One of the key storylines this week is how the Vikings will attempt to take down one of the brightest young quarterbacks the league has seen in recent years. Certainly, having the league’s best defense will have solutions for how to beat Wentz, but what exactly will they do?
The primary method for beating quarterbacks regardless of skill level generally deals with a number of clear priorities—confusing coverages, creating pressures and anticipating throws among them.
Alongside that, a number of tertiary questions come into play: is this quarterback better at dealing with interior pressure or edge pressure? Does the quarterback perform better against man coverage or zone coverage? Will pushing receivers to the sideline effectively corral outside throws?
For each quarterback, designing a gameplan revolves around the order of importance for those priorities and the answers to those questions. For example, a gameplan against Aaron Rodgers between 2008 and 2011 would emphasize pressure over the other priorities because of his tendency to hold on to the ball. But afterwards, it was much more important to confuse his reads than create pressure because he evened out the differences between his performance under pressure and performance in a clean pocket.
While it’s true that young quarterbacks generally will wilt under pressure, throw errant passes against confusing coverage and will telegraph their intentions, a cookie-cutter approach to each rookie quarterback is a poor solution.
Against Jameis Winston, for example, it makes more sense to confuse his reads than find extra ways to generate pressure. At the same time, abandoning the blitz is a little easier against him because it’s not important to ask the front four to maintain run discipline because he’s not a significant running threat.
The story is a bit different for Carson Wentz; he’s not the exact opposite or direct analogue to any of those quarterbacks, but his mix of strengths and weaknesses do lend itself to a relatively clear defensive plan.
Wentz is staying true to his college scouting reports; though the folks who have seemingly missed on him (like this idiot) may have weighted the weaknesses and strengths differently.
He has good arm strength and clear comfort with his offense and progressions. His athleticism gives him an extra weapon as a runner and gives him escapability in the pocket.
Wentz’s pre-snap read is often correct. He has, so far in the NFL, demonstrated accuracy and above-average arm strength—particularly and quick and deep out routes.
Those traits, as well as his ability to identify blitzes and call protections, allowed him to excel in his first three games as a rookie.
Wentz has his own share of weaknesses, of course, and they are largely the same weaknesses he had as a prospect. Though he doesn’t tend to miss his receivers, he still doesn’t demonstrate consistent ball placement—accurate without being precise.
Not only that, his pre-snap read is often incomplete. Though he knows what to do when he correctly identifies the defense, he’s still prone to getting tricked by complex coverages, like we saw against Detroit and Washington. In fact, though Wentz only threw one interception, he threw three interceptable passes that were dropped by the defense.
The relatively deceptive Steelers defense wasn’t a problem statistically, but Wentz had 75 percent of his passing yardage come through yards-after-the-catch after an extremely screen-heavy game and a Pittsburgh defense seemingly unwilling to tackle.
That screen-heavy response to the somewhat more confusing Steelers defense isn’t what the Eagles have typically done when confronted with more complex defenses. After that, for example, Wentz struggled against the Detroit and Washington defenses.
This, coupled with his tepid response to pressure, holds the key for the Vikings. Wentz has only been pressured on 27.4 percent of his dropbacks so far this year, which would have been the lowest rate in the NFL last year.
But on those throws, his yards per attempt gets cut in half. Though he had one game (the Pittsburgh game) where his YPA under pressure was significantly higher than without pressure, one throw (a 76-yard Darren Sproles touchdown on a broken coverage) defined all of his success.
Even with that outlier, Wentz’s YPA drops to 5.2 under pressure from 8.4 without pressure (3.4 yards per attempt without that outlier).
Not only that, Wentz has a lower completion rate under pressure, and has a propensity to allow pressures to turn into sacks. His sack conversion rate is 25 percent, among the highest in the league and higher than all but one team in the NFL last year (Marcus Mariota’s Titans). Should the Vikings get 12 pressures on Wentz, they could expect three sacks at that rate.
With right tackle Lane Johnson suspended, the Eagles have had to rely upon Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who has been extremely poor. Not only that, center Jason Kelce hasn’t played this year like he has in previous years and is a liability up the middle.
