It's Time to Take the Philadelphia Eagles Seriously
Everything is clicking for the Philadelphia Eagles.
After a 34-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Eagles are 3-0, sitting atop the NFC East alone.
After starting the season against the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears, the Eagles needed to show they could be competitive against a better opponent -- the Browns and Bears were two of the bottom four teams of our nERD rankings.
The Steelers appeared to be the type of test the Eagles needed early in the season, and Philadelphia seemed to pass pretty impressively. It’s still early in the season, but this team has answered all the pressing questions so far.
Heading into this week, the Eagles were ranked as one of the best defenses by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform. Philadelphia was second in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play through two weeks, which included the best pass defense in the league.
The Eagles proceeded to shut down the Steelers' offense, which came into the week ranked seventh in Adjusted NEP per play. Even without playmakers Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant, Pittsburgh has been able to make plays on offense through the season’s first two games.
That ability did not last through the third.
From early on in the game, the Eagles gave the Steelers problems when Pittsburgh had the ball. A lot had to do with shutting down running back DeAngelo Williams. Williams had been one of the most efficient backs in the league through two games -- he was ninth in Rushing NEP per attempt among 23 backs with 25 or more carries -- and he was the most efficient last season among backs with 200 or more carries.
Against the Eagles, though, he had little running room and was held to 21 yards on 8 carries, resulting in a -0.27 Rushing NEP per attempt, well below his 0.03 average from the first two games.
Philadelphia’s pass rush showed up, too. It’s the unit that was expected to improve the most under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and it hasn’t disappointed yet. The Eagles were able to tally 4 sacks, but most were with the game already one-sided and Pittsburgh forced to pass -- it was already 27-3 when the Eagles got their second sack.
But still the rush was able to hurry some of Ben Roethlisberger’s throws, which led to the third-worst quarterback performance of Week 3 with a -0.26 Passing NEP per drop back. Through the first two games, Roethlisberger was at 0.33, which ranked sixth among starters.
This is a unit that’s still getting into gear and one that’s only just played its first tough offense, but the early returns on the Schwartz-led unit are positive. In this adjustment period, the Eagles have allowed an offensive score on a league-best 11.8 percent of offensive drives. The second-best defense, the Minnesota Vikings, have allowed a score on 20 percent of drives.
The ability to stop scoring won't be sustained at that low of a rate, but if the defense can keep anything resembling this up, it creates a tough matchup for any opponent makes the job of the Eagles offense much easier.
Effective Run Game
It’s no secret the Philadelphia run game was a mess last season. Led by DeMarco Murray and a horizontal scheme, the Eagles ranked 20th in Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. Without Murray and with a new scheme, the Eagles entered with the 10th-best run game by Adjusted Rushing NEP per play.
In the first two games, that was led by Ryan Mathews, who had the highest Rushing NEP per attempt of the backs with 25 or more carries, but he was held to just two carries and lost five yards against the Steelers.
Instead, it was Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner who led the way. The two combined for 121 on 25 carries, good for 0.20 Rushing NEP per attempt. For some context, Mathews’ league-leading Rushing NEP per attempt through the first two games was 0.19.
When you think of Eagles running backs, it’s probably Mathews and Darren Sproles. But when those two can’t get going on the ground -- Sproles rushed twice and lost one yard -- it’s good to see the depth behind them can contribute positively to the running game.
To this point, the Steelers had been good at stopping the run, too. Through the first two weeks Pittsburgh was fourth in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP per play from games against Washington and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Then, of course, there’s the passing game led by the quarterback everyone is going crazy about.
For the first time this season, Carson Wentz actually had the numbers to back up some of the hype. Wentz finished Week 3 with a 0.63 Passing NEP per drop back, which was the best of the day for a quarterback and 0.10 above the second-ranked Aaron Rodgers.
But up to this point Wentz’s numbers hadn’t been awe-inspiring. He was just 21st among quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back through the first two weeks.
If you’ve watched the Eagles closely this season, that might not be too surprising -- Wentz isn’t really doing anything that’s mind-blowingly impressive. He’s not hitting small windows or slinging the ball downfield with the flick of a wrist, but that’s okay. What Wentz is doing right now is exactly what he’s set up to do in this offense. He’s making quick reads with a lot of safe throws, a decent amount of which are behind the line of scrimmage.
What he’s not doing is looking lost, which is arguably his most impressive feat thus far.
Wentz was an FCS quarterback who saw fewer than 30 snaps in the preseason before he started his first NFL game, and he’s yet to look overwhelmed. This is Blaine Gabbert's sixth year in the NFL, and he’s yet to look comfortable.
Some of Wentz’s success can be attributed to the coaches recognizing what Wentz currently is and not asking him to do too much. But Wentz should also get some credit for his improvement. One of his biggest knocks was pocket presence and movement under pressure.
Through three weeks, Wentz appears to be moving his feet better with each game, and it shows. Watch how he navigates the pocket and keeps his eyes downfield on the third quarter touchdown pass to Sproles, a play set up by his feet and his head. (Video courtesy NFL Game Pass.)
Another part of Wentz’s early maturation in the pocket has been just how solid that pocket has been. The Eagles are a team that’s been getting rid of the ball quickly, but they’re also a team that hasn’t given up a lot of pressure when given the chance.
Per Sports Info Solutions charting data from Football Outsiders, the Eagles gave up the least amount of pressure to opponents in the first two weeks of the season, and Wentz just completed his first game without being sacked. When putting together the formula to create an ideal environment for a rookie passer, dominant protection would be one of the first things added.
The Eagles have a bye in Week 4 before they come back to play Washington and the Detroit Lions on the road. They then come home to play the Vikings, which will likely be their biggest test against a top-tier defense to date -- the Minnesota defense was seventh in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play through two weeks and just held the Carolina Panthers to 10 points. After that, it’s two more road games against the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants.
We’ll learn more about this Philadelphia team in that stretch of games after the bye. But right now, after three weeks, they look pretty impressive. Maybe this won’t hold for the rest of the season, but after Sunday’s win, the Eagles should at least have your attention.