Mark Sanchez is the new quarterback for Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles while starter Nick Foles is shelved with an injury. The 7-2 Eagles are chugging toward a NFL playoff spot on the back of their defense and special teams dominance. In part one of this series, Jake Vincent looks at the state of the Eagles offense thus far.
By point differential, the Philadelphia Eagles are the third-best team in football. A mere three points off the top spot, their 7-2 record shows a team contending for a first-round bye in the playoffs and possibly even home field advantage. But dig a little further, into the numbers and the film, and the state of the Eagles and their success to date becomes a little harder to understand.
Philadelphia has played sloppily and perhaps unluckily: the third-worst turnover differential in the NFC, averages 1.3 interceptions a game, doesn’t recover fumbles, and 26th in the league in red zone efficiency. Teams that turn the ball over and fail to score touchdowns rarely win seven games all season. What, exactly, is going on here?
Running Toward Problems
In Part 1 of “State of the Eagles”, the offense is the focus. And that means talking about injuries, especially on the offensive line. Despite returning all five wire-to-wire starters, the unit will not see action together in 2014, with guard Todd Herremans on injured reserve. Right tackle Lane Johnson was suspended during training camp; his backup, Allen Barbre, suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1. Left guard Evan Mathis hurt his knee in that same game and missed 8 games. Center Jason Kelce was lost for 6 games.
At its worst (Weeks 3 and 4) the decimated front had clearly impacted the running game based on both total yardage and average gains:
|4||at San Francisco||22||1.8|
|5||vs St. Louis||145||4.4|
|6||vs New York Giants||203||5.6|
For comparison, Philly averaged 5.1 yards per rush last season. After leading the NFL is attempts, rushing yards, yards per game and total yards from scrimmage, feature back LeSean McCoy has found fewer holes this year. He is averaging nearly 30 yards less per game and has only found the end zone twice, far off last year’s eleven rushing and receiving touchdowns.
The ground game is more about the blocking than the back. Shown below is what is supposed to happen with proper run-blocking by the Eagles’ front:
And here is what you don’t want your running back to see ‒ not even someone as talented as McCoy (good luck, Shady!):
Meanwhile, Chris Polk has developed into a hard and punishing runner who complements McCoy and third-down scatback Darren Sproles well. His late entrance into the Week 9 game against a tiring Texans defense saw him play a key role in a four-play drive (all runs) for 70 yards and a TD.
As Mathis and Kelce have gradually returned to the lineup, the running game has slowly recovered. Currently 20th in the NFL in yards per rush attempt at 4.0, the Eagles may yet end up a top ten rushing attack but it is unlikely they will match last season’s lofty ranking. So, while there is room for improvement, this is one area of the team that is unquestionably worse than in 2013.
The Passing Attack
Another factor in the Eagles’ declining ground numbers is the increasingly run-heavy focus of opposing defenses. They have been daring now-injured quarterback Nick Foles to beat them, a strategy unlikely to change with Mark Sanchez back there. To wit, Foles has averaged 42 passes per game this year and Sanchez put it up 37 times against Carolina on Monday night, putting Philadelphia 3rd in the NFL in total pass attempts.
Foles was otherworldly last year, throwing 27 TDs with just 2 INT, and logging a 119.2 QB rating and a 64% pass completion rate. However, few rational observers expected him to replicate that performance, as that would have placed him among the elite QBs in the league.
It is the extent of Foles’ regression that makes his season a significant disappointment. His 2014 numbers: 13 TD, 10 INT, 81.4 QB rating, 59.8% completion rate. Frankly, those figures understate his issues. The Eagles offense is giving Foles plenty of open targets, but he tends to hold the ball too long, drifting under no pressure in the pocket and missing open targets.
This play against Jacksonville in their season opener illustrates that flaw, as wideout Jeremy Maclin breaks free on a slant-and-go route to Foles’ right, but the passer wanders away from his protection and coughs up the ball after being engulfed by a Jaguar defender:
Of course, in that same game, he showed his ability to hit the open man, lofting a TD pass to Maclin on a post route:
Unfortunately for Foles, he’ll be sidelined for about six weeks with a broken collarbone, which means Mark Sanchez is under center. In Week 9, the Sanchize came off the bench in Houston and hit Jordan Matthews with a perfect over-the-shoulder TD toss:
In that same game, to stop Eagles fans from getting too optimistic, he makes his read too late, forcing a pass into coverage that is nearly intercepted:
While QB is a major question mark, so is the receiving corps ‒ with the sensational Maclin the lone exception. Riley Cooper has been average to poor. Josh Huff has shown flashes of promise since returning from an early injury but has also made frustrating rookie mistakes. Disappointingly, Zach Ertz has not made the second-year leap so many expected of him.
The bright spot is Matthews, who has been good for a rookie but could have a higher ceiling with a different QB throwing to him. Sanchez-to-Matthews was a common theme of training camp and led to all sorts of preseason hype. For those looking for a fantasy WR on the waiver wire, Matthews could be a great pickup and may be the second-best receiver on the Eagles going forward.
The Offensive Big Picture in Philly
Summarizing the offense in Philly yields a mixed bag. The O-line is getting healthier and the running game might be back on track. Sanchez is a wild card at QB ‒ albeit not a certain step down from Foles ‒ and will have to lead the team to the playoffs. Whether he keeps the job or Foles reclaims it will likely be determined by his play; Foles certainly did nothing before getting injured to have the job handed back unless Sanchez is awful.
However, Sanchez is not going to have to win games for the Eagles single-handedly. A combination of improved fumble recovery rate and better red zone efficiency should help, as would a recovered run-blocking scheme and ground game. The team has had a chance to win every game this season with an average QB under center in Foles. If Sanchez can avoid turnovers (a very big “if” based on his history), the Eagles might be as good as any team in the NFC. Coming soon in Part 2, we’ll examine where Philadelphia’s defense stands after the season’s midpoint.
All video and images courtesy Eagles.com, InsidetheEagles.com and PhillyMag.com.
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