PHILADELPHIA — Quarterback Carson Wentz will square off against Tom Brady for the first time in his career when the Philadelphia Eagles host the New England Patriots on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).
“It’s always cool to play a competitor like him, arguably one of the best ever,” Wentz said Wednesday. “Ton of respect for him and what he has done.”
Wentz missed the last matchup, of course, as a torn ACL and LCL late in the 2017 season sidelined him for the Eagles’ postseason run, which culminated in a 41-33 win against New England in Super Bowl LII.
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Before that injury, Wentz was on an MVP charge and looked to be leading the next generation of great quarterback play. But Sunday’s game has no baton-handing feel to it. Injuries slowed Wentz’s ascension. He’s healthy now, and while there have been some solid performances and “wow” moments over the first nine games of the 2019 season, there hasn’t been the same current of electricity flowing from Wentz and the offense as there was during the 2017 title season.
So where is Wentz in his development? What factors need to be considered when evaluating him? And are there signs that he remains on track to becoming one of football’s best signal-callers? Here’s what the next-level statistics tell us:
29.9: The percentage of blitzes faced per dropback this season, which ranks 20th in the NFL. Defenses brought the heat at about the same clip last season — 28.7%, which ranked 19th. During Wentz’s career season in ’17, it was a much different story. He was blitzed more than any QB in the NFL at 38.9%, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. And he made defenses pay, tossing 14 touchdowns to one interception for a 99.6 rating. He remains effective against the blitz (65% completion rate, 3 TDs) but just doesn’t have as many opportunities against it. In other words, defenses have adjusted, limiting one of Wentz’s strengths.
26: The number of first downs Wentz picked up with his legs in ’17 over 13 games, compared to 14 so far this season. He’s behind pace in that department while also down in rushing attempts per game (4.9 to 4.1) and rushing average per attempt (4.7 to 3.9). Wentz had three rushes of 20-plus yards in ’17 and none so far this season. This tells us a few things: Wentz is operating within the system more and freelancing less; he’s being more judicious about racing into traffic; and there has been a defensive adjustment on this front.
“There’s usually a spy, someone that’s kind of keying the quarterback,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said, when asked how the defensive approach has changed against Wentz. “The type of blitzes that teams [are using]. He’s a right-handed quarterback, so a lot of times they don’t want to let you escape to your hand side or your right, they might pressure you to the back side. There are all kind of ways that they can affect your quarterback and particularly Carson, but one of the things he’s great at and has done a really good job this year of is just getting the ball out, understanding our offense better, spreading the ball around.”
5.0: Percent of drops per pass attempt by Eagles receivers this season, the worst clip in the NFL. They have 15 drops in all, tied for second highest in the league. It’s a real issue that has held Wentz and the offense back. Wentz ranks 24th in the NFL this season in completion percentage at 62.7. His expected completion percentage, though, is 65.1, per NFL Next Gen Stats, which moves him up to 13th among QBs.
2.67: Seconds before throw on average, 27th in the NFL. Some of that can be chalked up to his natural style of play: He likes to create with his legs and extend plays, so he’s never going to be the leader in this category. But there are times that call for him to get the ball out of his hands quicker, which continues to be a point of emphasis.
43: Passing first downs by Wentz on third down in 2019, the most in the NFL. “Situational football” is when he is at his best. He continues to shine on third down (63% completion rate, 98.9 passer rating) and in the red zone (8 TDs, 0 INT), just as he has for most of his career. These are two of the most critical areas for a quarterback to excel, and Wentz remains an ace.
Conclusion: His weapons have let him down this season. Defenses have adjusted to his game, thereby limiting the amount of explosive plays. Wentz is improving when it comes to operating within the system, but it’s not always the most natural thing for him and remains a work in progress. He still has an ability to create magic out of thin air and performs best when the weight falls on his shoulders to make a play.
The ingredients remain in place for him to become great. A strong performance Sunday against one of the top defenses in the NFL, and opposite arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, would help get Wentz back into the elite-quarterback conversation.