The 2017 Philadelphia Eagles team will go down as one of the teams people remember for a lifetime. From the individual personalities, to the aggressive coaching, to the resiliency they showed throughout the season, both sides of the ball presented many story lines. One aspect that really stood out during the season was their success on third down under quarterback Carson Wentz in his sophomore year. The very first third down play of the Eagles’ season in Week 1 against Washington resulted in a touchdown after a great Wentz scramble:
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Here the Eagles ran their levels concept to the left side, ultimately Wentz bailed in the pocket and rolled to his left and made a terrific throw out of structure. It’s easy to assume that many of Wentz’s third down plays mimicked this type of success, and that it continued until his devastating Week 14 injury. A deeper dive into both film and statistics revealed, however, that these types of plays happened a lot less frequently than a minds’ eye would remember. As Wentz looks to return to 7 on 7 action in practice somewhat soon (allegedly) and ultimately to starter this season, let’s first set the table statistically.
Going into the Week 14 injury to Wentz, the Eagles had a third down conversion rate of 45.6%, which ranked third at the time. Basically, teams such as the Rams, Eagles, and Vikings swapped positions near the top for most of the season. Third down is obviously a pressure down mentally for the offense but also physically for the defense as coordinators like to feature their more exotic fronts and pass rush designs to get after the quarterback. A first glance at providers like Pro Football Focus show that out of 502 total drop backs (across all downs), 179 came with pressure, resulting in 8 TDs and 1 interception, but only a 43% completion percentage, 15.6% sack rate and most interestingly an accuracy percentage of 53.2% (which for sake of comparison is way down from the 75.7% accuracy from a clean pocket).
One could extrapolate this to third down plays with the easy 280 character conclusion being “blitzing Wentz can give you more of a shot of defending receivers and breaking up passes, but he can make you pay,” and many do want to leave it at that. Often, though, the best statistics are found in a painstaking proprietary process of collecting one’s own data (aka watching the film).
Looking at every 3rd down snap from weeks 1-14 provided an interesting glimpse into Wentz’s time as a quarterback. Of the 180 snaps (including some victory formations), 61 were tagged with pressure resulting in some sort of contact. This 33.8% pressure rate for third down is pretty inline with all downs for the year (35.6%), but amazingly, only 9 of all 3rd down snaps were tagged as going outside of structure.
Structure refers to how the play is designed: in a passing play for a quarterback it’s the reads made in his progression to deliver the ball most efficiently influenced by many factors. Out of structure is when a QB exits this process and basically improvises on some level, which often involves leaving the pocket.
These 9 plays are a very low number, especially with the first cut up shown above as 1 of those 9. The bottom line is Wentz was using his legs and pocket awareness to stay within structure the vast majority of the time. This is both the coaching staff’s intent as well as a massive kudos to him. So what does that look like? Wentz throwing the Dagger Concept to front side pressure excellently showed his ability to move within the pocket and stay within structure as good as any QB within the Eagles’ third down play package. There was a staggering difference, as expected, as the season progressed in terms of confidence, poise, and in some cases, results. This play is from Week 2 against the Chiefs on a 3rd and 13 late in the 4th quarter, where defensive coordinator Bob Sutton sends only four rushers:
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Although its difficult to anticipate safety Sorenson hopping over a running back in pass protection, Wentz could not adjust to the rush and find the necessary space to the right in the pocket. Perhaps he was frozen a bit by the Cover 4 defensive look, which at the QB’s level can be difficult. Watch on the next example from Week 14 against the Rams how he anticipated the front side pressure. This then translated to faster play speed to get to his next read against another tricky coverage. This was a 3rd and 11 in the 2nd quarter:
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In one motion he avoided a rusher, kept his eyes downfield, and moved off of his primary read. Using Dagger like this as the secondary concept in the play is deadly, but it takes time to develop as the deep dig is well over 12-14 yards downfield. Wentz used his legs while keeping his shoulder level square, then even took the time to reset his feet to deliver an accurate strike. This was advanced quarterback play.
If you noticed on the Rams clip the left side defensive tackle and end stunted to help create the pressure. Teams that stunt take advantage of an offensive line’s certain weaknesses, and we will leave the details here for another piece. When the Eagles opponent’s pass rush included some sort of a stunt/twist/loop (tagged 26 times), it resulted in pressure 69% of the time and yielded a conversion rate for the offense of just 30.7% (would have ranked near bottom of the league.) There are many types of stunts: interior ones that involve the defensive tackles and or a linebacker, and those tackle-end (T-E) and end-tackle (E-T) from the perimeter (such as above).
This next example showed what the Eagles want to happen protection wise vs a stunt, this one on a 3rd and 11 in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals. Now Giants defensive coordinator James Bettcher dialed up a T-E stunt from their nickel package with a Cover 3 Buzz coverage behind it. The Eagles run a combination of curl/flat routes that spreads out a defensive secondary giving the QB as many as 5 different options spaced apart to put zone defenders in conflict. See below:
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The timing and the spacing of the routes got a little imperfect on that play, and you could debate if Wentz should have come off his first read to the back side X receiver there, but ultimately he had the poise and Agholor had the savvy to create a first down. So this was a success, but like we said statistically, it was a headwind for the Eagles last season. An example of what stunts looked like the majority of the time came from a 3 man interior stunt/loop that was deployed by the Panthers in Week 6. Now Arizona head coach Steve Wilks brought many different blitzes and pressures on 3rd down as Carolina’s defensive coordinator. Veering only a tiny bit from the curls we saw in the last play, we see the Eagles run shorter mirrored hitch routes on a 3rd and 4 in the 3rd quarter:
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The very unavoidable front side pressure caused the high throw from Wentz, and he was under duress for most of the game. This was a key moment in the Eagles season, however, as they faced a real challenge with relative ease. This next play is on a 3rd and 11 in the second quarter. This time the Panthers bring an added rusher (after showing double A gap pressure pre snap) straight on with no stunts or loops. The slight delay from this rusher, nickelback Captain Munnerlyn, caused Wentz to move to his right, and move through the progression to get to the backside read:
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This was a gutsy throw from Wentz using his legs to create just enough time to stay on schedule and complete the play for a first down, a real dagger (metaphorical this time) for the defense. These types of plays happened far more often than the out of structure highlight reel types we as fans remember the most. Certain traits of Wentz’s game, such as his cleaned up throwing motion for a slightly quicker release and improved accuracy, have allowed him to thrive as a pocket passer in a pressure packed third down.
One thing head coach Doug Pederson may have to worry about, though, is the number of hits Wentz took as a result of staying in structure. According to Sports Info Solutions, Wentz was hit 130 times last season (11th among quarterbacks) despite being injured for the final three weeks of the season. As we saw with two intermediate route concepts, the Eagles were prepared to challenge third and longs head on with full field reads from their young quarterback, and this often means taking a hit. But there may need to be more of a balance, and the team of sports science professionals on staff probably have something to say about this.
Looking at the pressure aspect of Wentz’s play is just scratching the surface of investigating the third down play package of the Eagles. For further reading, Robert Peters’ Third Down Manual is an awesome reference and quite frankly was a great sanity check during this project. As Wentz works through his rehabilitation this summer, Eagles fans hope to see him getting through his reads and slinging it again, perhaps from a cleaner pocket.