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27 Sep 2016

Any Given Sunday: Eagles Over Steelers

by Sterling Xie

Seeing the Eagles atop the DVOA rankings after last week was a bit of an eyebrow-raiser. As noted in last week's commentary, since 2003, every top-ranked team following Week 2 has made the postseason. Given its low preseason expectations and favorable opening schedule, however, Philadelphia seemed as a good a candidate as any to snap that 13-season streak.

Maybe the Eagles will still snap that streak, but we sure can't say they haven't beaten anyone anymore. Everything you heard about Carson Wentz's precocity and a havoc-wreaking defense held up and then some against a Steelers team which held the second-best Super Bowl odds headed into the week. Philly entered the game as four-point underdogs; its 31-point victory is tied for the fourth-largest by a team getting four or more points since 2000. And for the Eagles, it's their largest win as underdogs of any margin since the 1980 Super Bowl squad beat the Vikings 42-7 in Week 2.

This trip to Philly will surely harvest even more bitter member berries for Scott Kacsmar, but is it time to consider the Eagles serious NFC East contenders, if not the favorites to win the division? And as for the Steelers, well, their last disastrous Week 3 trip to eastern Pennsylvania ended with a Lombardi Trophy, so all is far from lost.

Defense and Wentz Leave No Suspense

Wentz's stellar beginnings will naturally generate most of the talking points, but the torrid start of the Eagles defense is an equally important factor in Philly's sustainability as a contender. Philly ranked second in defensive DVOA headed into the week, and though the introduction of opponent adjustments next week should take some of the shine off those Cleveland and Chicago games, stifling the Steelers should mostly balance that out and keep the Eagles defense near the top.

Hot starts aren't anything new for the unit, as we examined in the Philadelphia chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac 2016. Last season, the Eagles ranked fifth in defensive DVOA through Weeks 1-9, only to plummet to 31st from Weeks 10-17. The main culprit there was a stunning decline in run defense, where Philly ranked dead last in the second half of the year with a ghastly 9.6% DVOA. That doesn't sound bad at first, but remember that rushing DVOA leaguewide is well below zero because passing is more efficient than rushing and both types of plays are included in team DVOA. For reference, no defense has had a full season of run defense worse than that than since the ignominious 2013 Bears, who gave up 5.3 yards per carry and 22 rushing touchdowns.

This week, however, the Philadelphia front made DeAngelo Williams look his age. Williams has the patience of a vet and the surprising short-area quickness of a back 10 years his junior, but Philly held him to just 2.6 yards per carry, with just one of his attempts picking up a first down. The Steelers may have done the Eagles a favor by abandoning the run so quickly even when the score was close, but the front seven isn't the part of the Eagles you want to attack.

Pittsburgh instead seemed intent on exploiting Philadelphia's secondary, which makes sense when you look at the matchups on paper. Rookie seventh-rounder Jalen Mills, starting in place of the injured Leodis McKelvin, got burned deep by Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates in the first half. Mills also found himself isolated on Antonio Brown a couple times in the second half, and those snaps went about as you would expect.

But for the majority of the game, the secondary held up as Ben Roethlisberger found himself holding the ball and trying to avoid the rush. Big Ben has always been adept at ducking single rushers and throwing under duress, but it's a different story when a defense is able to consistently collapse the entire pocket. On numerous occasions, the Eagles took away breathing space from Roethlisberger, leading to a few errant throws to open receivers.

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Through two weeks the Eagles ranked just 19th in pressure rate, but this is the type of game optimists envisioned when imagining Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham in Jim Schwartz's defense. Schwartz favorites Nigel Bradham and Stephen Tulloch have also provided better linebacker play than Mychal Kendricks or Kiko Alonso did last season, proving sturdier against the run and less mistake-prone in coverage.

