The Philadelphia Eagles are one of those "yo-yo" teams -- for several years, they will be really good, then for several years they will be pretty mediocre. Sometimes downright awful.
Right now, the yo-yo is on the upswing. After years of dealing with quarterback issues -- Mike Vick was hurt a lot, they had Mark Sanchez, and Nick Foles, and Sam Bradford. Tim Tebow was in there someplace, too. They drafted Carson Wentz in the first round of the 2016 draft, though, and he looks like he could be the real deal. Or, at least, he looks like he's becoming the real deal.
If you looked at the raw numbers, they agree. He's in the middle to bottom of every major statistical category, but doing well considering he's played in just two regular-season games. He's a guy who is capable of making just about every throw an NFL quarterback can be expected to make. He's athletic, and he's intelligent.
But there are a few things about his game, at this early point in his career, that make him prime fodder for a team with a solid defense and an offense that can put the game out of reach quickly. Like, for instance, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Like you didn't see that coming.
In this first play, we'll get a close-up view of one of two glaring weaknesses in Wentz's game: he has a bad habit of staring down his receivers. For you Eagles fans reading this, don't worry -- it can be coached out of a guy. For you Steelers fans, well, we don't care about what happens with Wentz two years down the road. All that matters is Sunday.
You can't see it from this angle, but there is literally nowhere for Wentz to go here. But that's not what we are highlighting. You can see that he does not scan the field early on. With the defense in zone coverage (more on that in a minute), Wentz is forced to find someone in between zones. As you can see in the still image below from a different angle, there was just nowhere to go.
In reality, the best play for Wentz here would have been to recognize the coverage pre-snap and audible to a run. In fact, a draw would have worked specifically well. Or, had he scanned the field immediately, he would have seen a small but real window to hit the running back at the goal line. Instead, it went down as a three-yard loss on a sack.
This next play highlights two other areas in which Wentz will need to be coached if he plans to make a long career out of this football thing.
Wentz was able to move his Eagles efficiently in the first half between the twenties because the Bears played almost exclusively man coverage in that area of the field. Much the the New England Patriots, the Eagles' offense is built around short timing routes that any relatively accurate quarterback can execute. In the first half, though, the Bears tended to switch to zone coverage inside the red zone -- which makes perfect sense, because it clutters up a confined space with defenders. For some inexplicable reason, though, they got away from it in the second half, and the Eagles ran away with the game.
Here we see the Bears in zone again, and the defense gets pressure with four rushers. Wentz makes a major mistake here, though, and it's because he seems to be confounded by zone coverage. There is no need for him to take off and run here; all he had to do was step up in the pocket, and look down the middle of the field, where he has receiver Nelson Agholor open at the goal line. There is safety help, but there was definitely a window in which to get Agholor the ball. At the pro level, that's a huge window, and it's one Wentz needs to A) learn how to spot, and B) take advantage of. But he can't see it here, because the zone scheme deployed by the Bears appeared to have flustered him, so he took off running.
There are some things, though, that Wentz does very well. Chief among them is using his legs to create opportunities. His athleticism makes him a threat to run, but he does well throwing on the run. In fact, the throw he makes here -- running to his left -- is a difficult throw for a right-handed quarterback.
Against the Browns in week one, the Eagles dialed up several plays that involved Wentz bootlegging out of the pocket. On this particular play, the entire line begins blocking as if they are running to the right. Wentz could have done a better job selling the handoff, but his speed as a runner made up for it and gave him just enough room to throw back to his left, over two linebackers, and into the wide-open arms of tight end Brent Celek. This play was good for 12 yards and a first down.
Like any rookie quarterback, Wentz is a work in progress. From a mechanics standpoint, he's a very polished passer. But he still has some things to work out -- staring down his receivers, reading zone coverage and pulling down the ball and running are chief among them, as we've highlighted here. Fortunately for the Steelers, it's not likely he has fixed all those issues since Monday. Which could make for a very, very long day for Wentz and the Eagles on Sunday.