Thoughts on the Eagles defense, Nick Foles, and Doug Pederson | Early Birds

Good morning, Eagles fans. You have at least one more week of football after the Eagles’ 15-10 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday that advanced them to their first NFC Championship Game since January 2009. This is a special Sunday edition of the Early Birds newsletter. It’s free for anyone to sign up here to receive in your inbox every weekday. I want to know what you think, what we should add, and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.

— Zach Berman

The defense carried the Eagles, Nick Foles did enough, and Doug Pederson pushed the right buttons

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (91) reaches to sack Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan (2) during the first half.
  • The Eagles defense can’t get enough credit for the way it played against the Falcons. Consider the final five drives of the game: The Falcons punted four times and had a turnover on downs. That’s an offense with last year’s MVP, perhaps the best wide receiver in the NFL, and a formidable running back duo. The only touchdown the Eagles allowed came on a drive that started at the 18-yard line. Fletcher Cox dominated the line of scrimmage, recording a sack, two tackles for a loss, and two quarterback hits. He might have been the best player on the field, and lived up to his billing as the highest-paid player on the team.  Jim Schwartz had his team prepared and outcoached Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. On the Falcons’ final play, the Eagles recognized the call based on their film study. The defense needed the carry the team to a win, and the unit did. I thought if the game was played in the teens, it would favor the Eagles and if it was played in the 20s, it would favor the Falcons. The Falcons couldn’t get past 10. It’s hard to win a playoff game when you’re minus-2 in turnover differential, yet the defense was that good. When the injuries piled up during the season, it seemed the reason the Eagles stayed afloat was Carson Wentz. That’s not entirely true. The defense showed why the success this season is about more than Wentz …
  • … And though Nick Foles won’t be confused with Wentz, he did what was needed Saturday. After a slow start, he found his rhythm in the second half when he completed 12 of 15 attempts, including three third-down conversions. That rhythm cannot be overstated — Foles said after the game it was a key for him — and the Eagles used quick passes and incorporated run-pass option plays to accomplish it. The Eagles rushed for fewer than 100 yards and still won; who saw that coming? It was unfair to Foles to think the way he played the last two games of the regular season was representative of him, just as it’s unrealistic to think that seven-touchdown performance in 2013 or the four-touchdown game against the Giants this season is the standard for Foles. He can be inconsistent, and you don’t know which Foles will show up next week, but he’s now a playoff-winning quarterback. That says something. He didn’t necessarily need a great game, just good enough. And the way he played and confidence he maintained are also a credit to Doug Pederson. 
  • Pederson has hit the right notes most of the season, and that was especially the case the past two weeks. From the messaging to the team (Pederson didn’t mind the players’ knowing they were underdogs) to the intensity of practices (players noted the benefit of the padded practices) to how he handled Foles to the play-calling and decision-making during the game, Philadelphia should be happy with its head coach. He was aggressive when he needed to be (scoring a touchdown in the first half on a fourth-and-goal) and smart when it made sense (making it a five-point game in the fourth quarter when he considered trying to score the touchdown). There are always play calls and decisions that can be debated, and that was no different yesterday. But the bottom line is that Pederson deserves considerable credit this morning and appreciation from fans. There was legitimate curiosity in September about whether the Eagles would be searching for a new coach in January. Instead, Pederson is coaching in the NFC Championship Game and just might win Coach of the Year.

What you need to know about the Eagles


3 Questions With | Cornerback Jalen Mills

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) can’t catch a pass in the end zone while defended by Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills (31).

Zach Berman: Is that what you want — being on the field with the playoff game on the line? And you don’t want him throwing to other , you want him throwing to your side?

Jalen Mills: “One hundred percent. That’s what you want as a defender. That’s what you dream of. A fourth-down stop, on the goal line, with the time running down? You can’t ask for anything else. … As a competitor, you always want to be the guy to make to make that play. You’ve got to live and die by it.”

Zach Berman: You talk about how you want the defense to carry this team. You held the Falcons to 10 points. Was that an example?

Poll

Are you surprised that the Eagles are playoff underdogs again?

Jalen Mills: “We played good, but at the same time, we’re always selfish. As a defense, we’re selfish. As a secondary, we’re selfish. We don’t want guys to get anything. It would be better if we got a goose egg. As far as points go, that means errors were made. But we’re a team that always learns from our mistakes. We’ve got the 24-hour rule; we’re going to enjoy this. But when we get back into the building on Monday, we’re going to watch the film, make corrections, and won’t make the same mistakes again. Because as the games go on and we’re in a championship and we have a bigger goal as well, it’s only going to get tighter and tighter.”

Zach Berman: What was it like in the locker room immediately after the game?

Jalen Mills: “Dancing, partying. It just shows from the bye week, competing at a high level, ones vs. ones, knowing we play the Atlanta Falcons, the whole week of preparation, just seeing laser focus from guys — from the offense, the defense, and special teams. I think it just showed out there regardless of whatever situation we’re put in, you’ve got guys who are going to play four quarters.”


From the mailbag

They’re both tough teams. I think the Saints would be a more difficult matchup because of the way Drew Brees can control a game and his playoff experience, plus the matchup problem that Alvin Kamara presents as a versatile running back out of the backfield. They can attack the Eagles so many different ways — with a power-running game, with a quick-passing game, with big plays, with run-after-the-catch ability.  Their defense is improved, although Lane Johnson is the right tackle you’d want against Cameron Jordan and the Eagles should be able to run on them. So I guess if you trust your defense regardless of the opponent, it would be easier to pound the ball against New Orleans. It’s hard not to respect what the Vikings are doing, and they would give Nick Foles a lot of problems. Both would be tough — that’s inevitable this time of the year — but the Eagles are fortunate to have the home field and an extra day’s rest.

I asked Doug Pederson after the game, and he said there weren’t enough opportunities because the Eagles couldn’t sustain drives. Jay Ajayi said it was just the way the game was scripted. By my count, he missed 14 plays in the second quarter. He played in the second half, but the Eagles were having success passing the ball, and Ajayi was a part of that. The Eagles also like using Corey Clement in passing situations. I didn’t understand why they sat Ajayi when he was running so well early in the game. Turns out, they didn’t ride him in the second half and still won. But they’re going to need Ajayi again next week.

I get asked this often — I don’t think there’s going to be a deliberative effort to get Mack Hollins more work than Torrey Smith at this time of the year. Hollins will continue to be used situationally, but the Eagles like Smith. I commented last week about how adept Smith is at drawing pass interferences — you saw that on the first play of the game. He can still stretch a defense. He also made a smart play on the ricocheted pass at the end of the first half. You’ll probably see Hollins maintain a similar role next week.