A look at the hidden culprit holding back the Eagles' offense originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
Why can’t the Eagles get into a rhythm on offense?
It’s a question we’ve all been asking since the second half of the opener against Washington, when the Eagles were shut out after scoring 17 early points.
Halfway through the season, the Eagles’ offense ranks 27th in yards per game, 28th in yards per play and 24th in scoring.
It's been a half season of stops and starts for this Eagles offense, with occasional big plays but lots of frustration.
The Eagles are on pace for their worst points-per-game ranking since 2012 (Andy Reid’s last season) and their lowest yards-per-game ranking since 1999 (Reid’s first season).
We’ve talked about their makeshift offensive line, their injuries, Carson Wentz’s struggles, turnovers.
And they’re all factors.
But there’s one thing that ties it all together. One breakdown that has affected everything else.
That’s first down.
The Eagles are one of the worst teams in the NFL on first down, and according to numbers I extrapolated from Pro Football Reference’s Stathead play finder, it turns out they’re actually one of the NFL’s worst first-down teams in the last quarter century.
Which really limits what Doug Pederson can do as a play-caller because their ineptitude on first down reduces the playbook and makes them way too predictable on second and third down.
It also helps explain why the Eagles have run the ball the fourth-fewest times in the league on second down.
Let’s take a look:
• The Eagles are averaging only 4.6 yards per play on first down, which is the fifth-worst figure in the NFL in the last 25 years and the Eagles’ worst as far back as those figures are available. Even in 1998, when the Eagles averaged 10 points per game, they averaged more yards per play on first down (4.9).
• From 2016 through 2019, Pederson’s first four years as head coach, the Eagles averaged 6.1 yards on first down. So they’re averaging a full yard and a half per first-down play less this year.
• On first-down rushing plays, the Eagles are averaging an NFL-worst 3.3 yards per carry. That’s their lowest first-down rushing figure as far back as Stathead’s play finder goes, which is 1994.
• The Eagles have run the ball 105 times this year on first down and gained two yards or less on nearly half those snaps (49 times). They have only three first-down running plays of at least 15 yards — one by Jalen Hurts, one by Miles Sanders, one by Boston Scott.
• Wentz is completing 66 percent of his passes on first down, but he’s also thrown six of his 12 interceptions and has been sacked 13 times on first down. Both figures are NFL highs. He's fumbled twice on first down, and only Ezekiel Elliott has more.
• Because of their issues on first down, the Eagles’ average second down is a 2nd-and-8.2. (This takes into account penalties, which aren’t reflected in the first-down play numbers.)
• This all leads to the Eagles facing an average third down of 3rd-and-7.4, which is fourth longest in the league. That’s why a team that was sixth in the NFL on third down from 2017 through 2019 is 15th so far this year.
Press Taylor was talking Tuesday about how the first play of every possession is crucial to getting the offense into a rhythm.
“A lot of that starts on what we call P-and-10, the first play of the possession, having positive yards, being able to move forward and converting that first first down,” he said. “Get in that rhythm, put the defense on their heels and [be] able to attack a little bit more with that mindset.”
Stats for the first play of drives aren’t available, but considering the Eagles’ average drive this year has gone just 25.1 yards — fourth worst in the NFL — and they lead the NFL with 37 three-and-outs … those numbers are clearly awful as well.
We spend so much time talking about third-down conversions, and that's important. But for this Eagles team and this sputtering, struggling offense, first down has been the true culprit.