The Vikings should consistently show the six-to-eight man threats along the line of scrimmage for pressure in order to confuse reads for Wentz, but they should be comfortable throughout the game only actually rushing four players.
Because Wentz does a good job throwing into the coverage holes left by blitzers, they should rotate their coverages aggressively. Wentz is confident with what he reads pre-snap and that can get him into trouble if he doesn’t adapt quickly enough.
Dropping defensive linemen like Everson Griffen and Brian Robison into coverage is a good idea too because those defenders will often end up in coverage in the very spots that Wentz may throw into in response to a pass-rushing linebacker or defensive back.
Generally speaking, the Eagles run 2×2 sets or 3×1 sets with one back or spread sets with the running back lined up wide like a receiver. While this generally lends itself well to flooding zones and forcing defenders to pick their poison, the Eagles haven’t done that too much, instead relying on classic route combinations without too many options baked in.
Combined with what are very often simplified reads for Wentz—they roll him out away from the pocket often because he’s very talented throwing on the run—the Eagles receivers will often run predictable routes.
That fits right into the Vikings’ wheelhouse of using pattern-match coverage, where defenders will pick up receivers entering their zone like most zone coverages, but play them like man coverage defenders. It creates difficult attacking seams—something Philadelphia does a lot with Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz.
Wentz is a shallow passer who mixes up his short passes with deep bombs along the sideline on go routes or deep outs, and doesn’t attack intermediate or between the hashes as often as most quarterbacks in the NFL. As a result, the Vikings should be aggressive about closing down on underneath routes and push receivers to the sideline.
Because Wentz has already demonstrated the capability of throwing back shoulder throws in order to combat the inside leverage of cornerbacks on outside receivers, Vikings cornerbacks will need to respond to the cues of the individual receivers more than they will Wentz himself—another reason to play pattern-matching or man coverage.
Switching in and out of Cover-2, Cover-1 and Cover-4 looks should consistently rotate their coverages to confuse Wentz and force him to consistently misdiagnose.
Even if he figures out the coverage and avoids mistakes post-snap, he’ll still take a bit to move on from his first read and that will allow the pressure to arrive.
There’s another reason that the Vikings should implement pattern-matching coverage instead of pure man-coverage or pure zone-coverage: the ability to stay on top of receivers instead of trailing them after the catch. A lot of Wentz’s successes, especially on early downs, come with YAC opportunities. By keeping defenders on top of receivers, they’ll limit yardage gains.
While pattern-matching has enormous risks, the Eagles haven’t implemented offensive concepts that generally attack that defensive set-up very well. With few crossers and bunched sets, as well as simplified half-field reads, the Eagles have sacrificed offensive flexibility in favor of an offense that should be relatively easy for a rookie to pick up and implement.
Even when they do run drag routes across the middle, Wentz has been late to attack them or declined them in favor of shots to the sideline.
The Lions did a good job early in the game forcing Wentz to throw short but it didn’t amount to much as he consistently hit his targets (85.7 percent completion rate in the first half) and those targets kept breaking tackles to generate significant yards-after-catch.
Because Wentz tends to hold on to the ball for quite some time, their defensive ends don’t need to abandon their run gaps and should prioritize maintaining rushing lanes until it’s clear that they have a clean shot at Wentz.
His ability to break the pocket and generate yards is a significant enough problem that they should feel more comfortable letting interior rushers like Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson do most of the work, though Vaitai’s struggles are worth exploiting from time to time.
So, the Vikings should show blitzes but trust a front-four to generate pressure and create sacks. Those players lined up on the line of scrimmage will help them disguise their coverages, a trap that Wentz has fallen for several times in the past.
Those disguised coverages, especially when paired with linemen dropping into passing lanes and pattern-matching concepts on the outside should allow the Vikings to limit YAC yardage, frustrate the Eagles’ most common responses to defenders in the pocket and take advantage of a predictable offense.
Carson Wentz has been potent but still has significant weaknesses the Vikings can exploit.