So when your defense holds arguably the league's best offense to three points, it turns out life is a lot easier for your rookie quarterback. We have yet to see Wentz operate down the stretch of a close game, which has allowed him to operate in a fairly comfortable and predictable environment. But while that won't last forever, it's also partially a credit to his ability to avoid the negative plays which can cause the best-laid game plans to go awry. Wentz has yet to throw an interception (though he has fumbled twice, losing one), and Sunday was his first game without taking a sack. The interception streak will generate plenty of talking points until it ends, for both Wentz and Dak Prescott alike. Before this season, three quarterbacks since the merger had attempted at least 70 passes in the first three games of their career without throwing a pick: Warren Moon, Chad Hutchinson, and Case Keenum. One of these things is not like the others.

The emphasis on mistake avoidance shouldn't be surprising given Doug Pederson's time in Kansas City with Alex Smith, and the Eagles passing game has certainly revolved around quick reads for Wentz to minimize the already excessive punishment he willingly takes. But Wentz deserves a little more credit for some of the downfield plays he makes, and those plays should only increase in regularity as he learns to protect himself better. By Pro Football Reference's adjusted yards per attempt (which adds a 20-yard bonus for touchdowns and a 45-yard penalty for interceptions), Wentz is off to one of the 10 best starts for a quarterback when we again use the 70-pass minimum threshold.

Best Adj. Yd/Att through First 3 Career Starts, 1970-2016
Player Year AY/A
Mark Rypien 1988 9.46
Case Keenum 2013 9.43
Marcus Mariota 2015 9.41
Robert Griffin III 2012 8.79
Warren Moon 1984 8.14
Cam Newton 2011 7.79
Marc Bulger 2002 7.57
Steve Beuerlein 1988 7.53
Bobby Hebert 1985 7.44
Carson Wentz 2016 7.44

Smith has only posted an AY/A figure better than Wentz's 7.44 twice in his career, and one of those instances was in 2012, when he only started nine games after getting Kaepernick'd. Obviously it's too early in the season to assume Wentz will sustain that rate through 16 games, which makes that extrapolation a bit unfair to Smith. Nevertheless, it does illustrate how Wentz hasn't necessarily been a checkdown artist whom the Eagles are simply trying to protect.

Philadelphia's playoff odds were at a reasonable 49 percent headed into the week. With one of their toughest games of the year now in the win column, the Eagles can expect that number to shoot up again. The other teams in the division have already bludgeoned each other in a round robin: The Giants beat the Cowboys in Week 1, then the Cowboys beat Washington in Week 2, then Washington closed the circle by beating the Giants in Week 3. Philadelphia has a long ways to go, but it stands as the early beneficiary of that parity.

On to Kansas City...We Think?

Every bona fide Super Bowl contender is still allowed to have bad days, even one as ugly as this. There's certainly a temptation to dismiss this as an impossibly bad loss for Pittsburgh without many predictive lessons for the future. If you're into the "letdown" narrative, it's possible the Steelers were looking ahead to a trio of tricky upcoming home dates against the Chiefs, Jets, and Patriots.

But that would make for a very abrupt end to this piece, and there's always something to glean. The immediate problem screaming aloud from the stat sheet is the lack of pressure. Pittsburgh ranked 28th in pressure rate through two weeks, a standing which might dip even lower after Wentz enjoyed a mostly comfortable day in the pocket. The Steelers have just a single sack all season, and even that play was essentially a gift from Andy Dalton.

However, this doesn't seem like it should end up as the worst pass rush in football. Pittsburgh finished seventh in adjusted sack rate last season, and with 48 sacks, tied for the league's third-highest raw sack total. Personnel-wise, Bud Dupree, who is on injured reserve, is the only front seven player of significance gone from last season's roster. Missing a potential sophomore leap from the 2015 first-rounder hurts, but it's not as though Dupree was one of the primary catalysts for last season's strong rush.

Fixing this problem might be a matter of Pittsburgh's pressure foundation returning to form. The trio of Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, and James Harrison combined for 18.5 sacks last season, but had just two pressures and no sacks between them headed into Sunday's game. Those numbers won't look any prettier this week. Heyward did suffer a high-ankle sprain in the third preseason game; given his track record, a prolonged slump could raise legitimate questions about his health.

