The Eagles have gotten only 18 snaps out of the injured Ronald Darby, and trading wide receiver Jordan Matthews to the Bills for the cornerback — and a third round draft pick — has seemingly been the right one as much for the opportunities it has given Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz as for acquiring Darby.
Agholor was directly affected the most. He replaced Matthews as the Eagles' primary slot receiver and is off to the career-best start. Agholor's already doubled his previous high for touchdowns in a season with four and is projected to shatter the top number of catches and receiving yards he had in his first two years.
He has 20 catches for 321 yards in six games after catching 36 passes for 365 yards in 15 games last year.
"It's been a great opportunity for me to run different routes and give a different look," Agohlor said Thursday of moving into the slot. "I like playing outside, inside, wherever. I just like being a guy you can get the football to, so I want to know as much as I can in terms of the route tree.
"Doug Pederson decided this was a great place for me to help me get those targets and I'm very appreciative."
It's possible that Agholor, who's third on the team in targeted passes (30) behind Ertz (53) and receiver Alshon Jeffery (48), could see more throws come his way. He's been that electric down the field (a team-high 16.1 yards per reception) and after the catch (a team-high 6.8 yards).
"Nelson is a threat," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "I think you not only see the plays that he's made down the field, but if teams are watching, you can just see his speed on the tape even when he's not making plays down the field."
Of course, if opposing defensive coordinators are to pay more attention to Agohlor in the middle of the field, in theory, that should open space for Jeffery and Torrey Smith on the outside.
The addition of Jeffery and Smith has certainly played a role in Agholor and Ertz's success in between the numbers. Ertz leads the team in catches (34), receiving yards (405) and is tied with Agholor in touchdown receptions. The tight end, too, is on pace to shatter his previous career highs.
But Ertz and Matthews, while different in ways, shared similarities as inside possession receivers who could act as quarterback Carson Wentz's safety valve. Losing one made sense. And Agholor gives the Eagles an explosiveness they lacked with Matthews. With the speedy Smith on the outside, defenses are sometimes forced to pick their poison over the top.
"It keeps them honest," Agholor said. "You're looking at two verticals — one coming right at the safety and if the corner needs help and the safety's occupied with the slot receiver's vertical route, then you win outside. If the safety wants to cheat, then the slot just gashes through the middle."
Agholor has done a lot gashing after the catch. In fact, he's fourth in the NFL in yards after the catch among receivers. Matthews, surprisingly, is first (8.4), although he has only 10 catches and has played in only four games.
Matthews was solid after the catch in Philadelphia, but his numbers dipped in each of his three seasons here — from 5.78 yards to 4.87 to 3.33. Agholor averaged only 2.72 yards after the catch last season. But on three of his four touchdowns this season, he has averaged 23 yards after the catch.
"The main thing is securing the catch," Agholor said. "It's just the want-to after that. I've just been in position to catch the ball with grass in front of me."
It's been much more than that. The 24-year-old former first-round pick had a metamorphosis this offseason. Even before the Matthews trade he was a more confident receiver.
"Moving Nelson from the 'Z' receiver into the slot has been huge for him," Wentz said. "His confidence is through the roof."
Agholor still drops a pass every now and then. He has two on the season. But he hasn't drifted after mistakes and it's often because another opportunity is forthcoming.
"I'm having so much more fun this year than I had my first two years in the league," Agohlor said. "They go hand in hand — the more fun you have, because winning is fun, making plays is fun. But it's just a feeling about stepping on the field and enjoying the moment, enjoying the opportunity."
Carson Wentz was named FedEx Air Player of the Week for the second straight week for his exploits as a passer, but the Eagles quarterback has been effective on the ground as a runner as well.
In college, Wentz was a vital part of the running game at North Dakota State. He averaged almost nine carries a game in his two seasons as the starter. While he was never expected to run as much in the NFL, he logged only 46 rushes in his rookie year.
But Wentz has already carried the ball 32 times this season — tied for second among quarterbacks with the Bills' Tyrod Taylor and only behind the Panthers' Cam Newton — and is averaging 4.2 yards per run.
Eagles quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said during the offseason that he wanted to see Wentz scramble for a first down at least once a game. He has accomplished that feat six times in four games.
But what his coaches don't want to see — unless it's necessary — is Wentz lowering his throwing shoulder and trying to run over a safety as he attempted near the goal line against Carolina last week.
"We had some healthy discussions about it," Wentz said. "It's something that as a competitor I was just trying to get in there. But we've definitely had some discussions of knowing when is the right time to pick and choose those battles."
The Eagles have asked Wentz to forfeit his body on short-yardage plays this season. He has converted all four fourth-and-1s. But in the open field, his coaches would prefer to see him either slide, run out of bounds or even dive forward than lead with his right shoulder.
"That was part of their game plan in college, that he would run people over. That's not part of the game plan here," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "And I think when you look at his whole body of work, he's done a really good job with that. We had one little outlier incident that hopefully just remains an outlier."
The Eagles are willing to overlook an outlier because Wentz has otherwise been excellent in his second season. Redskins coach Jay Gruden, who faces the Eagles for the second time this season on Monday night, agrees.
