Identifying the reasons why Eagles are struggling to start fast

It’s only week three, yet the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive performances against the Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons have been anything but reassuring for a team that was a popular pick for a Super Bowl run in 2019. Particularly, the team’s slow starts have been the crux of the conversation. It’s not new news for the Eagles, who under Doug Pederson have been one of the slowest starting teams in the NFL. Since 2018, the team is last in points scored in the first quarter, with just 41. Still, there was a sense that this year might be different.

That fleeting hope was in full force this offseason. After acquiring field-stretching DeSean Jackson, bruising RB Jordan Howard and electric rookies Miles Sanders and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, Philadelphia was equipped to take teams by surprise. The one-two punch of the new-look backfield was supposed to keep the defense honest while Jackson and Arcega-Whiteside, along with Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor ran rampant behind opposing secondaries. On the contrary, what’s been seen on the screen has been lethargic, segmented and at times infuriating. The offense simply hasn’t been able to get on the same page early in the game. Without two long touchdowns from DeSean and some Wentz magic, the Eagles’ performance would look much worse.

Early struggles haven’t gone unnoticed within the coaching staff. Even with a win against Washington, the team knows that wins will be hard to come by if the slow starts continue. Head Coach Doug Pederson is of the opinion that the problem is more a struggle to start the first drive than the first quarter.

“It’s been our execution on offense. We also strive on defense to get off the field a little faster, three-and-out or at least maybe two first downs where we’re getting them off the field. And then we’ve had penalties that have backed us up, kept us in some third-and-long situations that we couldn’t overcome, and the other thing is turnovers.

If we score on the opening drive that’s points in our favour, and it kind of feeds the rest of the quarter.”

He does have a point. While the Eagles have been one of the slowest starting teams in the NFL under his tutelage, the biggest drop off from 2017 has been the 1st quarter. In their Super Bowl-winning season, the Eagles almost doubled their average points in the first quarter, scoring almost a touchdown per quarter.

2016201720182019
First Quarter Points3.56.43.20.0
Rank24th2nd31st32nd
Second Quarter Points7.48.35.96.5
Rank11th7th21st18th
First Half Points10.914.79.26.5
Rank18th3rd27th23rd
First Half Possession51.61%53.95%52.08%46.25%
Rank9th3rd8th26th

With the coach’s emphasis on the first drive, let’s take a look at exactly how those went for the Eagles in their first two games of the season.

vs. Washington:
1st & 10 @ PHI 25[Shotgun] Incomplete short pass to Z.Ertz.
2nd & 10 @ PHI 25Pass to D.Jackson for 11 yards.
1st & 10 @ PHI 36Run M.Sanders for 2 yards.
2nd & 8 @ PHI 38[Shotgun] Run D.Sproles for 6 yards.
(UNNECESSARY ROUGHNESS – D.Jackson)
-15 yards.
3rd & 17 @ PHI 29[Shotgun] Incomplete deep pass to N.Agholor.
4th & 17 @ PHI 29Punt
@ Atlanta:
1st & 10 @ PHI 29[Shotgun] Pass to Z.Ertz for 8 yards.
2nd & 2 @ PHI 37[Shotgun] Run M.Sanders for 0 yards.
3rd & 2 @ PHI 37Incomplete deep pass to A.Jeffery.
(DEFENSIVE HOLDING – I.Oliver) 5 Yards.
1st & 10 @ PHI 42(FALSE START – I.Seumalo) -5 Yards.
1st & 15 @ PHI 37[Shotgun] Run M.Sanders for 4 yards.
2nd & 11 @ PHI 41[Shotgun] Run M.Sanders for 4 yards.
3rd & 7 @ PHI 45[Shotgun] Incomplete pass to N.Agholor
4th & 7 @ PHI 45Punt

The killer for both series were penalties. After positive plays in both games, penalties put the Eagles in long-yardage situations. A start to the game without any major mistakes would make a world of difference for first-half momentum. Even a minor penalty could mean the difference between starting the game with three points or none. Limiting flags isn’t an exact science, but the hope is that it will get better as the season goes on.

2016201720182019
First Half Possession 51.61% 53.95% 52.08% 46.25%
Rank9th3rd8th26th

Interestingly enough, Pederson also pointed to a lack of possession when discussing the slow start against Washington. While the Pederson-led Eagles are used to dominating the time of possession, it seems to have little correlation with first half points. This shines the light on a possible solution to the early game woes — the offense needs some splash plays.

