It’s a huge game coming up on Sunday night. The Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles will battle it out for top billing in the NFC East. To get some information on the Eagles we talked to the enemy blog, in this case Bleeding Green Nation, about what we can expect from the visitors.
Blogging The Boys: Carson Wentz started off fast but the last couple of weeks have been more of a struggle. Talk about his play at quarterback, his strengths, weaknesses, etc.
Bleeding Green Nation: Wentz is like any NFL quarterback worth his weight: if his offensive line gives him enough time, more often than not he’ll make a play. His last two performances have been by far his least impressive, but they also come swaddled in qualifiers. The Eagles’ loss to Washington came with Halapoulivaati Vaitai starting at right tackle, the first start of the fifth-round rookie’s career. It came against Ryan Kerrigan. It didn’t go well. So that certainly didn’t help Wentz. This past week, Wentz faced one of the top three defenses in the NFL, a defense that has made quarterbacks from Cam Newton to Aaron Rodgers look pedestrian at best, and awful at worst. Vaitai played better, and Wentz had more time to make plays, but against the Vikings’ defense, there just aren’t that many plays to be made. These last two weeks have not looked good, but they also haven't been representative of Wentz as a quarterback.
A weakness: very often, Wentz will stare down his first read. It’s likely a tendency born out of operating in a Division I-AA college program, where defenses were easy to read, and to fool, and his talent got him by. It’s not that Wentz isn’t a cerebral quarterback; plenty of pre-draft analysts said he was one of the smartest quarterbacks to come out of college in years. For some reason, however, he has a tendency to telegraph his throws by locking on to one target. This hasn’t led to interceptions this season — his three were unrelated to staring down wideouts — but it’s led to incompletions, and to a slightly more predictable passing game. He’s looked off safeties and corners a few times, but he needs to do more of it.
BTB: The Eagles are sacking quarterbacks and making plays on defense. Everyone knows about Fletcher Cox, but who else is getting the job done? And how are they doing it - scheme, blitzes, just good individual play?
BGN: The Eagles’ sack numbers are looking gaudier than usual after Week 7 because they sacked Sam Bradford six times, which came about because the Vikings have backups at their offensive tackle positions, and Jim Schwartz unleashed a bevy of blitzes with a very talented front seven group. For the first five games of the season, Schwartz was reticent to rush more than four guys at a time; his thinking, and his scheme, is predicated on those four being enough to generate pressure while keeping the back end of his defense, including a weak cornerbacks corps, from being stretched too thin.
It worked for a few games, but it didn’t work against Detroit or Washington, and by the time the Minnesota game rolled around, questions were arising about the effectiveness of Schwartz’s rush-four approach. He blitzed more against Minnesota, and it worked. Against a better offensive line like Dallas’s? Who knows if it’ll work the same way. But guys like Brandon Graham, and, to a lesser extent, Vinny Curry and Connor Barwin, were able to get after Bradford last week in a big way. Graham has been the team’s best pass rusher, and likely best, most consistent defender, all season long. Look out for No. 55 to make some plays.
BTB: Special teams seems to be a real weapon for Philly. What's going on there?
BGN: Dave Fipp is going on there. Of all the “revolutions” Chip Kelly brought with him, the emphasis he placed on special teams, and the man he brought with him to oversee them, remains his best work. We don’t get much insight into what exactly Fipp does with his men behind the scenes each week (players are reluctant to talk about details, considering how well they’re playing), but it’s been three-plus years of league-best special teams play, dating all the way back to Chip’s first season with the Eagles.
Fipp’s units consistently break return touchdowns, and they block kicks and punts, too. Fipp has also figured out how to turn Caleb Sturgis field goals into about as sure a thing as there is. Caleb Sturgis! There’s some kind of mad science going on behind the scenes, and Eagles fans aren’t asking questions. But Fipp is the point man for all of it. He’s incredible.
BTB: How much does the Ron Brooks injury affect the secondary? Is it a cause for concern having to move Malcolm Jenkins around?
BGN: The Brooks injury is an interesting one. Jenkins is on the record many times as saying he actually prefers playing in the slot compared to playing deep safety, so at least for him, this is a welcome change. What it does, however, is force either Jaylen Watkins or Jalen Mills into action on a regular basis, which could prove to hurt the team in the long run. Watkins has played well recently, but his ceiling is likely limited. It’ll help being paired with a playmaker like Rodney McLeod. Still, he’s a notable downgrade at safety when Jenkins has to rotate to the slot. Mills, meanwhile, has flashed a few times so far this year, but by and large it seems he doesn’t have the necessary speed to stay with outside receivers in the league, especially guys like Dez Bryant.
The Eagles’ cornerbacks were already their weakest position group, along with wide receivers. The Brooks injury does nothing to help the situation.
BTB: If you were coaching Dallas, how would you attack the Eagles defense and offense?
BGN: An interesting question. Through the first four weeks of the season, Carson Wentz was one of the most effective quarterbacks in the league against the blitz, competing somewhere near 70 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and no interceptions against the blitz. With Lane Johnson at right tackle and Jason Peters at left tackle, combined with Wentz’s excellent pocket presence and mobility, opposing blitzes weren’t doing much, if anything, to disrupt the rookie’s throws. But with Vaitai in at right tackle instead of Johnson, and Wentz showing a little bit of a dip in decision making recently, I would be very tempted to bring pressure early and often. That’s what Minnesota did last week, and Wentz clearly looked uncomfortable in the pocket for basically the entire first half, throwing two interceptions — including an awful one — in the first quarter.
I’d also advise my corners and safeties, as most teams have this season, to focus on taking away the underneath routes. The Eagles don’t have a field-stretching playmaker (hence the rumors about trading for guys like Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery), so they don’t draw up very many deep balls for guys like Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff. The wide receiving corps is very, very hamstrung by a lack of speed and talent, which in turn limits the kinds of plays Doug Pederson can call. Don’t sell out on the underneath routes, because a guy like Agholor can still hit you deep occasionally, but definitely be ready for short stuff all night long. It’s the Eagles’ bread and butter. Take it away, and you’re in business.
Thanks for the knowledge, Bleeding Green Nation.