“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.
Sources — Steelers RB James Conner (shoulder) expected back vs. Bills
Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner, who has been sidelined by an injury to the AC joint in his right shoulder, is expected to play Sunday night against the visiting Buffalo Bills, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Saturday.
Listed as questionable on the team’s injury report, Conner hasn’t played since a brief appearance against the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 14.
Conner injured the AC joint during the final two minutes of a win against the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 28. He was wrapping up his best game of the season: 145 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries.
Conner missed the next two games against the Indianapolis Colts and Los Angeles Rams before trying to play against the Browns, but Conner realized after a quarter that his body wasn’t ready. He left the game after just five carries for 10 yards.
“I just wasn’t ready to come back,” he said at the time. “I just tried to fight through it, but I wasn’t able to.”
Conner has missed the past three games, wins against the Cincinnati Bengals, Browns and Arizona Cardinals, with rookie Benny Snell Jr. taking over in Conner’s absence. Snell rushed for 98 yards against the Bengals, 63 yards against the Browns and just 41 yards last Sunday against the Cardinals.
Information from ESPN’s Brooke Pryor was used in this report.
Dolphins WRs DeVante Parker, Albert Wilson clear concussion protocol
Parker suffered a concussion in the second quarter of Sunday’s 22-21 loss to the New York Jets. He did not return after hitting his head on the ground following a difficult catch along the sideline.
Albert Wilson was cleared from the concussion protocol as well, meaning the Dolphins will have their two starting receivers back Sunday.
Parker’s return comes after he agreed to a four-year contract extension on Friday evening that is set to keep him in a Dolphins uniform through 2023. The extension is worth up to $40 million with an $8 million signing bonus and more than $20 million guaranteed, according to a source.
Parker and Wilson practiced throughout the week, donning red noncontact jerseys as limited participants Wednesday and Thursday before being upgraded to working the full session with those restrictions Friday.
The Dolphins’ offense has centered around Parker since Preston Williams went on injured reserve in early November.
Parker has a career-high 882 receiving yards and six touchdowns this season, and maybe most importantly he hasn’t missed a game yet for the first time in his NFL career.
Wilson has 26 catches for 154 yards and one touchdown in a season that has been slowed by multiple injuries.
Sources — Terrell Suggs angling to be claimed by Ravens only
Terrell Suggs, released by the Cardinals on Friday and eligible to be claimed on waivers Monday at 4 p.m. ET, will strongly consider not reporting if a team other than the Baltimore Ravens claims him, league sources say.
Any team that claims Suggs will owe him just over $350,000 for the final two weeks of the regular season. But Suggs doesn’t care about that money; he cares about returning to Baltimore, which is his overwhelming preference.
With a 12-2 record, the Ravens have the NFL’s lowest waiver claim, meaning every team will have the chance to claim Suggs before Baltimore. Knowing this, Suggs has told some people that he is unlikely to report anywhere other than Baltimore, wanting to finish his NFL career in the same city in which he started it.
The question is whether any contending teams that could use pass-rushing help — and many do — disregard the wishes of Suggs, who started 13 games for the Cardinals this season. The answer will come sometime Monday afternoon.
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