Wheel route abundant in Eagles' offense

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Wheel route abundant in Eagles' offense

Chip Kelly’s newest weapon is showing off in training camp, embarrassing a defense powerless to find an answer. And his name isn’t Jordan Matthews, Ifeanyi Momah or Cary Spear.

It’s not even a he, actually. It’s an it.

One of the most prominently featured patterns throughout the first three Eagles practices is the wheel route, a simple but prolific route designed to get running backs involved in the passing game.

Time and time again last week, quarterbacks dropped back, surveyed the landscape and found that their best target was the guy who’s usually carrying the ball.

“You’re seeing it a lot, right?” LeSean McCoy said. “The thing is, how do you stop speedy, athletic, shifty backs that can run and also run routes?”

That’s the question Kelly hopes defensive coordinators can’t answer this season as he attempts to defend his first-year NFC East championship and advance past the first round of the postseason with an offense that no longer flaunts premier big-play wideout DeSean Jackson.

In McCoy and Darren Sproles, Kelly has two of the league’s best dual-threat weapons. Both are in the top five for catches by a running back since 2009, so it makes sense that he’d open the playbook to incorporate them more into the passing game.

The wheel route can create dangerous mismatches, especially against man defense, by pitting a sure-handed halfback in space against an outside linebacker or safety.

In the Eagles’ wheel route, the halfback usually lines up next to the quarterback in shotgun, giving a pass-protection look. After the snap, the running back heads for the sideline, giving the impression of a screen or quick flare, but suddenly rotates upfield -- hence the term “wheel route” -- to catch the defense off guard.

“You want it versus man (defense),” Sproles said. “When you get a linebacker on you, you got a good chance.”

After Jackson’s release, people naturally wondered how the Eagles would replace the wideout’s vertical threat, how they’d counteract defenses that would be more aggressive on blitzes without having to worry about getting beaten deep.

Jackson’s career 17.2 yards-per-reception average is third-highest among active wideouts. Since 2008, he and Mike Wallace have the league’s most receiving touchdowns of 30 or more yards.

Instead of trying to find Jackson’s clone, Kelly diversified his offense. He traded for Sproles, one of the best route-running tailbacks in league history, and dealt power rusher Bryce Brown to clear the way for Chris Polk’s integration into the offense.

McCoy last year totaled 539 receiving yards, seventh-most among running backs. He averaged 10.37 yards per catch, the highest of any running back with at least 27 receptions. Since 2007, Sproles leads all NFL running backs with 375 receptions, 3,371 receiving yards and 27 receiving touchdowns. Polk played wide receiver in high school and last year caught a 34-yard pass against Dallas on a wheel route.

What Kelly lacks in blazing outside speed, he compensates with more dimensions to his spread, no-huddle offense. He can insert Sproles for McCoy to get an even better pass catcher at running back. Or he can put McCoy and Sproles in the backfield together, forcing defenses to pick their poison. Or he can put Sproles in the slot and run the wheel route from an inside receiver position.

We haven’t even mentioned Polk yet.

And those are just obvious personnel groupings. With Kelly, opponents have come to expect the unexpected.

“We have a lot of guys that can do more than run the ball,” Polk said. “Especially if a [linebacker] is on us. We feel we should win that matchup anytime. We’ve gotta get open.”

Eagles linebackers have already felt the sting of Kelly’s new toy. On Sunday, the second day of camp, outside linebacker Bryan Braman drew Sproles in coverage during a scrimmage. Sproles headed toward the right flat, then suddenly burst upfield while Braman’s momentum took him toward the sideline.

A rhino had a better chance of tracking down a cheetah. Forty yards later, a perfectly thrown ball by Foles settled in Sproles’ hands while Braman ate dust. Later, a wheel route by Polk turned into a big gain when linebacker Casey Matthews tumbled into a defensive back while trying to rotate over.

“I love those routes,” Polk said. “If it were my call, I’d love to run all of them. I just love catching and running, especially when it’s man-to-man. My eyes open up, you start salivating. It’s a great feeling.”

2017 NFL draft prospect watch: Offensive help for Eagles

2017 NFL draft prospect watch: Offensive help for Eagles

It almost seems futile to do a prospect watch piece after the Eagles moved to 3-0 by demolishing a Super Bowl contender.

I know you've all bought your tickets to Houston already, but even after the Eagles win the Super Bowl this year, they'll still need to draft a player or two come April.

Here's a look at six offensive prospects that could help the Eagles defend their title:

Dalvin Cook, Florida State, junior, RB, (5-11/213)
Cook finally had a breakout game this weekend with 267 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns in Florida State's 55-35 win over South Florida. Defenses have really been keying in on Cook with a redshirt freshman quarterback under center for the Seminoles. Besides LSU's Leonard Fournette, Cook may be the best running back prospect in the draft.

Jalen Hurd, Tennessee, junior, RB, (6-4/240)
Hurd had a solid weekend, running for 95 yards on 26 carries in Tennessee's first win over Florida in 12 years. Hurd is by far the tallest running back I've ever profiled. He's built like a wide receiver. Considering his size, he does a good job of not running high and he's quicker than his size would lead you to believe. He's able to turn the corner and he's tough to tackle low. He's a physical runner but it doesn't translate well into his pass protection.

