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The Eagles Are a Deep Ball Away From Fielding a Scary NFL Offense

They have the tools to throw downfield; now Carson Wentz just has to make it happen

Nelson Agholor and Carson Wentz Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For Eagles fans, there was plenty to be excited about after the opening week of the NFL season. In their 30–17 victory over the Redskins at FedExField, Philadelphia played like a complete squad — a team that looks poised to not only climb out of the NFC East cellar, but ready to make a run at the division title and postseason.

The Eagles defense, which ranked fourth in Football Outsiders defensive DVOA last year, picked up where it left off, applying a steady dose of pressure on Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins from start to finish. Led by a fearsome front line that now includes Brandon Graham, Timmy Jernigan, Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry, and rookie Derek Barnett, Philly racked up four sacks and eight hits, holding Cousins to 240 yards on 58 percent passing with a touchdown, an interception, and two lost fumbles for a 72.9 passer rating. It would’ve been tough to ask for a better defensive performance on the road against an offense that finished last year ranked fifth in DVOA.

But the stifling play by Jim Schwartz’s unit wasn’t terribly surprising — it was the exciting performance by quarterback Carson Wentz and the Philly offense that gives the Eagles the look of a bona-fide playoff contender. Wentz completed 26 of 39 attempts for 307 yards (fifth-most in Week 1), two touchdowns, and a pick on 7.9 yards per pass (seventh) to finish with a 96.8 passer rating (ninth). He completed 9 of 11 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns on third downs, and the team moved the chains on eight of its 14 third-down plays (57 percent).

Philadelphia’s retooled receiving corps was a big part of Wentz’s big day on Sunday. By signing Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith in free agency, the Eagles gave their young signal-caller a huge upgrade in pass-catching talent, and while both Jeffery (three catches for 38 yards) and Smith (one catch, 30 yards) were relatively quiet statistically in their debuts, their presence on the field — Smith as a deep specialist and Jeffery as a coverage-tilting true no. 1 — kept Washington’s secondary occupied. That helped open up the passing game underneath, and it helped that head coach and play-caller Doug Pederson didn’t waste much time stretching the defense vertically, dialing up a deep shot to Smith on the Eagles’ first offensive snap.

Wentz under-threw Smith on the play — Pederson said after the game that his quarterback slipped when he went to plant for the throw — and it was nearly intercepted by Josh Norman. But it sent a clear message to the Redskins that they would need to be on their toes to defend the deep part of the field. The Eagles quarterback made up for the early miscue two plays later, when he did his best Aaron Rodgers impression, stepping back up into the pocket to evade a pass rush before escaping to his left, giving himself enough time to launch a one-footed heave downfield to Nelson Agholor. The third-year receiver, who looked close to washing out of the league last year, hauled it in, broke a tackle, and waltzed into the end zone.

That wasn’t the only unbelievable throw that Wentz made on the day. Late in the first quarter, the second-year signal-caller again avoided the Washington pass rush, scanned the field from left to right, and quickly threw the ball to Zach Ertz when his tight end flashed open. Without overselling one play by a young passer too much, the way he almost sidearm-whipped the pass all the way out to the sideline from an unbalanced platform was pretty damn reminiscent of Rodgers, too.

Late in the second quarter, Wentz again showed off his improvisational skills and arm strength as he escaped the rush (you’ll notice a theme here), strafed to his left, and threw across his body about 45 yards downfield. He put the ball right over cornerback Bashaud Breeland’s outstretched arms — in the exact spot that only his receiver Jeffery could get it. Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger came in from the middle of the field to knock it away at the last second, but it was one hell of a toss nonetheless.

Then, early in the fourth quarter, Wentz escaped a Redskins blitz with a reverse pivot spin to keep the play alive and throw downfield to Ertz. It picked up 23 yards.

Those handful of plays defined Wentz’s performance in my eyes — he ended up with 138 passing yards while under pressure, tops in the NFL last week — and those plays showed just how high of a ceiling he has as a franchise quarterback. But at the same time, the throws he missed illustrated how far he still has to go before he should be considered anywhere near the top echelon at the position. Wentz threw a tipped-ball pick-six in the second quarter, and on three other occasions, he forced inaccurate passes into tight coverage. He’s just lucky none of those were also picked.

Late in the game, he missed on a sure touchdown when he overthrew Smith, who had raced behind Washington’s defense.

Wentz’s deep-ball accuracy and aggressiveness down the field will be an integral component to the Eagles’ success or failure on offense this year, and it’s one of, if not the most important thing to monitor as the season goes on. Last year, Philly’s passing game was, shall we say, check-down oriented. Wentz’s average depth of target on the year was just 7.9 yards, which ranked 30th out of 36 qualified quarterbacks per Pro Football Focus. After one game this season, Wentz’s ADOT sits at 10.8 yards, third best.

If Philly can continue to put a little fear into opposing defenses that a touchdown bomb could come on any snap, it’s going to give Wentz and his pass catchers much more space to work with in the short and intermediate passing attack. As Wentz said after the game, “People saw that Torrey can get behind the defense. It’s going to free up space for Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor in the slot, Darren Sproles underneath, and I think that’s really the name of our game. We just have to find the right balance of taking those shots and staying underneath.”

That effect played out in Week 1. Despite Wentz’s downfield misses (he finished just 1 of 7 on deep passes), those shots helped stretch Washington thin, and Agholor — replacing Jordan Matthews as the team’s primary slot receiver — finished with six catches for 86 yards and a touchdown, Ertz grabbed eight passes for 93 yards, and the speedy running back Darren Sproles added five catches for 43 yards.

But going forward, simply having receivers like Smith that can get downfield and behind a defense isn’t going to be enough. Wentz has to prove that he can take advantage of it. Along with a subpar Week 1 performance in that area, his rookie numbers lagged as well. Per Jonathan Kinsley’s Deep Ball Project, Wentz completed just 37.6 percent of his deep attempts (16-plus yards) last year with five touchdowns and six picks, and as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell points out, Wentz finished his rookie season ranked 24th in QBR and 26th in passer rating on throws 16-plus yards downfield.

This week, getting that deep passing attack on track is going to be a challenge. The Chiefs secondary is coming off a game in which it gave up just two completions on Tom Brady’s 10 deep-pass attempts. And, despite losing Eric Berry for the year to a torn Achilles, it’s a group that’s still equipped to match up with the Eagles’ receivers on the outside with All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters and Terrance Mitchell. This matchup could be a litmus test for what to expect from both Wentz and his new-look receiving corps as they go up against an upper-tier pass defense.

Unless Wentz can add an accurate deep pass to his arsenal, we could end up seeing the Eagles passing game rely far too much on check-downs again this year. Until opposing defenses really respect that vertical element, they’ll crowd the line of scrimmage, jump the intermediate and short routes, and make it hard for the Eagles to move the chains and get themselves into the red zone. But if he can prove that he can connect downfield with Smith, Jeffery, and Agholor, the sky’s the limit for what this passing game can do.