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Why third down matters even more Thursday night

Posted Oct 11, 2017

Carson Wentz and Zach Ertz are coming to town with the league's best third-down offense.

CHARLOTTE – Of all the things second-year quarterback Carson Wentz is doing well in 2017, nothing may be more impressive than how he's playing when the Eagles need him to make a play.

Through five weeks, he leads the league in pretty much every passing category on third down including a 71.2 completion percentage with six touchdowns, one interception and a ridiculous 11.04 yards per attempt with a 137.8 passer rating.

"It is an area that we've executed and focused on throughout the spring and summer in training camp," Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said. "It's an area we focused on and emphasized with him and wanted to get incrementally better."

Instead, the Eagles have improved by leaps and bounds. After finishing last season with the 20th-ranked offense on third down (38.0 percent), they currently lead the NFL with a 53.4 percent conversion rate.

"They've been in a lot of third-and-short to mediums," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "A lot of that has to do with their ability to run the football and put themselves in good position."

Sure, the Eagles have the league's fifth-ranked ground game, but their passing game is what's mostly allowed them to keep drives alive. And because Wentz has a trio targets that rank inside the top 10 of third-down receiving leaders – tight end Zach Ertz (tied for fourth), wideouts Nelson Agholor (seventh) and Alshon Jeffrey (tied for 10th) – defenses have to pick their poison.

"(Wentz) is moving around in the pocket, so you definitely have to plaster to your receivers. He's making every throw, and he's throwing his receivers open," Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. "He's a totally different player from last year."

The Panthers' third-down defense, meanwhile, isn't much different from last year's. In 2016, they wound up 10th while allowing opponents to convert 38.0 percent of their conversions. Now they're back at 10th after allowing a 38.1 percent conversion percentage through five games.

So if you want to get a read of how Thursday night may play out as you’re watching, pay close attention to who stays on or who gets off the field when the Eagles have the ball on third down.