The Eagles went into last weekend’s matchup with the Falcons as the first 1-seed underdog in divisional-round history because Nick Foles is their starting quarterback. That’s the main reason they’re home ’dogs again in this Sunday’s NFC championship game against the Vikings. Philly will go up against a Minnesota team led by quarterback Case Keenum, who is generally considered something less than elite. But with Foles under center, the Eagles remain at a distinct disadvantage.
Thanks to a smart game plan by head coach and play-caller Doug Pederson, Foles did just enough to help his team squeak by the Falcons and move on to the next round. But if Philadelphia is going to beat the Vikings and earn a berth in Super Bowl LII, it’s going to need more from its Carson Wentz replacement. Against Atlanta, Foles leaned on dump-offs, check-downs, and run-pass options, but those plays won’t be as reliable against Minnesota’s top-tier defense. He’s going to have to step up and make a few big throws to keep the Eagles’ championship dreams alive.
Foles’s final stat line from last week paints a picture of an efficient outing: He finished 23-of-30 for 246 yards, no touchdowns, no picks, and a respectable 100.1 passer rating. But while 8.2 yards per attempt looks nice on paper, Foles’s stats were padded by his receivers and backs, who did most of the damage by picking up yards after the catch.
Foles went deep on his first play from scrimmage, and that throw nearly went horribly awry. Well short of its intended target, the pass hung in the windy Philadelphia air for what felt like an eternity, and the Eagles were lucky to draw a questionable defensive pass interference call on the play. From there, Pederson heavily managed his quarterback, rarely asking Foles to look downfield. The sixth-year pro finished the day with an average depth of target (aDOT) of just 5.2 yards, per Pro Football Focus. That was almost 2 full yards short of any other quarterback last weekend—yes, even Blake Bortles—and well short of Joe Flacco’s season-long mark of 6.9 yards, tied for last place among 39 qualifying quarterbacks on the season. In other words, an aDOT of 5.2 is really, really low, and you can see the passes Foles threw that led to that number in this nifty visualization from NFL Next Gen Stats.
Still, Philly’s offensive line dominated the trenches, allowing the Eagles to move the ball on the ground to the tune of 96 yards on 32 totes, and their screen passes and quick-strike throws to the outside were effective against the Atlanta defense as, more or less, an extension of the run game. Undrafted rookie running back Corey Clement did some damage on those types of plays:
And Jay Ajayi did, too, picking up big yards on a pair of well-blocked screens that took advantage of an aggressive Falcons front.
Foles mixed in some quick passes to the outside, too—bang-bang throws that allowed him to get rid of the ball quickly and avoid the Atlanta rush. While they didn’t pick up huge chunks of yards, they helped the Eagles offense stay on schedule, out of third-and-long situations, and keep the chains moving.
Pederson leaned heavily on the run-pass options in his playbook, especially in the second half. On these plays, Foles had the option of handing the ball off, carrying it himself, or pulling it back and throwing it downfield; on several plays on Saturday, he read the Falcons’ linebackers, and when they moved too far toward the direction of the running back, he held on to the ball and threw it to a receiver. On this play from late in the second quarter, Foles read Falcons linebacker Deion Jones before passing to Nelson Agholor, who ran a slant route directly into the area that Jones was vacating.
That same concept worked in the third quarter, when Foles read linebacker De’Vondre Campbell after the snap. He pulled the ball away from the running back and threw downfield to a spot he knew would be open.
RPOs will again function as a pillar of Pederson’s offense this week, but against a fast, physical, and disciplined Vikings defense, the run game, screens, and dump-offs could be in for much tougher sledding. The Falcons finished 20th against the run this year, per Football Outsiders DVOA; ranked ninth in rush yards surrendered (104.1 per game); and tied for 16th in yards per carry allowed (4.1). Meanwhile, the Vikings finished fifth against the run, per DVOA, and ranked second in rushing yards allowed (83.6 per game) and fifth in yards per carry allowed (3.7). As for defending backs out of the backfield, consider this: The Falcons gave up 107 catches (dead last) and 802 receiving yards (28th) to opposing running backs this season, surrendering four touchdowns through the air (tied for 19th). The Vikings, on the other hand, gave up just one pass touchdown to opposing backs all year (tied for first) and allowed just 76 catches (sixth) and 489 yards (third) to that position. In short, this Minnesota defense is far superior to the Falcons’, especially in a few of the key areas in which Philly attacked Atlanta.
The Eagles owed much of their (highly relative) success on offense against the Falcons to their ability to stay on schedule on first and second down and set up manageable third-down situations. Philly faced 13 third downs Saturday, with an average of just 5.6 yards to go on those plays (the NFL average for all third downs this season was 7.3 yards). On six of those third-down plays the Eagles needed to gain 4 yards or fewer, and on just three did they need to gain more than 7 yards. But against the Vikings’ tough run defense and disciplined pass-defending unit, the Eagles are bound to see an uptick in long third-down situations, which won’t mix well with Minnesota’s NFL-best third-down defense. The Vikings gave up an average of just 4.1 yards on all third-down plays (third) and led the league with a 25.2 percent third-down conversion rate allowed this year, the best mark for any team since at least the 2002 season.
Pederson’s game plan last week was a lesson in how to win with a limited, inaccurate quarterback under center. Philadelphia played stout defense, ran the ball well, controlled the clock, and gave its passer plenty of easy throws to make—and there’s no doubt that will be the strategy again this week. But while the Eagles are sure to try to ride their run game and move the ball through the air using a variety of screens, RPOs, dump-offs, and quick slants, sooner or later, they are going to find themselves in a third-and-long. And in those spots, they’re going to need Foles to stand tall in the pocket and make accurate throws downfield into the teeth of a very good Vikings defense. What he does in those situations could determine which team heads to the Super Bowl.