Crunching the numbers: Eagles look poised to pounce on pedestrian Panthers

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The Eagles will welcome the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, for what could be an important match up for playoff seeding. The Panthers (3-2) sit 1 game behind the New Orleans Saints for the lead in the NFC South and are in a position to compete for a wild card spot. Philadelphia is coming off an impressive Thursday night win against the lowly Giants while Carolina will be looking to rebound from a disappointing 23-17 loss to the Washington Redskins. Here are some statistics to consider heading into Sunday’s bout.

Primarily, as we’ve grown accustomed to with Eagles’ games, the game will be won or lost along the offensive and defensive lines. For an in-depth look at the contest in the trenches, check out the following article by our man Liam Jenkins:

Stars may light up the Eagles week 7 clash with Carolina, but it will be won and lost in the trenches

Offense

My previous article on the state of the Eagles’ run game called for Doug Pederson and the rest of the coaching staff to lean on the run despite being without Jay Ajayi and Darren Sproles. The team will get a perfect opportunity to prove themselves against a run defence that hasn’t quite lived up to their reputation in 2018. After finishing the 2017 ranked 3rd in total rush defence, the Panthers have fallen to the middle of the pack this season.

Attempts Rank Yards Rank Yards/Carry Rank
vs. ATL 25 153 6.12
vs. WAS 20 111 5.55
Average 22.2 27th 102.4 15th 4.60 23rd

This is despite facing fewer than 25 rush attempts per game. Only two teams — Atlanta and Washington — dared challenge Carolina’s run defence more than 20 times, and they both came away with 100+ yard outings and over 5 yards per carry. In 2018, Panthers’ reputation has proceeded their actual performance. No doubt the crafty Pederson has taken notice. Atlanta exploited holes by implementing a outside-zone heavy rushing attack, using the speed of their backs to get to the second level of the Carolina defence. For the Redskins, Adrian Pederson made most of his yards after contact, punishing the smaller Panthers defenders by lowering his shoulder and breaking more than his fair share of tackles. With the current state of the Eagles’ running back room, due to a shortage in the size department, look for the Eagles to deploy a strategy similar to Atlanta and try to best the Panthers with outside runs and zone blocking. The two men to look out for will be All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short. A surprise to some, Shaq Thompson has also been active in run defence despite being an undersized swing linebacker. It will be interesting to see how much field time he sees following the return of Thomas Davis last week.

It is also worth noting that the Panthers have allowed only two rushing touchdowns on the season and are the 9th best defence on 3rd and short: the Eagles may have to get creative in the red zone and in short yardage situations. Corey Clement has averaged a respectable 4.1 yards per carry so far this year and could be in for a heavy workload. He has never been handed more than 16 carries in a game, and while that isn’t likely to change this week, his numbers should be in the ballpark of 12-15 totes. Look for Wendell Smallwood to continue his role as an early down back despite the return of a fully healthy Clement. Getting chunk yardage on first down will be key as the Panthers defence is 29th in 3rd down and medium yardage (3-6 yards) situations, allowing a 53.8% conversion rate. So far this season, the Eagles are 9th in the league in first down rushes, averaging 4.6 yards per rush. Despite the mediocre total numbers, the Eagles actually hold Pro Football Focus’ 4th ranked run block rating. Just in case Pederson is reading: trust the run Doug! A high number of rushing attempts will also open up the passing game. Carson Wentz has been money on play-action passes, posting an 116.1 passer rating — good for 10th in the NFL.

In terms of passing the ball, the Eagles offence has had mixed results. While Carson Wentz has looked every bit his MVP-calibre self, the offence has failed to translate his efficiency into tangible success. It is very obvious the Eagles are missing contributions from injured receivers Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins. That being said, there are opportunities to be had against an uninspiring pass defence in the Panthers. They are currently PFF’s 25th ranked coverage defence. Below are the Carolina defence’s numbers against specific receivers. I have taken statistics from two different sites as numbers for secondary receivers and the distinction between number ones and number twos is sometimes subjective. Stats over the past 3 weeks are provided by Fantasy League Collective and total stats are taken from Football Outsiders.