Then again, another health question is the last thing the defense needs at the moment. The second level of the defense was totally wiped out in this contest, with Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones, and Robert Golden all leaving the game at various points. Shazier's injury is particularly critical, as he has emerged as the best player on the unit this season. Although he gutted it out after hurting his knee early on, he was noticeably grimacing throughout. Given how oddly slowly he appeared to react and pivot on Darren Sproles' 73-yard touchdown, it's fair to assume Shazier was operating at far less than full capacity.

When we step back, it appears Pittsburgh's defense skated by the first two weeks due to its timeliness. The Steelers stifled opponents to a 26.9 percent conversion rate on third downs, which ranked third, and also ranked fifth in red zone touchdown percentage. Philly still only went 4-for-10 on third downs, but the Eagles did hit paydirt on three of five red zone trips. Relying on consistently strong performance in high-leverage situations is a dicey way to live. Pittsburgh won't have to live that way if it can get its best defenders healthy and performing again, but who knows if that will arrive in time for a date against a similar Kansas City offense next week.

It's a little safer to breathe easy when it comes to the Steelers offense. The running game has been pretty inefficient for two weeks in a row now, but getting Le'Veon Bell back should put worries to ease there. Yes, DeAngelo has been impressive in spurts dating back to last season, but Bell is a supercharged version of that.

Something to keep an eye on is how successfully Pittsburgh reintegrates Markus Wheaton back into the lineup. Wheaton's debut following a shoulder injury went poorly, as he displayed extremely shaky hands, including a drop on what would have been an opening-drive touchdown.

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Sammie Coates has been extremely effective as a deep threat change-up, and has now hauled in eight of his 14 targets for an insane 29.0 yards per catch. Eli Rogers has also flashed promise as the slot receiver, but did not return to the game after suffering a toe injury. Wheaton has seniority over the two and that's about it. Given the chemistry Roethlisberger has developed with the other two, it's hard to argue against the Brown-Coates-Rogers grouping as the Steelers' best offensive personnel package.

By the VOA

The unadjusted figures portrayed the same whitewashing as the scoreboard. Pittsburgh's overall VOA figure is the worst single-game mark by any team through three weeks. On the other side, Philadelphia's mark is the second-highest of the year, trailing only Kansas City's 82.4% figure from this week. The Steelers weren't alone in their misery on Sunday, as the Jets and 49ers posted the second- and third-worst VOA figures of the season in a week of extremes.

PHI 33.0% -32.0% 5.5% 70.4%
PIT -40.0% 42.3% -8.0% -90.3%

This is the last week the tables will run without opponent adjustments, as we'll put the D in DVOA back in after Week 4. With the Eagles on a bye, you can likely expect Philadelphia to enjoy its perch atop the rankings for a couple weeks on the strength of this upset.

Posted by: Sterling Xie on 27 Sep 2016

20 comments, Last at 30 Sep 2016, 5:02pm by menshawy


by Pat :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 11:40am

I have to say, I love how the criticism of Wentz apparently seems to be "he's only playing like a 10+ year veteran." It took Smith until he was 27 and 7 years in the league to be proficient at high percentage passes, and limit interceptions. Wentz is a 23 year old rookie. If his starting point in the league is "2015 Alex Smith," jeez, I'll take it.

by RickD :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 11:43am

If the Eagles are #1 in DVOA, how can it be an upset?


by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 11:44am

Speaking of the Alex Smith cmparisons, this team reminds me a lot of the 2011 49ers in a way.

First off, their coached by an ex-QB who seems quite fiery. The defense has been really stout. The QB and offense is built off of completing short passes, and while that 49ers team ran way more, the offenses are potentially limited in teh same ways.

That team was not the early-season DVOA darling this one is, but still went 13-3 and came within a few fumbles of going to the Super Bowl. I honestly at this point could see that outcome given that the supposed best NFC contenders have already dropped 1-2 games.

by Tomlin_Is_Infallible :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 11:47am

Wheaton sucks, and aside from one blowup game, always has.

