The NFL Divisional Round starts with a Saturday afternoon tilt in Philadelphia between the team with the best record in the NFC, the Philadelphia Eagles, and reigning NFC champions the Atlanta Falcons. It’s the first time in NFL history that a No. 1 seed is a home underdog in the Divisional Round.
They’re underdogs for one reason — Nick Foles.
Second-year quarterback Carson Wentz took the NFL by storm this season. He was in line to win the MVP before injuring his ACL in Week 14 against the Rams. Wentz was completing 60 percent of his passes, with 33 touchdowns, seven interceptions, and a passer rating of 101.9 before getting injured. He added the ability of pocket movement and creating outside the structure of the play to lead this offense. Wentz had the benefit of an outstanding offensive line and running game to help a top-five offense score points.
Since Wentz went to injured reserve, Foles has taken over as quarterback for the Eagles. In his first start against the Giants, Foles and the Eagles offense started slow, but he finished with four touchdowns and a victory. The following week at home on Christmas night against the Raiders, Foles didn’t look so good. He was 19-of-38 passing with one touchdown and one interception. He didn’t look comfortable. He couldn’t find a rhythm and his receivers and his timing were slower than they should be.
The Eagles had their first-round bye secured entering Week 17 at home against the Cowboys, but smartly decided to play Foles for a bit. They needed to get him into some kind of positive offensive flow. It didn’t work. Foles was 4-of-11 passing with an interception. Not good.
While the Eagles will remain outwardly positive about Foles, there must be some doubt about what his play will be like on Saturday afternoon. Before I detail how the Eagles can get the most out of Foles, no matter how they do it, it’s a must that they score a touchdown on their opening drive. The entire building will be electric, but the Linc will have some nervous, anxious fans in the crowd. Scoring early will ease tensions in the building. For the Eagles, it will allow the defense to play freer. I have to think the defense feels it needs to be perfect because it doesn’t trust the offense. Having an early score will take some weight off the shoulders of the Eagles defense.
Use inside zone and pin-and-pull concepts to run the ball
With Wentz’s success, I think we — well, not me — have forgotten the backbone of the Eagles offense is the offensive line. The Eagles lost All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters right before the halfway point of the season, but backup Halapoulivaati Vaitai has filled in admirably. They have All-Pro center Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson at right tackle. Right guard Brandon Brooks is a Pro Bowler. The Eagles will need this offensive line to open up holes on Saturday.
The Falcons have a smaller, quicker defensive line that loves to get upfield quickly. It can irritate the Eagles’ outside-zone scheme, so I’d expect the Eagles to try using double teams on inside zone to get push.
The Eagles can also use their pin-and-pull concepts to success.
Here are the Rams from last Saturday night running outside zone with a clean six-man box. Notice what the tight end sliding back does to the defense? Both linebackers stay backside and the defensive end crashes down hard:
There are a few things the Eagles can do here.
It’s a perfect time for their pin/pull concept, like this example. It’s a tad different box, but just add a tight end into the box and it’s the same look:
Here are the Saints running inside zone and allowing those lighter defensive tackles to get pushed around and score:
The Eagles are good at this as well.
That last run by the Eagles was also on third down, something no one likes to do anymore. The Eagles would be wise trying to run the ball in passing situations, to help Foles on this tough down. Trap schemes would also be efficient.
Find a rhythm with Foles, and don’t be afraid to take some shots
When looking at Foles in the passing game, he’s a rhythm thrower. He needs to throw within the concept of the offense and have it be on time. Here’s a good example against the Giants. He hits his back foot, hitches up one step, and boom, the ball’s out:
Against Oakland, he was throwing late and behind his receivers. Against Atlanta’s fast defense, that can’t happen. So how do the Eagles get Foles into rhythm?
Foles’ best season of his career was under Chip Kelly. In that system Foles threw a ton of play-action passes and his yards per attempt were 9.1!! He was chucking the ball around the field. This season, in limited action, his yards per attempt are 5.4. So contrary to popular belief that you play it safe and throw it short with a struggling back up quarterback, I think Foles should let it fly.
The Eagles don’t have a Mike Evans; I get that. But they need to throw up some 50/50 balls off play action. They do have Alshon Jeffery. The Eagles need to take these chances with Foles
In the same vein, take the opportunities to make big plays even when you think making the conservative throw might be best.
Here against the Raiders, it’s third-and-medium. The Eagles put Zach Ertz alone at the top to try getting a matchup advantage. Everyone in the building knows Foles is looking to Ertz (at the top of the GIF), including the Raiders. They easily defend this throw.
Focus your attention to the bottom of the screen, with man coverage. The Eagles receiver beats his man, and he would have scored if the ball is thrown to him.
Foles needs to see this and let it fly:
The Eagles need Foles to just be average to win this game. Rely on the run game and the defense. Just don’t let Foles lose the game for them.