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The ability to move a defender with your eyes is one of the more important tools in a quarterback’s arsenal. At some point in a game you will need to get a defender out of position, to convince him to move out of his zone, or away from a receiver, to make a play in the passing game. This is not always an easy task. Players such as Seattle’s Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor have made millions of dollars studying quarterbacks, reading their eyes, and breaking on their throws. But to thrive in the NFL, a QB needs to convince players like those two that they need to react, and then take advantage of their movement.
This was one of the questions marks surrounding Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz during the predraft process. While at North Dakota State University, the young signal-caller tended to lock onto his first receiver because, on many plays, that player would break open. But in the NFL he needs not only to work through his progressions, but also use his field of vision to move defenders out of position and then quickly turn to his intended target. During the start of his professional career, the rookie has shown this ability at times, perhaps more often than some would believe.
On this first example from Philadelphia’s game against Pittsburgh, the Eagles face a 2nd and 10 on the Steelers’ 39-yard line early in the second quarter. Wentz is in the shotgun with a single receiver to the left and three receivers to the right. The Eagles run a post / flat combination on the left side, with the same post / curl / flat combination on the right:
Wentz looks to throw the curl route to his tight end, but the defense drops into a Cover 3 Buzz look:
That puts safety Mike Mitchell (No. 23) in the area of Brent Celek’s curl route. If the quarterback wants to throw to his TE, he’ll need to move that safety or hold him on the backside to give Celek room. Here, Wentz takes the snap and flashes his eyes to the left, which holds Mitchell on that backside post route and gives the TE some space:
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Wentz faced a similar coverage in Week 11 against the Seattle Seahawks, and the pair of safeties mentioned above. On this interception, the issue of Wentz’s ability to manipulate defenders is questioned. Facing a 1st and 10 at midfield late in the second quarter, the Eagles trail 16-7, but can cut this to a one-score game with some points before the half. The offense lines up using 11 offensive personnel, with two receivers to each side of the field. Seattle has its 4-2-5 nickel defense in the game, and shows a Cover 4 look before the play
As one might expect, the Seahawks rotate this defense into a Cover 3 Buzz, with Chancellor dropping down toward the line of scrimmage, toward the right side of the offense. The Eagles use an NCAA passing concept, with the tight end Zach Ertz (#86) running the shallow route from the right, while Dorial Green-Beckham (#18) runs the deeper dig route from the left. Jordan Matthews (#81) lines up in the slot to the left, and he runs a vertical route, looking to occupy the free safety:
As the defense rotates this to their Cover 3 Buzz look, Wentz is reading this play to the left side of the field all the way. First he takes a look at the backside vertical route, before turning to the three routes on the left. He is going to take a quick look at the vertical route from Matthews, to see if he can get a cheap shot over the top of the defense, or even in the seam between the cornerback and the free safety. But really what he’s looking for is to high-low the underneath coverage using the dig / shallow combination. If the underneath coverage sinks underneath the dig route, then he throws the shallow to Ertz. But if the linebackers flow forward on the TE, or leave enough of a window, he throws the dig to Green-Beckham.
At the snap, Wentz gives a cursory look to the backside, where Bryce Treggs (#16) is running a comeback route. Then, he peels his helmet back to the left to read the trio of receivers, looking from Matthews on down. He also sees linebacker Bobby Wagner (#54) cheating down just enough on the tight end, giving Wentz a throwing window over the LB and into the deeper dig route:
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The issue here is not so much that Wentz stares down this route, as he is going to be reading three routes in the same area of the field, but rather the cursory look he gives to the backside comeback route. He needs to train his eyes a bit more on Treggs on the backside, to hold the buzz defender in his zone for a few beats longer. Basically, he needs to do what he did against the Steelers, running a similar play against the same coverage.
Here’s a look from the end zone camera, and you can see the initial glance to the right, before Wentz trains his eyes to the trio of receivers on the left. As you can see, the initial look to the right holds Chancellor for a moment, but it isn’t enough:
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Despite the failure from Wentz to move the safety on this particular play, he was able to do it well on other plays throughout the game. You don’t need to take it from me, but from the guy being paid a lot of money to try and confuse the rookie QB:
The Super Bowl winning head coach might have a point. Here’s a 2nd and 7 play from the second quarter. With the football on the left hashmark, the Eagles empty the backfield using 11 personnel, and put a receiver and Wendell Smallwood (#28) in a stack slot to the left, with three receivers to the right. The Seahawks respond with their 4-2-5 nickel, and they show a single high safety, Thomas (#29) in the middle of the field:
The middle receiver in the trips, Matthews, releases on a slot fade route. Nelson Agholor (#17) is on the outside, and he simply runs a smoke route. Ertz is the inside receiver, and he runs an option route, cutting up the field and then breaking to the outside if he sees man coverage. Wentz, once he confirms man coverage, knows exactly where he will go with the football, and that is to his TE on the route breaking to the outside.
But watch as he stares down Thomas in the middle of the field, moving him in a few different directions before he makes the throw:
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After the snap, the FS first drops to his right, and then deep to his left to cover Matthews, before finally reacting forward to the play. From the end zone camera, you can see Wentz’s field of vision at work:
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Just prior to the snap, the QB sees the interior blitz, and he knows that he’ll get man coverage. So he knows where to go with the ball. This allows him to keep his eyes trained on Thomas in the middle of the field, convincing the safety that a deep shot is coming. Only at the last moment does the QB drop his field of vision, down to Ertz on the option route.
Here’s an even better example. Facing a 1st and 10 later in the second quarter, the offense starts its drive with reserve lineman Isaac Seumalo reporting in as an eligible receiver. The rookie lineman lines up in a TE spot to the right, with Agholor outside of him. Ertz is in a wing alignment to the left, with Matthews split to the outside. The Seahawks respond with a base 4-3 defense, and they show Cover 1 in the secondary:
Matthews runs a vertical route, while Ertz runs a short out pattern. On the backside, Agholor runs a post pattern. Wentz wants to throw to one of these deeper routes, but with Thomas lurking, he needs to move the All-Pro away from his target. Watch as the rookie QB stares down Matthews, moving Thomas to that side of the field, before throwing to Agholor on the post:
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Thomas breaks deep on the Matthews route, completely vacating the middle of the field. This opens up a huge lane for Agholor on the post route. Thomas breaks because as he comes out of the fake Wentz immediately stares at the vertical route on the sideline from Matthews. Only at the last moment – and well after Thomas has vacated the middle of the field – does Wentz come to Agholor. The QB puts a perfect throw on the receiver, which is dropped.
Here’s the end zone camera, showing Wentz manipulating Thomas out of position before dropping in a perfect throw:
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Now, Wentz is still making his share of rookie mistakes, as the Chancellor interception shows. But he is still executing at a high level with some of the subtle nuances of the position, including the ability to move defenders with his eyes. He’s not perfect, but few rookie quarterbacks are. At this point in his debut season, the progress is there from the quarterback, and he is well ahead of where many expected him to be at this stage in his career, myself included. So Eagles fans, fear not, and trust that even better days are ahead.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, Seth Russell’s processing speed, or how LSU runs play action.
All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.