The Philadelphia Eagles are the hottest team in football at 8-1. After most people thought the Cowboys and Giants would compete head to head in the NFC East, it’s suddenly the Eagles that have run away with the division lead.
Last year, the Eagles also started hot at 3-0 (with a lesser sample size), but quickly fizzled as the season went on. Looking back, we can that the reason for that is because the team faced some of the worst defenses from that season in its first three games, leading to some spectacular blowouts. The offense also had some holes that weren’t filled that season.
This year, however, the Eagles’ only loss was to the Chiefs in Arrowhead, and that was a close, competitive game. Against some worthy defenses, the Eagles have not only won their games against said defenses, but have also dominated them. The offense is #1 in scoring (30.0 points per game), and since the loss to Kansas City, the Eagles have gone on a seven game winning streak to take the best record in football.
A lot of things factor into this. Both sides of the ball are loaded with talent. The defensive front is one of the deadliest in the league, and one of the better coached. The offensive line being arguably the best in the league, the receiving group featuring the vertical threats of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, the improved Nelson Agholor, and the refined Zach Ertz, who is finally living up to his potential. The run game features a diverse set of players, and Carson Wentz is doing enough to allow everything to work in Philadelphia’s favor.
With 23 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, it’s no surprise that Wentz will get most if not all of the credit for the Eagles’ fantastic start. To his credit, he has made improvements in some areas. His accuracy isn’t as wild as his rookie season, his pocket movement is subtler, and his pre snap work has been great.
All of this, however, means nothing without the right coaching. Take the Giants for example. Starting off with a loaded receiving unit and a talented defense at the beginning of the year, it was soon discovered that Ben McAdoo could offer nothing to offset the quality of the offensive line, and with a declining Eli Manning and injuries to the receiving position, the team sits at 1-7 after expectations of being a Super Bowl team.
That’s where Doug Pederson comes in. A disciple of Andy Reid and a former quarterback himself, Pederson is in his second year with the Eagles, and what a year it has been. Much like Reid, Pederson has mastered the art of diverse, creative, and quarterback friendly play calling, so much to the point that it’s become impossible for his quarterback to have a bad game on the stat sheet.
With options always open and protection formations offsetting strong defensive lines or injuries, it’s no wonder Wentz has been able to lead the league in touchdowns without breaking a sweat.
With that said, not only is Pederson the Coach of the Year after the first half of the 2017 season, but he is also the driving force behind the most explosive offense in football.
During Wentz’s rookie season, Pederson gave him a quarterback friendly offense where he was asked to play in a conservative passing game. Once in a while we would see a downfield pass, but not to the point it appears to be now.
Even in this offense and with receivers that couldn’t catch, Wentz still had a bad rookie season. He was constantly missing throws, whether short or long, staring down receivers and causing turnovers, and featured poor mechanics in his throwing motion and footwork.
This season, with new weapons, the offensive line playing even better, and a more open passing game, the flaws Wentz displayed in his rookie season have been masked to the point where the casual fan wouldn’t even know they existed. That’s not to say Wentz doesn’t deserve credit for improving, but it highlights how well crafted Pederson has created this offense for his quarterback and skill players.
The first thing to note from this offense is how wide open the routes are. Pederson understands that Wentz plays better when his first read is open. He knows that the quarterback has shown struggles in the pocket when his first read isn’t open, which is why he uses a heavy dose of play action, misdirection, spread out routes, and run pass options.
These play calls make the offense exciting because of how unpredictable and well thought out they are, and showcase how the Eagles offense has rarely missed a beat.
One of the flaws Wentz displayed as a passer in his rookie season was staring down receivers too much for his own good. He would draw defenders to his receivers, plant his feet without being set, and either miss the throw or watch it get taken the other way.
Pederson has made that flaw almost nonexistent in comparison with this year’s offense. Everything in the play above against inside zone coverage and outside man coverage is designed to take all pressure off of the quarterback. The back is set up in shotgun but his route cuts him outside. The lineup also features a 2 tight end set, with both Zach Ertz and Brent Celek running shallow crossing routes.
Ertz and Celek’s routes draw the strong safety away from the slot receiver, Trey Burton. The diversion created by the misdirection allows Wentz to stare down and wait for the receiver’s path to be open. The result is an easy throw on an excellent play design on third down.
In a lesser offense, Wentz staring down would kill the play for reasons stated above. Because the design and execution of the routes are perfect, this allows Wentz to stare down and wait for an open receiver without being punished.
The exact same design is shown here. One theme you may notice with these two GIFs is how good the Eagles are on 3rd down. This has been widely recognized, but the reason for its success is how Pederson designs these routes to help the quarterback stay in the pocket long enough for a receiver to get open.
Like the first GIF, the back runs an outside route, Ertz and Celek are used to create a diversion, and the combination of the routes from the two tight end set allows the intended target to get open easily. This time, Wentz gets hit as he throws, but because of the misdirection it doesn’t matter. He’s able to get the pass off and move the chains.
Next, the execution of the following play is simple but its true beauty comes in how complex the design is.
This is a pass play designed to be released in a split second to Celek (#87). The back’s job is to block the right defensive end, while the route combination of the 3 WR set at the top is sensational. Nelson Agholor (#13) runs a screen route, but his actual role is as a blocker after the catch is made. The route for the receiver closest to the line of scrimmage goes up the middle of the field, leaving the receiver to the right of Agholor running a simple straight route.
