The Carson Wentz Debut: So What?

After being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, no one was sure when the North Dakota State product would make his debut, but a desperation trade by the Vikings made the picture much clearer. Mark Schofield analyzes the good and bad of the much-anticipated Carson Wentz debut.

Carson Wentz made his NFL debut on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, and exceeded even the loftiest expectations of Philadelphia Eagles fans. The rookie quarterback completed 22 of 37 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. This performance was even more impressive when you consider that he missed the final three preseason games with a fractured rib. But the Eagles’ coaching staff also provided him with concepts to execute that suited his game well, and the QB was able to take advantage of two impressive routes against man coverage on his touchdown tosses. Despite the great debut, some of the flaws in his game that concerned evaluators pre-draft were still present, and remain something the young QB will need to work on as he continues his development.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Boot Action

One of the strengths identified in Wentz’s game pre-draft was his ability to throw on the move. A very athletic quarterback for a player of his size, Wentz can deliver the football with velocity and accuracy when rolling to the right or left, or when sliding in the pocket or extending plays with his feet. As a result, the Eagles took advantage of this with some designed rollouts, and some boot action plays.

Here is a prime example of this in action. Having just converted a third and short on the previous down with a toss play, the Eagles line up for 1st and 10 on their own 42-yard line, and the football on the left hashmark. Wentz (#11) lines up under center and the Eagles have 11 personnel on the field, with dual tight slot alignments to either side of the formation. Prior to the snap, tight end Brent Celek (#87) comes in short motion toward the left tackle, which is a sign that he may execute a crack block:

wentzdebutstill1Philadelphia fakes the toss play to that side, before booting the quarterback to the other side of the field:

wentzdebutstill2From there, Wentz finds wide receiver Jordan Matthews (#81) on an intermediate crossing route for an easy first down:

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The rookie QB displays great mechanics on his delivery, keeping his throwing motion compact and getting his left shoulder pointed directly at the target to improve the placement of the pass.

Another design that the Eagles used plays off this boot action concept, but is more of a throwback scheme. Facing a 1st and 10 on their own 21-yard line, Philadelphia lines up with Wentz under center and 12 offensive personnel on the field, in an Ace alignment. Cleveland has their base 3-4 defense in the game, and they show Cover 1 in the secondary with both cornerbacks in press alignment:

wentzdebutstill3The Eagles show outside zone to the left edge, but instead of handing the football off, Wentz peels back and boots ever so slightly to the other side of the field:

wentzdebutstill4This is a really nice design, as the route combination developes into a sail concept to the left side of the field. The outside receiver runs a straight vertical route, and – after executing the run fake – running back Ryan Mathews (#24) releases to the flat. Zach Ertz, the tight end on the left, starts to drag across the formation, which the secondary might expect on seeing boot action – a receiver coming across the formation as displayed on the previous example. But as Wentz stops in the pocket Ertz changes direction, cutting back to the left sideline. The strong safety over commits to the crossing route and gets caught inside as Ertz gains separation working away from him:

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Wentz puts the pass on his TE perfectly, and the Eagles have another first down.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Touchdowns

If you sense a bit of deja vu watching Wentz’s first two NFL touchdown passes, it would be understood. The rookie notched his first scoring pass on Philadelphia’s opening drive of the season, on this 19-yard pass to J. Matthews:

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That throw looks eerily familiar to a play Wentz made as a senior against Northern Iowa, broken down here by yours truly and by Ted Nguyen in this article. As Ted confirmed when discussing this play against the Panthers with North Dakota State offensive coordinator Tim Polasek, Wentz saw Cover 1 in the secondary and changed the play to a route concept that included a fade from the slot receiver.

On this play against the Browns, Wentz also sees Cover 1 in the secondary:

wentzdebutstill6It’s not clear if he changed the play or this was the route called in the huddle, but the result is the same as the game against Northern Iowa. Wentz drops in a perfectly-placed pass, and the receivers hauls in the throw for a score.

One of the aspects of his playing style that Wentz was trying to improve while in Fargo was accuracy on the deep throw. This was an area where he was inconsistent as a junior, and while he improved on the deep pass during his senior year, he opened his senior season against Montana and missed on some deep throws during that game.

But you cannot throw a deep ball better than this pass to Nelson Agholor (#17):

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The Eagles line up for this 1st and 10 play on the Cleveland 35-yard line, and with Wentz in the shotgun. They deploy 11 offensive personnel, and put two receivers to the right and a single receiver to the left. The QB is joined in the backfield by both a running back and Brent Celek (#87), a tight end. Cleveland’s 4-2-5 defense shows two high safeties, but one is deeper than the other, signaling a rotation to a Cover 1 or Cover 3 look:

wentzdebutstill8The Browns do rotate their coverage, but the deeper safety rolls down toward the line of scrimmage while the shallow safety rotates toward the deep middle, as Cleveland roll to Cover 3 Buzz:

wentzdebutstill9

Wentz is able to take advantage of this rotation. The safety that drops rotates away from the two receiver side. Matthews is in the slot and runs an in-breaking route, which occupies the nickel cornerback and both linebackers. As the safety is rotating away, Agholor is left one-on-one with Joe Haden (#23). The second-year WR is able to use a quick stutter-step release to beat the jam and get Haden to turn to the inside of the field. This gives Agholor outside leverage on his vertical release, and the receiver accelerates upfield to gain separation. From there, Wentz drops in the perfect throw:

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[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Statutesque

As with every debut, there is always room for improvement. This is certainly the case with Wentz’s. One of the biggest question marks surrounding the young quarterback during the draft evaluation process was his footwork in the pocket. At times, Wentz had a tendency to lock onto his first read in the progression,and stand with his feet seemingly in cement as he waited for the route to develop.  

One of his better pure throws came on a deep post route to Matthews on a 3rd and 9 early in the third quarter, with the football in Philadelphia territory. But as you watch this play, focus on the quarterback’s movement – or lack thereof – in the pocket:

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Wentz takes the shotgun snap and sets his feet to throw – and never moves from the spot. The edge rushers have run the arc and are closing in on him, and he even makes this throw (an impressive throw to be sure) under tremendous duress. But there was plenty of room available for him to climb the pocket, get some distance from the edge rushers, and deliver the football:
wentzdebutgif1

But Wentz stays stoic in the pocket, and while he makes the play here, there might be times in the future when he cannot escape the edge pressure and things end badly.

This was identified by many as something the QB will need to work on, and it’s clear from this play at least, that some work remains to be done.

In all, this was a very solid debut for the rookie quarterback. Perhaps most importantly, he did not make any crucial mistakes or turn the football over. There were times when he locked onto a target and didn’t work through progressions, missing a few throws in terms of placement, but this was as good a debut as you could have asked for. Wentz will face his first road test next week against the Bears, and we shall see if the environment and different level of competition brings the rookie back to earth a bit.

Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter.  Buy his book, 17 Drives.  Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, or Tennessee’s use of the double post concept, or how LSU runs play action.

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All film courtesy of NFL Gameday.

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