As the Washington Redskins took the field last Monday Night, their defense was something of a puzzle. They had surrendered 113 points through 5 games (22.6 per), holding only one opponent under 20 points. Yet, they had the eighth-ranked run defense in the league, allowing only 88 yards per game, with only Kansas City rushing for more than 97 yards against them. Meanwhile, opposing quarterbacks held only an 81.8 passer rating against this defense. They had not – and still have not – allowed more than 298 net passing yards in any game. The Skins were dropping the quarterback on 7.7% of the passing attempts against them. Through the season’s first 5 games, they had allowed only 10 offensive touchdowns to be scored against them (they have also seen two fumbles returned for touchdowns against them).
So – in spite of the points they had allowed – this was a pretty accomplished defense.
Moreover, even though they allowed 30 points to Philly in the season opener, they did some very good things defensively. They allowed the Eagles just 58 rushing yards (only 2.4 yards per rush). They limited the potent Eagle offense to just 2 touchdowns. Philadelphia was forced to kick 3 field goals and added a defensive score in the win.
Game-Planning Wentz and the Eagles
In that first game, the Redskin defense briefly lost track of receiver Nelson Agholor when quarterback Carson Wentz looked like he had been sacked. But Carson made one of his miracle escapes and lofted a prayer up the seam that Agholor pulled in for a 58-yard touchdown. Other than that play, the Eagle receivers didn’t really hurt Washington. Nelson caught 5 other passes that afternoon, but for only 28 more yards. Alshon Jeffery – the other primary target – finished with just 3 catches for 38 yards.
So the plan coming in was to play aggressive man coverage with one deep safety (Montae Nicholson). They would challenge those receivers to win their matchups, chase Wentz around with a generous sprinkling of blitzes, and assign a spy (yes, Carson Wentz is a dangerous enough runner that Washington assigned him a spy – usually linebacker Mason Foster), and take their chances at stopping the running game again.
For 26 minutes and 31 seconds on Monday night, the Redskin defensive plan worked like a charm. Through their first 25 offensive snaps, Philadelphia had run the ball 11 times for 42 yards (15 of them from Wentz himself), and had been flagged for 3 penalties, costing them 23 yards. Of Wentz’ first 11 drop backs, only 3 passes were completed for just 30 yards. One other throw had been intercepted, and 3 other attempts had ended in sacks of the quarterback (giving back 24 of the yards). With halftime creeping up, the Eagles had scored 3 points while moving the ball just 25 yards in a positive direction (once the penalties were weighed into the equation).
For their part, cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar, Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland – hardly household names – held up excellently in coverage. While, on the Philadelphia sideline, the Eagles had unwittingly played into Washington’s hands.
Philadelphia and the Running Game
Since that first game, Philadelphia had re-invested in the run. In the five games since, they had totaled at least 101 rushing yards in each game, including the 214 they racked up against the Chargers in Week 4. The Eagles came into the game ranked fifth in the NFL in running the ball (132.5 yards per game on 4.4 yards per carry), and they intended to run against Washington.
In Week One, tight end Zach Ertz caught all 8 passes thrown to him as Washington simply could not cover him. As the Week Seven game began, Ertz was watching from the sidelines as blocking tight end Brent Celek saw most of the action. With about three minutes left in the first half, Ertz had not even had a pass thrown his way. Everything was working out as well as Washington could have hoped.
Of course – even if man coverage is the game plan – you can’t only play man coverage. Sometimes you have to drop into a zone. With the Eagles facing second-and-16 on their own 36 with just 3:29 left before the half, Washington dropped into a zone. Carson Wentz exploited it.
Alshon Jeffrey lined up to the right behind speedy rookie Mack Hollins. Both attacked vertically up the seam for about 15 yards, when Jeffery broke his pattern to the sideline. When cornerback Breeland bit on Jeffrey’s out-route, it left safety D.J. Swearinger all alone with Hollins. Wentz hit Hollins in stride, sending the rookie on to his first career touchdown, igniting Philadelphia’s turnaround, and beginning what would be a nightmare second half for Swearinger. All of a sudden, a game that Washington was in control of was tied at 10, and Philadelphia was beginning to reconsider its approach.