The big play specialist on offense will be sidelined for at least a few weeks. Also, not having Dallas Goedert in the lineup limits the Eagles’ ability to exploit defenses in two tight end sets — where the Birds have been deadly. The availability of both players will have a major impact on the offense against Detroit and Green Bay.

When asked about starting slow, offensive coordinator Mike Groh took time to address injuries and how the team will function moving forward:

“I think, again, it’s a combination of factors. Obviously those were unusual circumstances that we were dealing with early in the game. I think it’s a credit to our offensive coaching staff to work through the run game and trying to make those adjustments on the fly, not only just the coaches but the players.

I think there are multiple factors involved there. Offensively as a unit, there are things we all need to improve on, starting with me and that we all need to improve to play better in the first quarter, first half.”

While both Groh and Pederson correctly identify that the lack of early success is a culmination of multiple issues, it is interesting that Groh mentions having to lean on the run game. With Jackson, Jeffery, and Goedert on the sidelines, common sense would assume the solution was to run the football. Yet, the Eagles handed the ball off only ten times in the first half in Atlanta. The offensive coaching staff will have to get the run game rolling to take pressure off of Wentz and the limited receiver rotation.

Speaking of Carson, he has been absolutely outstanding on third down, especially in the latter half of games so far this season. Therefore, it’s reasonable to think that once he finds a rhythm and can get off to a hot start, first-half drives will be longer with better yields. Those incompletions will turn into completions and first downs and touchdowns will follow. Nevertheless, third downs are heavily dependent on first and second. There are some early holes that are insurmountable.

Below is the script by play call against Washington in the first half on first and second down. While there is a mix of play-calling and personnel, the Eagles kept their passes short and their runs under center. The running backs were the most targeted players on early downs in the first half, for mostly short gains. Following that, against Atlanta, the script looked much different. The one thing that remained is a focus on short passes.

vs. Washington:
1st Down2nd DownAVG
Completed Pass – Z.Ertz15.0
Incomplete Pass – Z.Ertz1
Completed Pass – D.Jackson/ A.Jeffery36.3
Incomplete Pass – D.Jackson/ A.Jeffery1
Completed Pass – Other Receiver314.5
Incomplete Pass – Other Receiver11
Run from Under Center – M.Sanders31.3
Run from Shotgun – M.Sanders
Run from Under Center – J.Howard
Run from Shotgun – J.Howard116.0
Run from Under Center – D.Sproles14.0
Run from Shotgun – D.Sproles16.0
Other – Sack1
Total Pass Plays673.5
Total Run Plays433.3
Yards per Play4.24.7
@ Atlanta:
1st Down2nd DownAVG
Completed Pass – Z.Ertz227.3
Incomplete/Intercepted Pass – Z.Ertz4
Completed Pass – Other Receiver215.0
Incomplete Pass – Other Receiver22
Run from Under Center – M.Sanders
Run from Shotgun – M.Sanders 24*2.8
Run from Under Center – J.Howard33.6
Run from Shotgun – J.Howard12.0
Other – Sack1
Total Pass Plays1152.8
Total Run Plays283.0
Yards per Play2.83.5

*includes one holding penalty

There are some important points to be made that the numbers don’t show. Against Washington, there were three incomplete deep throws in the last two drives, otherwise, there were no attempted passes over 15 yards. Also, three completions on first downs were to running backs. Against the Falcons, all completed passes on first and second down in the first half were under 10 yards.

Continued on page 2 below.

Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

6 thoughts on “Identifying the reasons why Eagles are struggling to start fast

  1. They defer the opening kickoff. That’s a big part of it. Fewer 1st quarter possessions. The onus is on the defense to provide an early three and out once in a while. So far they haven’t. They did in 2017. Overly simplistic but compare and contrast to 3rd quarter when they get the first possession.

      1. Never liked the O.C., 2017 we saw WR’s getting open schemed open. Last season it all changed. Wentz holds the ball longer because no ones open. Lack of interest in running out of different formations. Washington’s LB’s called it every time. Run Howard, trying Sanders and Sproles in at the same time. Play calling is bland.

  2. Perhaps if they played together for at least one half in the Preseason they would be better coordinated on offense ??? Won’t be in tune until the 4th game. Ala Andy Reid!

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