The question coming out of last Saturday’s Eagles win was…how? How was Nick Foles able to shake off two really poor performances to end the regular season and suddenly look like a playoff quarterback after years of holding a clipboard?
Foles completed 23 of 30 passes for 246 yards against the Falcons. Those numbers do not include the 63 yards gained on pass interference penalties, including a ball so woefully underthrown into the wind the defender had no recourse but to tackle Torrey Smith, preventing him from tracking back for a huge gain.
In the first half, Foles completed 11 of his 15 recorded throws (plus the two gains via penalty) for 101 yards. In the second half, Foles connected on 12 of 15 throws, leading the Eagles on two scoring drives of 12 and 14 plays, respectively.
The Eagles ran 63 offensive plays against the Falcons, 32 of which were runs, despite just a 3 yard average on rushing attempts. The Birds averaged 8.2 yards per pass play against Atlanta, 1.2 yards better than the team’s season average.
So how was Foles able to do it?
Credit Doug Pederson — and the offensive game plan.
Asked Wednesday how to get Foles into a rhythm against the stout Vikings defense, Pederson all but gave away the Eagles’ strategy: Throw it short, run the ball, RPOs (run-pass options) and hope for the best.
“The quick, short passing game obviously can help, the running game can help,” Pederson said. “Somewhere in there, if you can take a shot, you take a shot and whether you hit, like first play of the game, if you hit it or not, that kind of gets your blood flowing a little bit. And sometimes even tempo, hurry-up, no-huddle offense can get your quarterback into that kind of rhythm.”
Foles threw for 246 yards against Atlanta, but just two of his passes thrown were deep (not including the long pass interference penalty). Per Pro Football Reference, 13 of Foles’ targets were short left, two were short middle and 12 were short right.
According to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, 17 of Foles’ completions were within five yards, with six being completed behind the line of scrimmage. He only completed three of his six official attempts thrown beyond 10 yards, and just one of his four attempts beyond 15 yards.
Of the 10 longest plays for the Eagles against Atlanta — plays in which the offense gained a total of 169 yards — two were runs, including the misdirection third-down handoff to Nelson Agholor that led to the team’s only touchdown, and eight were short passes that became longer gains.
What’s more, based on the Next Gen chart, the 17 completions Foles had beyond the line of scrimmage last week totaled just 100.5 yards at the point of reception. Accounting for possible negative yards of the in the six passes that were completed behind the line — had the receiver been tackled at the point of completion — Foles’ 23 completions totaled just 69.5 yards.
That’s why Jay Ajayi amassed 44 yards receiving against Atlanta, but per Fox Sports had 63 yards after the catch, while Corey Clement caught five passes for 31 yards, but had 32 yards after the catch. Based on those calculations, Foles threw for 246 yards, and 176.5 of them came after the catch.
Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich was asked by PMN’s Jeff McLane Tuesday if the game plan of employing short passes is a sustainable model of success for the offense, with a YAC (yards after catch) against the Falcons of more than seven yards.
“That was one of the things that I think we excelled at was the run after catch,” Reich said. “That point was made to our players today. Just the aggressiveness with the ball in their hand, protecting the ball, but that is always going to change week-to-week depending on coverages that are being played, depending on the flow of the game.
“Every week we have a variety of quick, short, medium range passes in the game plan,” he added. “We also have multiple ways to get the ball down the field and we just kind of feel that out as we go.”
It’s not uncommon for NFL teams to have a good chunk of their receiving yards after the catch, especially when an offense gamelans to get one-on-one matchups with receivers in space. Matt Ryan, for example, had 428 yards in his two playoff games and 227 came after the catch. Of Case Keenum’s 318 yards against the Saints, 140 came after the catch. For what it’s worth, 15 of Keenum’s 25 completions were also caught within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
Unlike what the Eagles have done with Foles, however, Keenum had 18 pass attempts that went 10 yards or longer, completing nine with one interception. The Vikings have been far more willing to let Keenum take chances down the field, as Foles has officially thrown just 18 deep passes since taking over for Carson Wentz late in the season (barring penalty), completing just four, with 13 incompletions and one interception.
The Eagles may be forced into taking more chances down the field against the Vikings than they did against Atlanta, especially if the short and mid-range passes aren’t working as well as they did last Saturday. Both Pederson and Reich are wary of the Vikings’ ability to get pressure on the quarterback with just rushing four defenders, allowing seven to drop into coverage. At the same time, their pass rush won’t give Foles much time in the pocket.
“Against Atlanta, they played a different coverage where they tried to keep everything in front of them,” Foles told reporters Wednesday. “Minnesota does a really good job. They are a little bit more diverse in their coverages. They like to switch it up. They do a good job of rocking and rolling the safeties, and they play a lot tighter down. They are not going to give us as much underneath, so yeah, we are absolutely going to have make some larger completions.”
Foles’ success will again come down to how well his coaches gameplan. Remember how much Pederson and Reich talked about how much they planned to rely on the run to beat the Falcons, yet started the game with a play-action long pass? Expect the Eagles to take a deep shot early — the second or third play, perhaps — to keep Minnesota’s defense on its heels. Then, it’s a matter of taking what they give, which when Foles has been at his best, isn’t much.