Roderick Johnson, Florida State, junior, OT, (6-7/311)
Johnson was a disaster in the first half of Florida State's opener against Ole Miss, but he's recovered nicely. He's excellent in the run game, helping pave the way for Cook's huge game against USF. His struggles in pass protection are from technical issues. He needs to get his hands on opponents quicker. When he does that, he can swallow defensive lineman with his massive frame and long arms.

Mike McGlinchey, Notre Dame, senior, OT, (6-7/310)
The Philly native and Penn Charter grad is one of the top three tackles in the draft. A former basketball player, McGlinchey — who people say is closer to 6-foot-9 — moves like a tight end. He dominated in Notre Dame's loss to Duke. Against Michigan State, he got fooled on a couple stunts, but looked strong overall. How cool of a story would it be for a Philly kid to get drafted by the Eagles in Philadelphia? That scenario is far from impossible. Fun fact: McGlinchey is the cousin of Atlanta Falcons quarterback and fellow Penn Charter grad Matt Ryan.

James Washington, Oklahoma State, junior, WR, (6-1/201)
Washington had six catches for 89 yards in a loss to Baylor, but he popped up on my radar after a nine-catch, 296-yard (no, that's not a typo) performance against Pitt a couple weeks back. The opposite of Hurd, Washington is a receiver built like a running back, generously listed at 6-foot-1. He's explosive and quick out of his breaks. He also does well on 50-50 balls, outmuscling smaller defensive backs. I'd like to see a little more consistency from him, though. His 40 time will be an interesting measuring stick when the combine comes around.

James Quick, Louisville, senior, WR, (6-1/180)
Against Marshall last weekend, Quick caught his second pass of over 70 yards this season and finished with four catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. When your quarterback is the best and most exciting player in college football, it's easy to get overshadowed. But Quick has been the favorite target of Heisman hopeful Lamar Jackson, leading Louisville in catches (16), yards (360) and receiving touchdowns (three). He's quick in and out of his breaks and is a decent route runner with decent hands. Quick is another player we'll learn more about through the combine process when he's not catching balls from Jackson.

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Pinpoint touch passes show Carson Wentz has a killer changeup, too

Pinpoint touch passes show Carson Wentz has a killer changeup, too

Now the kid has a changeup, too.

A couple of the most impressive passes Carson Wentz threw Sunday weren’t fired to the receiver. They didn’t show off Wentz’s rocket-launcher right arm.

They were touch passes. Lobs. Looping things of beauty that floated high into the air above the coverage and settled softly into the hands of a receiver on the run.

Wentz, the Eagles’ 23-year-old wunderkind of a quarterback, displayed remarkable touch on a couple of his biggest passes in the Eagles’ 34-3 win over the Steelers at the Linc on Sunday.

It’s just the latest evolution in the development of the remarkable young Eagles quarterback.

He doesn’t just fire it. He floats it, too.

“It is a challenging thing,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Because in practice, if you’re not working on those types of throws, it just doesn't happen.

“It’s sort of a math problem in your head as a quarterback because you have a receiver that's running away from you at full speed and you are trying to put a touch pass on a 20-, 25-yard throw and so you have to judge it just right.

“That's a lot harder to do than just zipping it right at your target.”

On the 73-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles, Wentz stood in the pocket, looked to his left and started scrambling to the right when he spotted Sproles racing down the right sideline with a step on Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier.

In full stride, running to his right, Wentz threw across his body and lobbed the ball from the Eagles’ 25-yard line to a point near the 50-yard line. Sproles caught the ball without breaking stride and did the rest, eventually scoring a TD that turned a 10-point lead into a 17-point lead early in the third quarter.

In the third quarter, Wentz connected similarly with tight end Brent Celek on a 24-yard gain, this time lobbing the ball above linebacker Vince Williams and in front of safety Sean Davis for a first down inside the Pittsburgh 30-yard line to set up another touchdown.

After three games, Wentz is 3-0 with five touchdown passes, no interceptions, 65 percent completions and a 103.7 passer rating. He's the first quarterback in NFL history to open his career with three wins without an interception.

A lot of young quarterbacks want to fire every ball as hard as possible. But Wentz’s ability to change up and lob the football to his receivers makes him even more dangerous. Kind of like a young fastball pitcher who suddenly shows up in spring training with a killer changeup.

“It can be hard because you are so geared on throwing everything fast and hard,” Pederson said. “That throw to Celek was a thing of beauty. The week before, the Monday night (game), to Jordan Matthews, the little touch pass was great. The little floater to Darren for the long touchdown run was another one that was a touch pass with accuracy.

“Those are hard throws to make. Having been in that position before, those are hard. The guy is running away from you and you are trying to put air on a throw but still judge the distance and the speed of the receiver. Those are tough things to do. He really has a good feel for that and it just makes him an all-around solid quarterback.

“That’s just who he is and (shows) his ability to make really all the throws.”

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