmage were considered successful plays, and only three of them produced first downs. Perhaps what Agholor did in 2017 was always going to be unsustainable, but the Eagles are lacking Torrey Smith and Mack Hollins, their other two receivers who produced well on deep passes last season. Mike Wallace, brought in to be the answer, is on the shelf. They needed Agholor to sustain his 2017 performance, not regress back into the guy who couldn't get on the field.

Finally, Wentz has taken an awful lot of sacks in 2018 as compared to 2017. Jason Peters returning was supposed to be a big boon to this offensive line, instead, Wentz is taking sacks on 8.0 percent of his dropbacks in 2018. That's a 2.0 percent jump from 2017. Some of that can probably be chalked up to not having preseason action or otherwise getting re-settled from his torn ACL, but the negative plays have haunted the Eagles as well.

The little things add up and make their presence felt in close games. That's the entire sample we have with Wentz this year, the Giants exempted. He has played well, but the change in the shape of his targets has made the Eagles a little less explosive and a little less threatening. And when you combine that with a floundering run game, you get an offense that can create some great superficial stats, but without the wins that make them feel quite as good.

Where the Game Swung

Scott Kacsmar will have more about the nature of the comeback in Clutch Encounters, of course, but here were the plays that swung most of the action in the fourth quarter per EdjSports.

Carolina started the fourth quarter, down 17-0, with a 1.2% GWC chance.

  • 2:06 -- fourth-and-10 -- 36.2% GWC (+26.4%) -- Cam Newton's 35-yard pass to Torrey Smith that got the Panthers into Philadelphia territory.
  • 1:45 -- third-and-2 -- 70.8% GWC (+31.7%) -- Newton's pass to Christian McCaffrey for 22 yards that put the Panthers at first-and-goal at the 4.
  • 1:22 -- third-and-goal -- 91.5% GWC (+28.6%) -- Newton's touchdown pass to Greg Olsen to take the lead,
  • 1:17 -- first-and-10 -- 43.1% GWC (-46.1%) -- Carson Wentz's pass leads to defensive pass interference against Alshon Jeffery, setting the Eagles up at the Carolina 22.
  • 0:31 -- fourth-and-2 -- 98.5% GWC (+33.6%) -- Wentz is sacked and fumbles, recovered by Carolina to win the game.

What an insane rollercoaster ride.

By the DVOA

CAR 38.7% -2.4% -0.8% 40.3%
PHI -12.5% 20.4% -5.7% -38.6%
CAR 38.9% -8.3% -0.8% 46.3%
PHI -8.9% 24.4% -5.7% -39.0%

Yes, even though the Eagles had a 17-0 lead at one point, they were roundly outplayed by Carolina throughout the game. There are no typos in the above table.

Why the discrepancy between Carolina's huge advantage in DVOA and their tiny advantage on the scoreboard? DVOA saw a team that should have been scoring points all game finally getting it together in the fourth quarter. DVOA saw a team that averaged a yard more per play and had no turnovers to Philadelphia's three fumbles. DVOA saw a team that consistently moved into Eagles territory but was unable to finish those drives. Carolina reached Philadelphia territory three times before they scored their first point, punting on fourth-and-5 from the Philadelphia 44, on fourth-and-15 from the Philadelphia 31, and on fourth-and-20 from the Philadelphia 43. They punted a fourth time from the Carolina 42 on fourth-and-3. Howling winds and back-breaking third- and fourth-down penalties forced that conservatism.

The Carolina Panthers are Actually Fun

One of the big movements in analytical football analysis is to make an example of every running back ever drafted in the first round. If you've ever watched a Giants Island game with Football Twitter, pretty much every offensive failure they have is a chance to crow about using the No. 2 overall pick in the draft on a running back, even if the running back is playing well.

Christian McCaffrey is isolated from that bit of criticism since the Panthers have a franchise quarterback. He was still probably a bad pick, but Carolina doesn't take the flack that, say, the Jaguars have for taking Leonard Fournette with Blake Bortles. There were plenty of people talking about Carolina's lack of rushing success last year, but this year, mysterious silence.

Finally freed from Mike Shula, the Panthers offense has taken some major leaps forward under Norv Turner. Yes, yes, the super old school, Air Coryell guy. That's the one who has created a diverse option and run-action game.

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

I mean, Taylor Moton didn't even find someone to block. It didn't even matter. The Panthers were 11th in rushing DVOA last year, and that comes with the asterisk of Cam Newton's usual 122 runs of positive value boosting things up. This year, the Panthers are up to a 14.3% rushing DVOA, third-best in the NFL.

Carolina's short-area game is sort of unfair when you look at the diversity of options it gives them underneath. Both Curtis Samuel and McCaffrey are dynamic players with the ball in open space. When they mesh together, with one of the greatest running quarterbacks of this generation, they create an unholy web of options that opposing linebackers and safeties have to carefully consider. McCaffrey's final catch of the game to set the Panthers up with goal-to-go fits that category. I don't know how a defense stops this kind of play out of the backfield:

(Click here if you are having trouble loading the image.)

You certainly can't expect many linebackers to beat McCaffrey outside, and throwing in the pick on top of things just makes it seems too easy.

Now I want you to keep in mind that the Panthers have done this despite upheaval along the offensive line. Starting left tackle Chris Clark was signed in September. Andrew Norwell fill-in Greg Van Roten had zero career snaps as an undrafted free agent before this year. Daryl Williams' MCL injury left the team scrambling to start Moton at tackle; Moton was a second-round pick, but one that was thought of by some scouts as an interior lineman. Trai Turner has also missed time this way, forcing Ted Larsen into the starting lineup.

There are teams with that kind of offensive line situation -- like say, ones in New York or Jacksonville -- that completely fall apart as a rushing offense. Some of Carolina's success is good work by the scouting team to find a player like Van Roten. But some of it is also just understanding how to best get their running attack in to space.

The job that Turner has done so far should be an inspiration to a slew of other teams that have tools goofs at quarterback. If you're stuck with Blake Bortles or Josh Allen, but can pair him with this kind of short-area production, you can create a successful offense even without much in the way of receiving talent or quarterback accuracy.


6 comments, Last at 26 Oct 2018, 10:26am

5 Re: Any Given Sunday: Panthers over Eagles

"The job that Turner has done so far should be an inspiration to a slew of other teams that have tools goofs at quarterback. If you're stuck with Blake Bortles or Josh Allen, but can pair him with this kind of short-area production, you can create a successful offense even without much in the way of receiving talent or quarterback accuracy."

Is that a comment on the Panthers? I thought he had just established that the main problem with the Panthers, so far being only 9nth in DVOA offense, is that they are missing three starting linemen, including both tackles?

Or did I misinterpret 'other teams that have tools goofs at quarterback'.

6 Re: Any Given Sunday: Panthers over Eagles

It wasn't a commentary on the O-line, it was a commentary on the swiss army knife players like CMC, Curtis Samuel, and DJ Moore that can line up anywhere and turn tosses, pitches, end-arounds, flats, swings, shallow crosses, and quick slants into LONG gains with the proper alignments, misdirection, and flooding of the short zones, especially when combined with Cam's ability to turn any opening into a long gain himself.

With so many options and directions that have to be covered, it's a linebacker's nightmare. At the snap, you can have three different players running in three different directions, not yet counting Cam taking off on his own, and you have yet to look at how you are covering Olsen or Funchess (or Torrey Smith/Jarius Wright).