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Sound-Smarter-Than-Your-Friends Guide to Eagles-Buccaneers: The key to Philadelphia’s red-zone success

How a suggestion from quarterback Carson Wentz transformed the Eagles offense.
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz won’t play Sunday against the Bucs, but he still might have an impact. [Associated Press]
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz won’t play Sunday against the Bucs, but he still might have an impact. [Associated Press]
Published Sept. 15, 2018|Updated Sept. 15, 2018

After torching the Saints in Week 1, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been the talk of the NFL. Yeah, there has been some chatter about some guy named Aaron, but whatever he did probably wasn’t as amazing.

Now, though, it gets interesting. The defending Super Bowl champion Eagles are in town. We get to see whether the Bucs are for real.

A year ago, the Eagles were coming off a 7-9 season and were Super Bowl longshots. There were several reasons for their turnaround — a deep and talented defensive line, their head coach’s aggressive play-calling and a backup quarterback who caught fire in the playoffs — but the focus in this week’s Sound-Smarter-Than-Your-Friends Guide is on how Philadelphia scored almost 100 more points in 2017 than it did in 2016. The key, it turns out, was improved efficiency in the red zone, the most important place on the field to play well.

The Eagles had exactly as many red-zone opportunities (55) in 2017 as they did in 2016. The difference last season was that they scored nine more touchdowns. Their touchdown percentage jumped from 49.1 percent, which ranked 24th, to an NFL-best 65.5 percent.

Coach Doug Pederson didn’t draw up new concepts alone. He incorporated feedback from his players. One suggestion came from quarterback Carson Wentz. The play, called Mario, was featured in Wentz’s offense at North Dakota State.

“When I looked at Mario, I saw it as a twist on a West Coast concept,” Pederson says in his book Fearless. “It was similar to a play Bill Walsh ran in San Francisco, and then Mike Holmgren took it to Green Bay. Now it’s one of my favorite plays, and we try to find ways to get different guys in the position, different formations for the play, and different route combinations every week. It all came from Carson.”

Pederson first called the play in Week 3 last season against the Giants. Tight end Zach Ertz was the primary target, and he was wide open over the middle. Wentz’s pass, however, was a touch high and bounced off Ertz’s hands.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

Pederson immediately called the play again, with one slight difference. Pederson had Ertz line up on the other side of the formation and put him in motion before the snap. Touchdown.

[NFL Game Pass]
[NFL Game Pass]

He called it again the next week against the Chargers, flipping the formation and making Alshon Jeffery the primary target. Different receiver, same result. Touchdown.

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[NFL Game Pass]
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He called it again three weeks later against Washington. The defense blitzed, and the pressure forced Wentz off his first read, which was Ertz. The blitz, though, left running back Corey Clement open in the flat. Wentz sidestepped the pressure and delivered another touchdown strike.

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[NFL Game Pass]

Pederson kept calling the play even after Wentz suffered a season-ending knee injury in December. Late in the NFC championship game, Nick Foles threaded a pass through the Vikings defense to Jeffery for another touchdown.

When the Eagles are inside the 10-yard line Sunday, keep tabs on Ertz and Clement, but most of all, be on the lookout for Mario.

• • •

What to watch for: Eagles play calls on third down

You already know about the Eagles’ aggressiveness in fourth-and-short situations last season. Why, though, were they in those situations so often? It wasn’t merely chance. It was partly the result of unconventional play calls on third down. In the first three quarters, they ran the ball on third down 23.8 percent of the time, the third-highest rate in the NFL. Three out of every four times, they either gained enough for a first down or came within a yard of one.

Run plays on third down, 2017 (excluding fourth quarter)
Team Run % Yards/att First down %
1. Colts 29.3% 4.1 54.2%
2. Bills 28.2% 7.2 64.0%
3. Eagles 23.8% 5.0 47.5%
4. Browns 22.9% 7.1 68.6%
5. Broncos 22.5% 5.0 63.4%
27. Bucs 13.5% 4.2 70.0%

RELATED STORY: Doug Pederson is fearless on fourth down. Will other coaches follow suit?

• • •

Key matchups

Bucs receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson vs. Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills: Mills flourished during the Eagles’ playoff run last season. When quarterbacks targeted receivers in his coverage, they completed only six of 18 passes. His best performance might have come in the divisional round against the Falcons, when he allowed only one catch for 12 yards and prevented Julio Jones from catching a potential game-winning touchdown pass in the final seconds.

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[NFL Game Pass]

He did, however, allow nine touchdowns during the regular season, most among cornerbacks, and was vulnerable to double moves.

Even with Ryan Fitzpatrick filling in for Jameis Winston against the Saints last week, the Bucs took several deep shots. The aggressiveness paid off, as Fitzpatrick connected on 4 of 5 passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield, three of which resulted in touchdowns. Jackson, who is listed as questionable as he recovers from a concussion and a shoulder injury, hauled in two and Evans caught the other. If the pass protection can hold off the Eagles pass rush, expect Fitzpatrick to test Mills deep.

Bucs linebackers vs. Eagles running back Corey Clement: During the regular season, the Eagles targeted their running backs, on average, four or five times a game. It wasn’t until the postseason that they became a greater focus in the team’s passing attack. That trend has continued into this season, especially in the absence of receivers Alshon Jeffery and Mack Hollins.

Darren Sproles saw seven targets in the opener against the Falcons, but he’ll miss Sunday’s game because of a hamstring injury, which means the Eagles are likely to turn to Clement. An undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin, Clement was one of the best players on the field during the Super Bowl, catching four of five targets for 100 yards and a touchdown.

The Eagles will want Foles to get in a rhythm early, so look for them to call quick-pass concepts that get Clement isolated against a linebacker, either Kwon Alexander or Lavonte David. In Week 1, Alexander and David struggled in coverage against Alvin Kamara, allowing the Saints running back to catch all six of his targets for 81 yards and a touchdown.

• • •

Prediction

This matchup is a lot more even than it looked when the NFL released its schedule in April. If you squint hard enough and look at it just right, you can make a case for the Bucs. The Eagles won’t have Carson Wentz. They won’t have Alshon Jeffery. They won’t have Darren Sproles.

Here’s what they will have, though: arguably the best offensive and defensive lines in football. The Fitzmagic run was fun, but a reality check is coming. The pick: Eagles 33, Bucs 21.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.