It’s one thing to prepare for a top-flight quarterback in the NFL that you’ve seen before. It’s another to prepare for one that has been on top of the world with just five career games under his belt.
That’s the problem facing the Washington Redskins’ defense Sunday in the Philadelphia Eagles’ Carson Wentz.
Through his five games, Wentz has completed 91 of his 135 pass attempts for 1,007 yards, 7 touchdowns and 1 interception. That 67.4 completion percentage is good for seventh in the NFL this season, and his 103.5 quarterback ranking is good for sixth.
That stellar play in such a small body of work poses a problem for Washington Redskins’ defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Barry has spent a significant amount of time trying to find out one of Wentz’s weaknesses. He either found it and he’s playing coy or it’s just too tough to tell just yet.
“I think he’s athletic, can make all the throws, can create things and win,” Barry said of Wentz. “When things break down around him, he’s athletic enough to create. They do a great job of really calling the game for him. It just seems sometimes it’s really hard to tell until you’re face-to-face with a guy on game day, but from what you can see on film, he doesn’t seem fazed by much.”
That’s in part because of the strength of the Eagles’ offensive line, a unit that gives Wentz reason to feel confidence each and every game. According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles have the 10th-best offensive line in the NFL, including one of the best left tackles in Jason Peters. This season against the blitz, Wentz has completed 14 of his 20 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. That protection, combined with a group of sure-handed wide receivers and running backs, helps Wentz.
“When teams blitz, it takes everybody,” Wentz said. “It takes the O-line picking up guys, getting their jobs done and then receivers winning. It takes receivers, tight ends, running backs. It takes them winning and getting open early. We are all playing on the same page, playing fast, so I’ve really got to credit all the guys around me that really have just made my job easier.”
Wentz is, of course, being modest. The North Dakota State product, drafted with the Eagles’ second-overall pick this year, has never been one to showboat or talk about himself. During his bye week, he went back home to North Dakota to see his family and friends, and, as North Dakotans typically do, he spent some of his time hunting. It’s mostly about simplicity for Wentz.
“The way he prepares, the way he works during the week, nothing is too big for him,” Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said. “The spotlight’s not too big. He’s played in some big football games in college and, you know, he just handles things so well. He’s very mature for his age. He has good feel and command for the huddle.”
“He’s playing really well,” said the Redskins shut-down corner, Josh Norman. “Crazy thing about it is, you know, he’s a rookie playing like some vets in the league. It’s kind of crazy. He don’t turn the ball over, he does a good job with that. He’s a smart rook. He’s not stupid like some of them out there.”
That poise in pressure situations makes Norman’s and Barry’s job more difficult.
Barry said he will likely throw a mixture of coverage and rush packages at the rookie, but Barry has confidence in his defensive line and secondary units, as both are stacked with players who have a lot of versatility in their games. While the Redskins’ secondary has been riddled with injuries, they’ve brought in players and have had guys step up when needed, including rookie Kendall Fuller, who has played in the nickel position.
From the defensive line standpoint, rookie Matt Ioannidis has begun to develop into an impact player.
“When we have Matt playing the nose guard position, that allows Ziggy [Hood], it allows Bake [Chris Baker], it allows Ricky [Jean Francois], even Cullen [Jenkins] to play on the outside and get on the edge of a guard or get on the edge of a tackle,” Barry said.
That defensive line may be able to exploit the Eagles’ right tackle position. Philadelphia’s starting right tackle, Lane Johnson, had his 10-game suspension upheld for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing drug policy. Now, the Eagles are turning to Halapoulivaati Vaitai, a rookie who will play in his very first game.