The secret to the Eagles’ success is not (just) Carson Wentz

It’s the defense. They’ve been lights out.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Philadelphia Eagles
James Lang-USA TODAY Sports
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With the Eagles at 10-1 and Carson Wentz leading the NFL with 28 touchdowns and just five interceptions, it’s easy to look around the league and put the second-year quarterback on a very short list of MVP candidates. The Eagles aren’t just winning games this year, they’re blowing teams out, and a lot of that has to do with how Wentz is leading the offense.

But as good as the offense has been this season around Wentz — they’re third in the NFL in total offense behind only New England and New Orleans — it’s the defense that’s been dominant of late, holding the last two opponents without a touchdown, giving up just over 17 points per game this season.

The last time the Eagles defense allowed a touchdown was Nov. 5, in the early fourth quarter of the 51-23 win over Denver when the Birds were up 44-9 and had taken their foot off the pedal.

The last time the Eagles gave up a touchdown in the first half of a game was on Oct. 23 in the win over Washington. The last time they gave up a touchdown in the first quarter was Dec. 18, 2016.

That was Week 15 of last season.

Through 11 games this year, the Eagles defense has allowed just 18 points in the first quarter, shutting out six opponents and allowing more than three points just once. The Eagles, themselves, have scored 77 first quarter points this season, tallying double-digit points in the first quarter three times so far this year. They’ve held a halftime lead in eight of the 11 games this season, tied in one other, which helps to account for some of the defense’s success.

This is pretty simple: The Eagles have managed to make teams extremely one dimensional on offense by forcing them to pass to get back into games, which has allowed Jim Schwartz’s defense to take aim at the opposing backfield. Focus on stopping the run and attacking the quarterback and make opponents beat you in the passing game.

The result is striking. Through 11 games, the Eagles are sixth in the NFL in sacks and opposing offenses have rushed for just 716 yards, or 65.1 yards per game, the best rate in the NFL.

The Eagles defense has the third-best yards-per-carry average in the league, giving up just 3.5 per attempt, but it’s actually the sheer lack of carries against them that’s the most impressive. Teams are running the ball just 18.8 times per game (207 attempts), the only team with fewer than 21 attempts against in the NFL.

The 716 yards the Eagles have allowed on the ground this year are the fewest in the league by 114 yards. By comparison, the Giants have allowed 1,449 yards, the second-most in the league, while Dallas and Washington have both given up more than 1,230 yards on the ground.

Again, the Eagles faring so well against the run has a lot to do with scheme and a stoudt defensive line, but score dictates how seldom teams have run against them as well. The Bears ran the ball just 14 times Sunday, and just six times in the second half when they were down multiple scores. Dallas ran the ball 27 times against the Eagles the week before, but just eight times in the second half.

Conversely, this also contributes to why the pass defense is middle-of-the-pack in the NFL. The Eagles give up 226.5 passing yards per game, 16th best in the league, but they face an average of 38.9 attempts per game, the most in the league by more than one full attempt.

In total, the Eagles are one of just six teams to surrender fewer than 300 yards per game. (Other than Denver, the other five are currently leading their divisions) while only Jacksonville and Baltimore have given up fewer points than the Eagles. They’ve allowed 20 touchdowns this season, though just 18 on defense and just four on the ground.

While the Eagles defense has been great against the run, perhaps the one stat they should be most proud of is their ability to get off the field. The defense has been on the field for 666 plays through 11 games, the fourth fewest in the NFL. The offense has run 732 plays, which is tied for the third most in the league.

Only three teams have allowed fewer first downs than the Eagles and no team has allowed fewer first downs on the ground through 11 games. And while Wentz and the offense is fantastic at third-and-fourth down efficiency — they’re third in the league on third down, converting 45.5 percent, while converting 73.3 percent of their fourth-down attempts — the defense is holding opponents to just 28.6 percent on third down and 28.6 percent on fourth down, near tops in the league.

The Eagles offense is certainly making opposing defenses look foolish, but it’s the defense that’s been giving them short fields after big stops and key turnovers. And so, yes, Wentz might win NFL MVP, but the Eagles defense has been just as valuable to their success this season.

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Sports, Eagles