The standard is the standard!

by rosmith51 :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 11:47am

"Wentz has yet to throw an interception (though he has fumbled twice, losing one)"

Err... no he hasn't

The Eagles have committed 0 turnovers on the season, so I'm not really sure how he could have lost a fumble.

by Sporran :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 12:17pm

Also, it's important to note that the two fumbles were bad snaps on shotgun plays -- in other words, Kelce's fault. There was a bad handoff to Sproles which (I believe) went as a fumble for Sproles, but that was more Wentz's fault.

by Pat :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 1:12pm

Because he fumbled and someone else (Sproles) recovered. On the other fumbles (he actually has 3 charged, per NFL stats.

by bingo762 :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 12:00pm

I don't understand how "Pro Football Reference's adjusted yards per attempt (which adds a 20-yard bonus for touchdowns and a 45-yard penalty for interceptions" can "illustrate how Wentz hasn't necessarily been a checkdown artist whom the Eagles are simply trying to protect."

Wentz has 769 passing yds and 203 of those came after the catch. Is that a lot, normal, or below average? Seriously asking because I don't know

by Jerry P. :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 1:01pm

This shows the percentage of yards that are before and after the catch in one handy chart that can be filtered.


I'd look at past full seasons for comparison sake and remember that Wentz has 3 games of stats.

Not sure where your numbers are coming from (203 YAC = PFR's adjusted #?). His real numbers are 346 air yards and 423 yards after catch.

by bingo762 :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 1:20pm

I got my numbers from espn. they say his receivers have 203 YAC

Thanks for the chart. This is handy and better tool, IMO, to figure out if he's dinking & dunking. I still don't understand why FO would use a system that gives bonus yds for TDs(and penalizes INTs)to measure yards per attempt.

Anywho, this chart you provided has him ranked 33rd in air yards per attempt with 3.39

by Aaron Schatz :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 1:47pm

YAC is not an official stat. It's often calculated differently by different sources, and the "official" NFL numbers often have numerous mistakes which we have to correct with the league over the course of the year.

Thus the differences.

by Mountainhawk :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 12:12pm

The Eagles have 0 turnovers on the year, so I don't think Wentz has lost a fumble. He's dropped 2 snaps and recovered both of those, and had one fumble recovered by Sproles.

by RickD :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 3:47pm

He could have lost a fumble that was recovered by a teammate?

Hmm...just went through the three box scores. 2 fumbles in the first game, 1 in the third, and none of the three is counted as "lost". At least not at ESPN.com.

by Eddo :: Wed, 09/28/2016 - 11:07am

Yeah... generally "fumbles lost" means "fumbles recovered by the other team" when listed as a stat. I'm not sure why this article would define it as "fumbles recovered by any player that didn't fumble".

by Sporran :: Wed, 09/28/2016 - 11:57am

+1. It's embarrassing that FO hasn't corrected this in the article yet. The statistic cited is completely false -- just flat out incorrect.

by Anon Ymous :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 1:26pm

That's a lot of missed yardage for Pitt, can anyone who watched the game share how hitting a few of those might have affected things?

by ElJefe :: Tue, 09/27/2016 - 11:25pm

While the 42-7 win in 1980 is a nice memory, the author missed a more recent surprise Eagles' blowout: The 40-8 win at San Francisco in 1994. That game should still be high on the list of inexplicable losses by Super Bowl winners.

Overeducated Layabout

by horn :: Wed, 09/28/2016 - 5:12pm

I don't know what was my favorite part of that blowout:
1) The Charlie Garner game,
2) The utter beatdown of the 9ers,
3) Seifert taking Young because of the brutal punishment he was taking.

Probably my favorite game since the House of Pain game.

by the cat in the ... :: Wed, 09/28/2016 - 2:21am

One correction to this- Stephen Tulloch isn't the major addition to the defense that you're claiming. He only had 11 snaps against the Steelers, and played sparingly in the last two games as well.

More important to the play of that unit is the young MLB, Jordan Hicks (49 snaps).The season-ending injury Hick suffered last year coincided with the defensive play of the team falling apart (not the whole reason, sure, but he was looking very good). I think Tulloch's probably still good but he's a depth signing, not a starter- the numbers line up with him being basically Hicks' backup.

by menshawy :: Fri, 09/30/2016 - 5:02pm