While this is going on, Celek runs another shallow crossing route. Because the Broncos run a five man blitz, and because 3 WR route combo is pulling the defensive backs away, Celek is left completely uncovered. Wentz makes the correct decision and immediately fires to pass to Celek.
It’s a simple play where the quarterback isn’t asked to do much, and the five man blitz attempts to create pressure, but because of the play design the pressure is never actually there. It’s a very simple play in execution but its complex design allows for an easy first down.
Another highlight the Eagles offense has experienced is Nelson Agholor enjoying somewhat of a breakout season. In his first two seasons, his inability to catch the ball ruined any impact he could make. If you watched the previous two seasons of Eagles football, you may have noticed that the receivers could separate with no problems. They just kept dropping passes.
This year, the receivers are catching the ball with greater consistency, and Agholor is especially doing that, regularly being lined up as a slot receiver. With the position change and the improved hands, Agholor is finally getting greater production.
This play occurs during man coverage with the secondary playing deep. The outside WR route at the top and the tight end route next to the slot are designed to keep the corner and strong safety as far away from Agholor as possible.
Agholor’s route itself is a simple slant route, but with the activity going on with the tight end and outside receiver’s routes, this leaves Agholor completely open. Wentz recognizes this right away and fires to Agholor for one of the easier touchdowns the Eagles have gotten.
Pederson’s play calls have also been vital in the success of the run game. No play made it more obvious than the touchdown from Jay Ajayi last week in his first game as an Eagle.
Here, Ajayi is lined up in shotgun. The play is a designed run to the left. The left tackle makes a great block to prevent the defensive end from getting an angle, but it’s the creatively schemed blocking that truly makes this one of the easiest touchdown runs you’ll ever see.
The center Jason Kelce (#62) helps create the path for Ajayi by running and blocking in front of him. The full safety (bottom) doesn’t anticipate that Ajayi will be running outside, and thinks he’s going inside left. The right guard Brandon Brooks (#79) pushes the defensive back into the full safety, and the bottom outside receiver is merely another blocker.
With the outside wide receiver, center, and right guard successfully doing their parts, Ajayi has no one in the same area code as him. The result is a beautifully schemed and executed play call from Pederson, one of many on the season.
Finally, we have what I consider the best play call I’ve seen all year. Again from the Broncos game, Pederson calls for a run pass option (RPO). For Wentz, it’s actually a triple read option. He can choose to hand the ball off to his back, run on his own, or throw to Jeffery (outside receiver on the bottom).
Von Miller is one of the best defensive ends in the NFL. The Eagles offense minimized the impact he’d normally have thanks to the play design. Pederson understands how good Miller is, and left him unblocked on several occasions on purpose. Here, he’s unblocked, and attempts to stop the read option, but does not realize what is happening outside of him.
The corner on Jeffery, Aqib Talib, is drawn off by Jeffery’s route, which suggests a bubble screen is coming. Talib is also drawn off by the initial read option, buying Jeffery enough time to sneak behind him. Jeffery is left wide open and Wentz has an easy throw to make. The pass is perfect and Jeffery bursts for a razzle-dazzle touchdown on a phenomenal play call.
This call in particular shows the forward thinking mindset Pederson displays with the Eagles offense. The team is executing and playing at a level you’d normally expect from a Bill Belichick led offense, and the result is a happy combination of a dominant offense that allows a dominant defense to rest.
In 2016, when Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons, he crafted one of the easiest offenses you’ll ever see a quarterback run. Shanahan understood how to scheme around the weaknesses of the Falcons’ offense and set up Matt Ryan for success. Ryan was constantly passing from play action and getting a versatile amount of options to choose from.
With a massive emphasis on yards after the catch and receivers that were schemed open downfield, the Falcons offense was historically great, finishing the season red hot and coasting to the Super Bowl in the playoffs. Ryan had won MVP, but was not relatively asked to make difficult decisions. He still played well, but he also had receivers schemed open for him at the point of a finger thanks to the heavy use of play fakes and misdirection.
The same is evident in Carson Wentz under Doug Pederson. Clearly he has made some spectacular throws and some outstanding unstructured plays, but for the most part Pederson has kept things simple for his quarterback because he knows where he’ll succeed and where he’ll struggle. This has resulted in a quarterback friendly offense that gives Wentz easy reads on the fly and has allowed him to put up huge stats.
Pederson, like any great coordinator, understands the skill sets of each of his skill players and how they can thrive to the best of their abilities. He understands that LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi work as power backs and can do serious damage against contact. He understands that Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith are receivers that do damage on vertical throws. He knows that Agholor can succeed in the slot, or how to scheme his tight ends open.
Pederson has used the abundance of talent he has on offense and has maximized it to its full potential. He is the driving force behind what makes the Eagles offense not just remarkable, but also fun to watch. This isn’t a fluke offense; this is an offense that can compete for a Super Bowl at the rate it is going, and based on the rest of the schedule, they very well can.
Make no mistake, Doug Pederson is the current Coach of the Year and the mastermind behind the explosive offense of the Philadelphia Eagles.