"He's already proven this short in his career that he's one of the top quarterbacks in this league, frankly. And he's going to be for a long time," Gruden said Thursday during a conference call. "And I don't know how he got to Philadelphia."
Ask the Cleveland Browns.
It may not be much to ask of a defense, but the Eagles have yet to allow an offense to convert on third downs of 15 yards or more over the last two seasons.
On 14 of 20 15-plus-yard third downs, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has employed a prevent defense by rushing only four and dropping seven. The back seven are spread out across the field, typically with six just in front of the first-down marker and one safety beyond.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said that Schwartz cribbed the idea from either the Seahawks or Falcons. Both teams run essentially the same defense, but a review of game film showed that Atlanta coach Dan Quinn used the tactic more than Seattle's Pete Carroll.
"Half the league is running that defense right now," Jenkins said.
The Cardinals are not, or at least they didn't when they faced the Eagles earlier this month. The Eagles converted a third-and-19 when Arizona zero blitzed and quarterback Carson Wentz hit receiver Nelson Agholor for a 72-yard touchdown.
Schwartz hasn't always called the coverage and has used a more traditional scheme with linebackers underneath the safeties. He even blitzed two extra rushers when the Ravens faced third-and-17 last season, although Baltimore was backed up near its goal line.
Time of game, score and circumstance can factor into the use of the defense. But the Eagles, who have mostly tackled well under Schwartz, have yet to succumb on third and very long.
"At the end of the day, you can't throw the ball down the field," Jenkins said, "and if you check it down, everybody can run down and tackle."
- If you couldn't play the position you now play in the NFL, which position would you want to play?
I would want to be a quarterback, but realistically I think I could play O-line.
- What's your least favorite part of the week of practice leading up to a game?
I hate when we play on Monday or Sunday night waiting around in the hotel room. It [stinks]. You want to wake up and just hit it.
- What's the hardest you've ever been hit?
There were a series of plays when we played the Lions on Thanksgiving [in 2015]. There was a screen pass and I was trying to hawk down the running back and the center or someone peeled back around and got me good and knocked my helmet off, my skull cap, went everywhere. The screen went all the way down to the goal line and I'm just trying to get it together. I realize that they're going hurry-up and I'm on the goal-line team. And I get crushed again.
- What's your favorite play you ever made in football?
I had my first solo [NFL] sack [against the Chargers], which was sweet.
- When did you first think that you were good enough to play in the NFL?
During OTAs of my rookie year. You always think you're good enough, but you never know until you strap it up. As a senior in college or a rookie you build these guys up to be physical freaks and then you go up against [knuckleheads] like Jason Kelce, you know you can do it.
Brandon Brooks is a large man. When the 6-foot-5, 335-pound guard pulls to trap a defender, say, a 6-foot-3, 238-pound linebacker who may not see Brooks coming, it could feel like getting hit by a Mack truck.
And that's essentially what happened when Brooks blocked Luke Kuechly in the second quarter of the Eagles' 28-23 win over the Panthers on Oct. 12. The linebacker suffered a concussion — his third in the NFL — and never returned.
"I realized it. It's unfortunate," Brooks said. "You never want anyone to get hurt, especially with a concussion. But at the same time, it's football."
The loss of Kuechly appeared to have negatively affected the Panthers, who surrendered 25 points without the four-time Pro Bowler on the field.
— Eagles running backs struggled to pick up and block the Panthers' blitzes, particularly in the first half. LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement, and Kenjon Barner were asked to protect Carson Wentz seven times, and on three occasions the quarterback was adversely affected.
Blount was late to block linebacker Shaq Thompson and Wentz threw incomplete as he was hit. Barner missed an assignment and linebacker Thomas Davis recorded a sack. And Barner couldn't contain Davis, who hit Wentz and forced another errant pass.
"There was probably one or two things that were technique-related where their defensive player made a good play and beat our offensive player," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "We probably had one or two mental errors, which in the course of a game is not uncommon."
The Eagles adjusted in the second half, although the running backs were asked to protect only three times. Barner stood up Davis when Wentz hit receiver Alshon Jeffery for a 37-yard pass.
Wendell Smallwood, who has played significantly on passing downs since Darren Sproles was lost for the season, is expected to return from a knee injury on Monday night.
Combo blocking is hardly the most exciting part of a running play, but it is an essential piece in executing zone blocking. For the Eagles, center Jason Kelce and guards Brandon Brooks and Stefen Wisniewski shoulder the bulk of double teams.
Brooks said that offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland incessantly practices combo blocking and uses a Bruce Lee saying to explain why:
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
— After Nelson Agholor's 24-yard touchdown against the Panthers, he handed the football to Kelce in the end zone. Several Eagles circled Kelce and when he spiked the ball they fell to the ground.
Turns out that wasn't how the celebration was supposed to go.
"I think I was supposed to roll it like a bowling ball and they would fall like pins," Kelce said.
Percentage of third downs of 11-plus yards the Eagles have converted this season, which is second to only the Redskins (41.7). The league average is 17.6.
Percentage of tackles per run snap for Brandon Graham, which is tops in the NFL among 59 qualifying 4-3 defensive ends. Vinny Curry is third at 17.4 percent.