Over Last 3 Weeks Total
Rec/G Rank Tgt/G Rank Yds/G Rank DVOA Tgt/G Yds/G
vs. #1 3.5 16th 6 17th 36.3 7th 3rd 8.6 70.1
vs. #2 5 29th 8.5 31st 68.3 26th 30th 6.4 67.5
vs. Slot 3.8 25th 5.3 31st 64.3 19th
vs. TE 6.3 28th 8 24th 69.8 26th 25th 7.7 56.5
vs. RB 4 7th 5.5 7th 35.5 9th 17th 5.4 32.2

Carolina’s pass defence somewhat plays into the strengths of Philly’s passing attack — struggling to cover tight ends and allowing high completion rates to receivers. The Eagles’ have arguably the best tight end tandem in football, with Zach Ertz leading all non-receivers in receptions and Dallas Goedert showing flashes of why he was considered one of the 2018 draft’s top tight ends. It would not be surprising to see a lot of two tight end sets. The Panthers house the worst base defence in the league allowing an average of 7.5 per play. They are much better when in nickel, boasting a 9th place 5.3 yards per play. Look for a heap of easy completions to tight ends on early downs.

One of the two areas the Panthers’ secondary has struggled the most is with short passes over the middle. The Philadelphia offence will need positive yards on first downs to avoid facing Carolina’s 5th ranked third-and-long defence — allowing only 18.8% of plays to go for first downs. That stat will be on a collision course with Carson Wentz’ 109.3 quarterback rating on 3rd down, 3rd best in the league. It may in fact be good news that the Eagles are 9th in the league in passes of under 5 yards, turning in 5.4 yards per completion on said plays. We’ll have to take this with a grain of salt, however, as the team also leads the league in drops on passes of under 10 yards. These numbers are perhaps a bit skewed after some early uncharacteristic performances from the ever-reliable Ertz. The figures below are from before the Giants game. Still, the Philadelphia receiving corp has dropped 4.7% of passes: 10th worst in the NFL.

Shaq Thompson and Thomas Davis will most likely be the first names called on to cover the Eagles’ tight end duo. So far, despite his acumen, Thompson has been easy to beat in coverage. He gave up 81 yards and two touchdowns to the Giants’ Saquon Barkley on just four receptions. Davis is on the wrong side of 35 and is not getting any faster. Savvy route running from Ertz could prove problematic for the Panthers. Thompson was quoted saying, “at the end of the day, it’s going to be a one-on-one match up between the linebackers and safeties versus the tight ends and running backs.” That must have the best tight end in football licking his chops.

The name to watch in this match up could be Nelson Algholor, after turning in a gutty performance against the Giants. He looks tired of being the forgotten man after a breakout season in 2017. In last season’s match up, Agholor posted four receptions on seven targets for 55 yards and a touchdown. The Panthers’ struggles against number two and slot receivers noted, they have also laboured to cover the deep right side of the field. Rookie corner Donte Jackson has unbelievable quickness, but his long speed has been thrust under the microscope early in the season. They are currently ranked 24th in the league in that area and are allowing an efficiency rating of 74.1% favouring opposing offences. The Panthers’ aforementioned troubles allowing a high completion percentage is important as the Birds are 29th in the league in yards after the catch. Despite the obvious success Carson may have throwing underneath passes, it would be nice to see him stretch the field on Sunday. Thus far in 2018, Alshon Jeffery leads the team with 7.42 yards through the air per reception. This is the 2nd lowest tally for a number one receiver in the league.

Wentz should have the time to push the ball down the field against PFF’s 18th ranked pass rush, although it doesn’t seem to matter much. The gunslinger has posted a 108.5 passer rating when forced outside of the pocket (4th), and a 104.4 passer rating when in the pocket (7th). If anything, the Panthers will try to keep Carson in the pocket and avoid him making big plays on the run.

