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Enter the Eagles: Thomas Rawls aims to solve for D in Philly’s DVOA equation

Meanwhile, Carson Wentz has technically been worse than Jared Goff by QBR

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Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

“Real life doesn't fit into little boxes that were drawn for it.”

Is Doug Pederson a good coach?

Last week Pederson “successfully” challenged a play that moved the ball from 2nd and 19 to 2nd and 15, and since they were already at the 21-yard line didn’t meaningfully change the field goal range quotient. This is considered a success because the call was overturned, but it’s a total waste of a challenge since it still cost a challenge attempt early in the third quarter in a one-point game and improved the Eagles’ win expectancy by 0.4 percent. Challenges are better saved for much more high-leverage opportunities like big swings of yards, changing third downs outcomes or potential turnovers, until it gets late enough in the game that you don’t anticipate many more challenge situations.

Then again Pete Carroll does this same thing all the time. You get more jacked about being potentially right than you consider how much you’re really swinging the game with your scarce challenge chances. And more often than not Carroll is wrong anyway (although that’s still better than most).

But Pederson has something better than spare challenges: the best defense by Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Philly’s D has kept it in charge of the overall DVOA ranking for four straight weeks and five of the last seven despite losing four out of six actual games during that span. The Eagles remain undefeated at home after their win over the Atlanta Falcons last week but are 1-4 on the road before visiting Seattle this week. So I guess I’m saying I still don’t know if Pederson is a good coach.

That defense allows 15 points more on average when traveling than at home. Unfortunately for the Seattle Seahawks, Brandon Graham, Philadelphia’s leader in sacks, tackles for loss, quarterback hurries and forced fumbles, will be lining up against Garry Gilliam Sunday which is a mismatch no matter the venue.

So far in 2016 Graham has become like an invisible straight line stretching from the muzzle of a rifle to its target. (To a hawk, for instance.) That’s … it’s exactly the kind of defender that has caused trouble for Seattle this year, especially since he’s often working in tandem with a player like Connor Barwin coming off the opposite edge.

Russell Wilson’s knee brace comes off this week, which should make him less susceptible to the outside rush than he was against the twin turbos of Markus Golden and Chandler Jones in Arizona last month, but with Benny Logan and Fletcher Cox lining up inside of Graham and Barwin, Philadelphia has the strength to collapse the pocket suddenly from all directions. Even all directions at once.

Jim Schwartz’s defense seems to have flipped its fortunes from 2015 under Billy Davis (when they were 17th in DVOA and 19th in yards per play) without changing much personnel, apparently just by reforming itself in the 4-3. It’s almost like the opposite of what happened in Buffalo last year. Hmmm. There’s also the added benefit of more balanced time of possession afforded by not filling the gaps between Chip Kelly’s blurry offensive drives (Philly was between 29th and 32nd in traditional total defense each year under Kelly, belying its less-dismal effectiveness on per play basis.) Graham and Cox and company excel at creating pressure with only four rushers, and with fresher legs the Eagles’ pass coverage has colluded with that front four to limit quarterbacks’ options downfield.

The good news is that Wilson suddenly has a Thanksgiving banquet-worth of selections to dine on to beat the rush and coverage, with C.J. Prosise adding to Jimmy Graham, Doug Baldwin, a healthy Tyler Lockett—and with those four now generating openings for Paul Richardson too. But if we want to see the Seahawks offense at last operating as projected this year, you know it all depends on one portentous thing:

How well Thomas Rawls is feeling himself.

Is this week we find out if Rawls is more like Mr. Glass, just doomed to keep hurting himself, or Mr. Unbreakable (or whatever Bruce Willis called himself in that Philadelphia-based movie)?

So long as Rawls can keep his bones from shattering, establishing success on the ground is the clear avenue to attack the Eagles. Their rushing DVOA is a respectable 11th (-15.8 percent) but as a percentage relative to league average it’s far worse than the passing component (-34.2 percent)—only four teams have positive (aka bad) defensive rushing DVOA compared to 21 that give up positive figures through the air.

Giving up 4.4 yards per carry, 23rd in the NFL, the Philadelphia run defense seems to owe its good success rate most significantly to how its pass defense keeps offenses in long yards-to-gain scenarios. There’s no guarantee Rawls will automatically alleviate Seattle’s own difficulties getting on schedule, or that Rawls will even get more than a few series of carries. But if Rawls can produce even glimpses of the player who led the league in DYAR last year, the Seahawks’ miraculously-already-11th-in-DVOA-offense can quickly vault up the Football Outsiders’ rankings with a big day against the formula’s top defense.

Speaking of players who were deemed transcendent by their fan bases as rookies, the Carson Wentz MVP train seems to have wrecked somewhere outside the Philadelphia city limits. When you isolate Wentz’s contributions to the offense, according to QBR, the second overall pick has actually cost the Eagles 2.5 points on the year compared to an average quarterback, which is—well, it’s technically worse than Jared Goff even.

Wentz is 24th in passing DVOA and DYAR and, even though his “athleticism” was supposed to expand Philly’s playbook and “allow for more zone read” and Mike Mayock before the draft compared the 6-foot-5 rookie to Cam Newton, Wentz is 31st in rushing DVOA (-52.1 percent) and beyond dead last among qualifiers in rushing DYAR for quarterbacks, with a cumulative negative rating (-37) more than twice as many points behind the next closest, Tom Brady. On the season, Wentz has the same number of rushing yards as Brady, despite playing four more games—and despite Brady being Tom Brady.

And it’s not as if Wentz has used his athleticism for evasion without gaining yards, as teams that can pressure have moved him off his spot and lowered his vision, forcing interceptions and sacks. Wentz has a relatively low 1.7 percent interception rate after not throwing any in the 3-0 start, giving him a legend for making good decisions, but of his five interceptions four are in three games (against one touchdown) versus the Vikings, Redskins and Giants, the only above-average DVOA pass defenses Philadelphia has played, and Washington sacked him five times. That’s a game the Eagles were only within a touchdown at the end because of interception and kick returns for touchdowns. “Wentz has been among the worst in the league with the heat on,” wrote Pro Football Focus this week.

In that sense it’s too bad Michael Bennett doesn’t get to suit up this week. Not just because “quarterbacks should be scared” when he returns or the Seahawks pass rush can’t do damage to the Eagles without him, but it would have been cool to see Black Santa prove himself against the city from whose hometown rapper he stole the nickname—and the beard.