Before the half would end, Ertz would catch both passes thrown to him for 50 yards and a touchdown. By game’s end, Ertz had caught all 5 passes thrown his way for 89 yards. In the two games played against Washington this season, Zach Ertz caught all 13 passes thrown his way for 182 yards. Most of the damage came with Swearinger trying to chase him down, but he also proved too much for Foster in the odd times that Mason tried to cover him.
Washington came in with a great plan with one tiny flaw. No one on their team can cover Ertz. In watching the tape, I actually think he was open every time he went out for a pass.
As to Wentz, all through his 3 for 8 start I don’t think he was ever confused by what he saw. The initial trouble was getting a receiver open. Throughout the entire game, Wentz seemed ready for whatever the Washington pass defense showed him. Carson is a toolsy quarterback, but his understanding of the passing game is quite advanced for a second year guy.
The rest of the game would serve as notice for anyone in the football world who hadn’t yet heard of him that Carson Wentz is a force to be reckoned with. He finished the game with a 126.3 passer rating and 4 touchdown passes – beating every coverage Washington threw at him. He also memorably scrambled for 63 yards, leading the Eagles to their 34-24 victory (gamebook). The win included a signature play in both the passing and running aspects of Carson’s play – calling cards to remember him by, as it were.
There is 9:49 left in the third – Eagles now ahead 17-10. They face third-and-goal at the 9 yard line. Washington defensive end Terrell McClain almost makes a game saving play. Bull-rushing his way past center Jason Kelce, McClain has Wentz in his grasp. Almost. Once again, Carson twists out of the way. With Matthew Ioannidis and Mason Foster sandwiching him in, Wentz manages to flip the ball over the head of Foster with just enough juice to get it up the sideline in the end zone where Corey Clement gathered it in.
Linebacker Zach Brown’s adventure on that play more-or-less epitomized the night for Washington. Clearly expected to cover Clement on the play, Brown blitzed immediately. It was as Clement and Brown passed each other going in opposite directions, that Zach realized his error. He pivoted quickly and began pursuit of Corey, but that only earned him the best view in the house of Clement’s touchdown.
Now it’s the fourth quarter. There is 14:55 left, and Washington has fought back to make it a 24-17 game. The Eagles are on their own 27, facing a third-and-8.
Washington blitzes. As they did almost all night, the disciplined Eagle line picked-up the blitz, but gave ground as they did so, resulting in the Washington pass rush completely encircling Wentz. For nearly two seconds, it seemed inevitable that Carson would be discovered at the bottom of a very large pile of bodies. But then – somewhat miraculously – Wentz shot out of the cluster of humanity and sprinted 17 yards to the 44 for a back-breaking first down. Moments later, Agholor would weave his way through another broken zone defense to haul in the clinching touchdown.
A funny thing about that moment. While escape looked impossible, Wentz was never in any real danger. All of his offensive linemen were there in between him and the Redskins. They weren’t all standing, and in some cases they were just barely between, but I think the only hand laid on Carson during that whole progression was from Zach Brown (again) who reached over running back Wendell Smallwood and managed to put a hand on Wentz’ back. In essence, his line formed a kind of cocoon around their franchise quarterback – from which Carson exploded at the first glint of daylight.
Love for a Lineman
Nothing in football happens in a vacuum, and all success on the gridiron is team success. There were many names trumpeted as heroes of this contest – and there were many who played extremely well. One name that probably won’t get any mentions is right tackle Lane Johnson. He spent most of the afternoon lined up against Washington’s best pass rusher – two time Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan, who recorded 11 sacks last year – and made him disappear. Kerrigan did get a half sack in the first quarter. On that play, Ryan lined up over left guard Steve Wisniewski and slipped around him to get to Wentz. As far as I remember, that was the only time that Kerrigan lined up inside. He spent the rest of the game outside, trying (unsuccessfully) to work his way around Johnson.
Tapping the Brakes
It was a magical night for Carson Wentz and the (now) 6-1 Eagles. But before we start reserving his spot in Canton and marking the Eagles down for home-field advantage, let’s hold on to a little perspective. Carson has played 23 impressive games as a pro, and you can see why the organization is optimistic for the future. But it is just 23 games. Carson has yet to play a meaningful December game, much yet a playoff game. It’s an auspicious start, but it’s just a start.
As for the Eagles, 6-1 is an excellent start. But six wins won’t get you anywhere. The most challenging part of the season lies ahead.
Remember, the NFL is still a week-to-week league – even for Carson Wentz and the juggernaut Eagles.