It’s been a few weeks since we’ve checked in with the defending champions, and a few weeks since they allowed four or more sacks.
That happened again in Week 7 in a game that took a sudden turn for the worse for an Eagles team that appeared to be in control through 45 minutes of action against the Carolina Panthers.
Let’s go Behind the O Line to uncover what went wrong for the Birds.
Box-score scanners can run down the stats and see four sacks, and wonder aloud why Philadelphia’s offensive line isn’t keeping the franchise quarterback, Carson Wentz, off the ground. But, as always, it’s never that simple.
First off, the Eagles don’t have much of a ground game to speak of. In Week 7’s contest versus the Panthers, Philadelphia ran the ball 21 times for a whopping 55 yards.
There’s one rather stark change in Philadelphia’s last three games: Since Jay Ajayi’s injury, the Eagles have shifted away from traditional I-form, between-the-tackles rushing concepts, instead opting for the zone reads except when deep in an opponent’s red zone. It makes sense for a team that lacks a backfield hammer, and one that builds a large portion of its offense out of zone read action, be it on run-pass options, play action passes or designed runs.
That will shift a good amount of responsibility onto the shoulders of Wentz. But he handled it well in Week 7, completing 30 of 37 passes for 310 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 119.6. He was the league’s best for the week in expected completion percentage differential (from actual), completing 17.2 percent more of his passes than Next Gen Stats’ metric projected him to complete, based on a variety of factors including pressure and target separation.
Wentz threaded the needle on consecutive sideline passes to Alshon Jeffery and Zach Ertz early as the Eagles got rolling. Wentz put it on Jeffery 10 times, completing seven of those targets for 88 yards and a touchdown to a receiver who averaged just 1.88 yards of separation Sunday.
So where’s the problem? Well, back to those stuck on the sack total.
It doesn’t take a genius to tell you keeping the quarterback’s jersey clean is a key to long-term success. Critics will see that number and drill the Eagles for allowing it to happen.
We’re here to set the record straight — with some context.
The Eagles have become an offense with a shorter line of sight in the last few weeks, which is by design when going against two solid defenses in Minnesota and Carolina. The Eagles learned from the hole they dug themselves in Week 5 against the Vikings, which ultimately sunk Philadelphia, and after blasting the Giants in Week 6, deployed their adjusted game plan against the Panthers.
For three quarters, it largely worked. Philadelphia built a 17-0 lead (that might have been more, had Jake Elliott made another kick) with an offense that spread the ball around at a variety of depths to multiple targets. Then, the offense screeched to a halt while the Panthers’ offense couldn’t be stopped. The result was a 21-0 Carolina run to close the game and stun the crowd at Lincoln Financial Field.
So if some of the issue is protecting Wentz, let’s break it down and see where the fault lies.
Sack No. 1 was only a sack because the quarterback was down by contact behind the line. Make no mistake — this one is on Wentz.
There isn’t much explanation necessary here. With plenty of time to throw, Wentz simply dropped the ball when loading to throw. He fell on it, a sack was recorded and the game continued.
In the second quarter, the Eagles ran one of their staples — a quick-hitting run-pass option — but the pass option wasn’t open. Forced to pull the ball down and attempt to escape, Wentz ran into Panthers defensive end Mario Addison for the sack.
Before we move forward, we must acknowledge one key change for the Eagles: Third-year guard Isaac Seumalo has replaced veteran Stefen Wisniewski on the left side. He’s had an up-and-down go of things since entering the starting lineup, which he occupied at the start of last season before he was benched in favor of the more reliable veteran. Looking toward the future, coach Doug Pederson has since reinserted Seumalo, and the results have been mixed at best.
Pro Football Focus ranks Seumalo as the No. 52 guard (out of 77, with a grade of 57.2 on 210 snaps). That’s near the bottom, and accurately reflects some of his struggles.
Seumalo does his job better in the passing game than running game, and executes blocks fairly well in the run game. He’s not much of a finisher, but engages well enough to create some space for runners. He also gets beat from time to time.
Minnesota’s Linval Joseph dominated Seumalo in Week 5 on a play that resulted in a sack. Joseph bullrushed Seumalo, winning the battle with ease while driving Seumalo seven yards into the backfield, and essentially into Wentz, who tried to escape and was ultimately taken down by the defensive tackle.
It was ugly.
But it’s not as if Seumalo is a complete liability. He posted his second-best game grade against Carolina (62.1), per PFF, playing slightly better in the run game than the pass. The problem: Philadelphia primarily passed in the game.
Now, onto the good stuff. The Eagles remain one of the league’s best lines, ranking sixth in the NFL in pass blocking with a team grade of 82.2 and allowing a pressure on 26.8 percent of dropbacks.
That was on full display when Wentz rolled to his right and found rookie tight end Dallas Goedert for a touchdown.
The key in this play was the blocking on the right side. Pro Bowl guard Brandon Brooks pulled to the right and cut down defensive end Julius Peppers, clearing a path for Wentz to roll out and find Goedert in the end zone. What made this possible, though, was right tackle Lane Johnson managing to squeeze defensive tackle Kawann Short into teammate Dontari Poe in the interior, jamming up the line and preventing either from penetrating and blowing up the play. It produced a key touchdown in a game the Eagles appeared to have in hand.
But the Panthers sent a well-timed blitz in the middle of the final quarter on second-and-11, rushing six and freeing up linebacker Luke Kuechly for an easy sack. Wentz never had a chance, especially with running back Corey Clement sliding left to help with the edge pressure.
The sack killed a drive the Eagles desperately needed as Carolina quickly found its footing on the other side of the ball.
The final sack of the day was a total meltdown one play after Wentz passed up a potential completion in the flat for a first down, instead shooting for the end zone and coming up empty. Facing fourth-and-2, Wentz dropped back and the pocket collapsed on him. The quarterback never had time to find an open Alshon Jeffery over the middle, fumbling in the process and turning the ball over to complete Carolina’s stunning comeback in a 21-17 win.
In reflection, Philadelphia’s offensive line continued to block well for the most part. But when the Eagles needed a first down, the group couldn’t hold up long enough for the young star to make a much-needed play.
Major adjustments aren’t needed, though Seumalo needs to play better. If one player deserves scrutiny, though, it’s future Hall of Fame left tackle Jason Peters, who has shown uncharacteristic struggles in 2018 and posted the unit’s worst grade, 52.1, in the loss to Carolina, allowing a pressure on 10 percent of dropbacks.
Further proving an earlier point, though, is the fact none of the four sacks were chalked up to an individual player in PFF’s game grades. It was more of a team effort (or lack thereof) that resulted in two of the four sacks.
Seumalo’s play will be vitally important to Philadelphia’s success. That includes his teamwork with Peters, a typically reliable veteran who will need the best from his younger teammate. If not, the Eagles should again explore reinserting Wisniewski into the starting lineup in order to give them the best chance of victory.
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