Defense

The defense will have their work cut out for them against the Panthers. It is no secret that this offence runs through Cam Newton and 2nd year running back Christian McCaffrey. The Redskins were able to beat Carolina by controlling the run game and putting the ball in Newton’s hands and forcing him to throw it. This shouldn’t be an issue for the 2nd best run stopping defence in the league. Although, let’s be honest, the Eagles are likely to surpass the Saints as top dog in that category by season’s end. The Panthers’ 19th ranked run blocking unit (PFF) won’t inspire much confidence for fans of the wrong team. PFF’s rankings don’t always match the statistics, and perhaps overlook the unit’s 4th place standing in yards before contact (3.3). Nevertheless, Philly will need to be weary of a surprisingly efficient run game. While currently ranked 10th in total rush yards, Carolina has averages 5.0 yards per tote. They are also the number one team in first down run efficiency, racking up 6.1 yards per carry. The Eagles’ poor tackling of late could get worse before it gets better facing McCaffrey. The slippery devil is 2nd in tackles avoided. The defence will have to be cautious of runs out of the shotgun, on which the former Stanford running back ranks 4th in the league with 5.3 yards a gallop. If nothing else, the Eagles could be surprised by the speed of McCaffery in what could be a bit of a trap game for the run defence. If the Birds are able to stop the run on early downs, the Panthers will have to deal with the leagues 4th best third-and-medium (29.2% conversion rate) and 8th best third-and-long (20.5%) defence.

However, what is more likely is that Carolina will use the run to facilitate a nasty play action pass game. On such plays, Newton has posted a 129.0 passer rating (4th). Strangely, he hasn’t really taken advantage of over-eager corners and safeties so far this year. The Panthers are last in the league with passes of over 20 yards, attempting only 13 this season. It certainly doesn’t help that those passes are completed only 15% of the time. This may be an area that the Panthers may find some success against the Eagles defence. Currently, Philadelphia is 29th when covering number two receivers. This is generally the job of Jalen Mills who struggles against faster receivers and deft route runners. He is also known to bite on play action. Behind Devin Funchess, the Panthers have nothing but speedy receivers. In all likelihood, Mills will give up at least one big play against one of the Panthers’ speedsters. Ronald Darby was fantastic against the Giants allowing one catch for zero yards and tacking on four pass breakups. Panthers’ Offensive Coordinator Norv Turner hasn’t yet returned to this decade and made the most of his roster ripe for a modern offence. This could be the game where the Panthers put it all together. It will have to occur in spite of Philly’s formidable pass rush.

Last week the Eagles recorded 14 pressures and 4 sacks against a pretty woeful offensive line. While the defensive line has continued to influence the game, they have not generated the pressure we have been used to seeing from them. Game planning and schematic avoidance aside, Philadelphia have only applied pressure on 23.1% of opponent’s passes — 29th in the league. Notably, they are also 29th in the league in blitz percentage: 16.3%. This will have to change on Sunday. While it is unlikely Jim Schwartz dials up an inordinate number of blitzes, the defensive line will have to find ways to apply the pressure against Cam Newton. The quarterback is PFF 35th ranked passer while under pressure and 6th while kept clean. Carolina only faces blitz on 18.8% of plays (29th), and Shwartz may look to send more men more often on Sunday. In actuality, he might be better off trying to apply pressure with only his front four as Cam is 10th in the league against the blitz in terms of passer rating (103.5). Either way, Philly’s best bet is to keep Cam contained and force him to throw. The Carolina receivers have dropped 4.3% of passes this year, and none of them are game-breaking talents. If the Eagles are able to force the Panthers into third-and-long situations, they will have the benefit of facing a QB who has only managed a 59.4 passer rating on third down (28th in the NFL).

 

Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

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