October 04, 2017
At 3-1, Eagles fans have to be happy with where their team stands a quarter of the way into the NFL season – they sit alone atop the NFC East following a weekend in which their three divisional opponents all lost. And perhaps most impressive is what they’ve overcome on their way to that 3-1 record.
But is the lack of production from some key offseason additions a reason to worry?
On defense, already without Ronald Darby, they haven’t gotten much of anything out of first-round pick Derek Barnett. On offense, where they saw their biggest offseason improvement, the return on their three key free agents (LeGarrette Blount, Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith) has been significantly lower than most expected.
And while Blount has turned things around the last two weeks – he’s carried the ball 28 times for 203 yards and a touchdown in those games – that’s not the case for the pair of wide receivers many hoped would help take Carson Wentz’s game to the next level in his second season.
[NOTE: Before we keep going, it's only fair to Jeffery and Smith that I point out something that doesn't show up in the stats listed below – they each possess a skillset and résumé that forces defenses to scheme specifically for them. And that's something the team hasn't had since DeSean Jackson. Part of the reason they've been so unsuccessful is because teams have been focusing on shutting them down. In turn, that's opened things up for guys like Zach Ertz, who is in the top five in the NFL in receptions and receiving yards, and leads all tight ends in both categories.]
Smith, who dropped a great ball from Wentz that would’ve been a big gain against the Chargers, has struggled to hold onto the ball, but then again, that’s never been his strong suit. To some extent, the Eagles had to know that his 52.6 percent catch rate is pretty much what they signed up for – it’s the price they pay, along with $5 million per season, for that breakaway speed.
It’s always been feast or famine with Smith, and perhaps that’s why the team doesn’t seem to be worried that he’s only racked up 10 catches and 134 yards through the first quarter of the season.
“No concern,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said when asked about Smith. “When you play enough and you get enough balls thrown to you … you're going to have your miscues. Sometimes they come in bunches.
“In the immediate term, we've got a lot of confidence in Torrey. He's been around a long time and has made a lot of plays.”
So how do you break him out of this funk? Keep feeding him the rock, says head coach (and former quarterback), Doug Pederson.
“I think with the veteran players it is different [than if he was a younger guy],” he told reporters on Monday. “You just keep firing the ball at them, keep shooting. That’s something we’ll continue to do. We'll keep him in the mix, keep him coming. And he's a guy that works extremely hard during the week, and he'll get that fixed.”
Unfortunately for the Birds, Smith isn’t their only veteran wideout who is struggling. In fact, his counterpart on the outside is having his worst season since his rookie year.
This year, Jeffery is on pace to finish with 68 receptions, 860 yards, and eight touchdowns. And while those numbers would provide him with his best statistical season since 2014, that's largely due to the fact that he missed four games last season and seven the year before.
When you look at his per-game averages, you begin to see why it feels like he's been so unproductive in his first four games as an Eagle:
It’s not like Jeffery, who signed a one-year deal worth $9.5 million this summer, hasn’t had chances.
The sixth-year receiver has been targeted 34 times, two fewer than team leader Zach Ertz. But unlike the Eagles tight end (72.2 percent), Jeffery has caught just 50 percent of the balls thrown his way. He has, however, caught a pair of touchdowns and a two-point conversion attempt, so he's still producing in that regard.
We're going to keep firing it down the field and attacking and staying aggressive... I think Carson has a lot of confidence in them.
“I think it's been solid,” Reich said of Jeffery’s production. “I don't think it's been off the charts, certainly number-wise, but he had some big plays. The touchdown pass was a big play last week. The one third-down conversion was a really big play. Carson did a great job. We had an unblocked player. We had a miscue in our protection, so we had an unblocked player, and Alshon did a great job of getting in there with some speed. That was a huge conversion in the game.
“We had been running the ball pretty well, so the receivers naturally haven't been piling up huge stats when you're running it the way we're running. I'm sure we'll have some games where he'll have some big-catch games, because one of these games, we're going to have to throw it 40 or 50 times. That's the way it's going to happen, likely. It will all even out over 16 games.”
That’s all well and good, but if the Eagles want to keep winning, these guys – like Blount did in their 26-24 win over the Chargers – are going to need to start putting up some numbers.
One way they can do that is by catching more 50-50 balls, even though Reich seems to think they're doing a good job on those already.
"Yeah, I don't know the exact count off the top of my head, but yeah, I feel like we have been competitive [on 50-50 balls]," Reich said. "I feel like the route running has been solid. We're going to keep firing it. We're going to keep firing it down the field and attacking and staying aggressive, and you've got to have trust in your guys to win the 50/50 balls. I think Carson has a lot of confidence in them."
I'm no math whiz, but with both their catch rates hovering around 50 percent, there's no possible way they're catching enough 50-50 balls ... unless of course, that's all that's being thrown their way, which we know isn't the case.
For now, however, their rushing attack – and a breakout season from Zach Ertz – has been able to carry them through. But Reich’s everything-balances-out point works both ways.
In other words, they’re not going to run for 200 yards every game –don’t forget the Giants and Chargers have two of the worst rushing defenses in the NFL.
On Sunday, they face a Cardinals defense that's allowed the sixth-fewest yards per carry in the NFL.
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