The way the Eagles looked Monday night, they could be Super Bowl-bound
Philadelphia quarterback Carson Wentz proved he and the Eagles will be tough to beat
If you didn’t watch Monday Night Football, you may be confused by the above poll. If you did watch the game, you know that Super Bowl champion coach turned commentator Jon Gruden debuted a modified adjective to describe Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz: “North Dakota tough.” Gruden introduced the term before the game, perfectly foreshadowing the many displays of toughness by the former North Dakota State Bison star during the game. But Wentz’s toughness was just one of several reasons that Philadelphia defeated Washington.
The Eagles D dominated
Let’s start with that Philadelphia defense. It is no secret that the strength of the Eagles defense is the defensive line, and they are weaker at linebacker and in the secondary. The Redskins had success attacking through the air early in the game on first and second downs, often using play-action because they could take advantage of the Eagles’ zeal to stop the run. Philly was frequently playing single-high coverages, such as Cover 1 or 3, to have an extra defender in the box to stop the run. But on third downs, passing downs, Philly got into better passing defenses. And Washington was unable to convert any third downs in the first half. Any variation of Cover 2 is strong against the pass. On third downs, the Eagles used a good amount of Cover 2. But the more interesting tactic that defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz employed was max blitzing with Cover zero behind. Cover zero is man-to-man with no safety, so it is dangerous. If one of the coverage players gets beaten, the result of the play will be a touchdown.
You may be thinking, “The Eagles don’t have a lot of great man coverage corners and linebackers, so zero blitzes aren’t a smart strategy given their personnel.” Counterintuitively, max blitzing is great for teams with limited coverage players. Though it isn’t without risk, max blitzes force the quarterback to get rid of the ball in less than two seconds because the defense will always have one more player than the offense can block. That means the limited coverage players won’t have to cover for very long. But they’d better not miss a tackle.
The Eagles O was efficient
Saying the offense had a slow start is an understatement. The Eagles offense was penalized four times for 23 yards before they ran their first positive offensive play, a 2-yard run. On the following play, Wentz was intercepted. Their offense continued to struggle for most of the first half. Behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, Wentz seemed to be under constant pressure. Washington’s blitz package created confusion for the Eagles front, sacking Wentz three times on eight passing plays. Apparently unfazed by the pummeling Wentz had been taking, immediately after the third sack the Eagles ran a slow-developing deep pass play — not the type of play that should be called given their struggles. But with just 3:29 left in the half, Eagles head coach Doug Pederson wanted to take a deep shot. Fortunately for Wentz, on that play, Washington wasn’t blitzing. Eagles tight end Trey Burton chipped Ryan Kerrigan, Washington’s best pass rusher, ensuring Wentz would have time for the play to develop. In a bunch formation against Cover 4, the outside receiver ran a deep out to occupy the cornerback, isolating the safety against rookie receiver Mack Hollins. Hollins got behind the safety using a double move and caught a 64-yard touchdown pass.
Wentz and the Eagles got the ball back with just 1:52 left in the half, so they went into a 2-minute drill. The Eagles weren’t huddling after most plays, which meant Washington couldn’t huddle either. Washington was forced to play basic defenses, not the blitzes it was having success with earlier in the game. Wentz took his team down the field and scored another touchdown with 22 seconds left in the half.
Practice Squad, Week 7
Wentz and the Eagles got the ball back to start the second half. Washington tried to go back to the earlier blitzes, but it was too late. The Eagles used halftime to adjust. Philly started the second half with plays designed to frustrate blitzers: play-action quick passes, bootlegs and empty formations. The play-action quickly draws the blitzers to the running back, opening the middle of the field and keeping the defenders’ hands down so the quarterback can get rid of the ball swiftly, before he is hit. Bootlegs allow the quarterback to get out of the pocket and run away from the blitz, buying more time. And empty, especially with a back or tight end outside, forces the defense to show where the blitz is coming from or to check out of the blitz. With help of these adjustments, Wentz took his team right into the red zone, where Washington’s blitzers got to Wentz. But it didn’t matter. Wentz, while being hit, made an unbelievable touchdown pass to Corey Clement.
From then on, the Redskins didn’t blitz much for the rest of the game. They returned to the blitz at a pivotal moment in the fourth quarter, and it worked, almost. It was third-and-8, and the Eagles were up by a touchdown and had the ball on their own 27. Wentz dropped back to pass and the pocket collapsed, as it had almost every time that Washington blitzed. Inexplicably, Wentz wriggled out of the impossible situation and ran for a 17-yard gain and a first down. That drive ended with another touchdown. Washington only blitzed once more in the 17 remaining defensive snaps. Philly put the game away with one drive that ended with a field goal.
Super Bowl Champion Eagles?
Philly fans should be excited about this team. In a season where no team appears dominant, the Eagles are 6-1. So, can the Eagles win their first Super Bowl championship? Maybe. They have the benefit of a favorable regular-season schedule, so they have a good chance of getting a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. I can certainly see them making it through the NFC, and anything can happen if they play in the big game. But they could also lose the next few games and be in a fight for a wild-card slot. I am not ever going to guess, because I will get it wrong just like you were wrong with your answer to the poll question.