Bowen: Eagles game-planned away from wideouts

111416_pederson-doug_1200
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson.

THERE WAS at least a little truth in what Doug Pederson was selling at Monday's news conference, when the Eagles' coach was asked about his use of the team's historically unproductive wide receivers in Sunday's victory over Atlanta.

Tight end Zach Ertz talked after the game about how a big part of the plan was to attack Atlanta's defense underneath, throwing to him (six catches, 55 yards), slot receiver Jordan Matthews (six catches, 73 yards), and running backs Darren Sproles and Ryan Matthews, who combined for 10 catches for 87 yards. Plus, the Eagles' running game was the true offensive focus, with a season-high 208 yards on 38 carries.

After Matthews, Nelson Agholor led Eagles wideouts with two catches for 7 yards, despite playing 72 snaps. Neither Dorial Green-Beckham (44 snaps) nor Bryce Treggs (15 snaps) was ever targeted.

"The running game was just so big yesterday that we didn't have to throw the ball as much, like we've done in the past," Pederson said. "I've said all along that if we could keep Carson (Wentz) to 25 attempts, 30 attempts, it's a good day, usually. (Wentz was 25-for-36 for 231 yards).

"The design - there were some matchups we had with Sproles on their linebackers, Ertz over the ball, some opportunities vs. man coverage with Jordan, and over the middle. Just some designed things that we had in the game-plan that were not necessarily a reflection on Nelson or any of the other guys, it was just a matter of the design, the contour of the play, and who was the primary on that play."

And it's probably good to bear in mind that fans were dismissing Mathews as a weapon, assuming he was on the way out, after games against Dallas and the Giants in which he carried only nine times total for 25 yards. Pederson showed us pretty convincingly that when he felt the situation called for a heavy dose of Mathews, he provided it - 19 carries for 109 yards.

But, still. Necessity is the mother of Frank Zappa, or something.

If Pederson felt he had effective wideouts, he wouldn't game-plan completely around them, the way he did Sunday, regardless of what Atlanta's defense was geared to stop. After all, when Pederson wasn't using Mathews much those two games, he wasn't just ignoring the running back position, he was going with Sproles. If the place to go Sunday was underneath, couldn't you run Green-Beckham underneath, if you really thought he could make plays?

I suspect the bigger reason we didn't see much work for Agholor Sunday, and no work for Treggs or Green-Beckham, is that the Eagles thought the most important thing they had to establish was offensive continuity. Drives needed to be sustained, clock needed to be eaten, with the NFL's highest-scoring offense sitting and waiting on the other sideline. After back-to-back losses, there was no wiggle room for the aimless, confused patterns Green-Beckham ran while being targeted five times at the Giants and catching no passes. No room for Agholor drops, like the one on third-and-1 Sunday that killed a possession and forced the Eagles to punt the ball back to the Falcons, leading just 21-15, with 4:04 remaining. No room to gamble on what Treggs, an undrafted rookie cut by the 49ers, might do with the ball in his second NFL game, while still learning the offense.

The wideout crisis is real, of course. It might not be quite as dire as it looked against Atlanta, but it is a huge part of the reason why the fan base of a 5-4 team that is playing a rookie quarterback thinks its franchise ought to have a better record. Wentz has played better than 5-4. The offensive line, despite some rough spots, has played better than 5-4. The defense certainly has played better than 5-4. Guess who hasn't played better than 5-4?

Pederson talked Monday about his being a "progression" offense, indicating that Matthews, Sproles and Ertz were higher in the progressions Sunday than the outside guys, and "we were able to make those plays."

Next Sunday is a visit to 6-2-1 Seattle, cornerback Richard Sherman and the Legion of Boom. If the Eagles want to emphasize the run again, well, the Seahawks are giving up an average of 3.5 yards per carry, third-best in the NFL. They're giving up 7.3 yards per pass, which ties them for 16th in the league. Maybe the game plan will feature lots of passing to Agholor, Green-Beckham and Treggs. But I wouldn't count on that.

Developing story lines

* Cornerback Nolan Carroll was having a strong game before Jordan Hicks concussed him. Julio Jones, working against Carroll, was targeted twice in the first quarter and didn't have a catch. Carroll also blew up Aldrick Robinson on a second-quarter screen. Doug Pederson said Monday that Carroll is in the concussion protocol. The Eagles will see where they are later in the week, regarding any sort of lineup adjustment.

* Didn't notice until rewatching that Matt Bosher, the Atlanta punter who also kicks off, made the tackle on Kenjon Barner's 32-yard kickoff return before he limped off the field after trying to stop Barner on the 52-yard return, leaving 41-year-old kicker Matt Bryant to punt twice. Hard to say exactly when Bosher got hurt.

* I counted three Atlanta completions on third-and-long that didn't make it to the sticks, thanks to excellent Eagles tackling. Had to be their best tackling game of the season.

* Poor Nelson Agholor. That reception he was awarded on review, he caught the ball twice but was awarded just one catch. Life is not fair.

* Also didn't realize first time around that Jordan Matthews caught one pass in the entire second half, a bubble screen, losing 2 yards. So he went into halftime with 75 receiving yards and ended the game with 73. Has that ever happened? This Eagles wideout corps continues to challenge conventional paradigms.

* In a possibly related development, Darren Sproles grabbed six of his eight catches in the second half, for 41 of his 57 receiving yards.

* Jason Peters ate Atlanta defensive lineman Ra'Shede Hageman's lunch. Also his dinner, dessert and bedtime snack. Hageman probably was a little nervous when he sat down for Monday breakfast, too.

* Doug Pederson's explanation of that third-and-inches call at the goal line, where Ryan Mathews got the ball several yards behind the line and tried to run sideways before being dropped for a 2-yard loss, was that every week you look at film and formulate plays that ought to work in various situations. That was the Eagles' No. 1 goal-line play against Atlanta, he said. (And in fact, Mathews scored on what seemed to be the same play, to the other side, later in the game, from the Atlanta 5.) Still looked unnecessarily complicated to me, given the down and distance.

* After watching Marcus Smith's block on that Barner 52-yard KO return, maybe the problem is that Marcus is really a tight end.

* Pederson said left guard Allen Barbre returns to practice Wednesday, and presumably will play against Seattle, after missing two games with a hamstring problem. Ditto special-teams cog Kamu Grugier-Hill, a linebacker.

* Pederson said he has not communicated with the league about the uncalled helmet-to-facemask hit by Keanu Neal on Jordan Matthews. Pederson indicated that missing such a call runs counter to the league emphasis on player safety, obviously, but he also said "it happens extremely fast." In a situation like that, there is no option for video review.

Clutch stand

The Eagles' defensive series was amazing, after the missed 55-yard Caleb Sturgis field-goal attempt, which followed the no-calls on pass interference vs. Darren Sproles and the blatant helmet-to-facemask no-call vs. Jordan Mathews.

That was a tough, frustrating spot, the Eagles trailing 15-13, five minutes into the fourth quarter. Fox announcer Kevin Burkhardt intoned that "things have turned sour in Philadelphia" as the camera focused on Matthews' bloody lip.

But Fletcher Cox pressured Matt Ryan into an incompletion, Jalen Mills did a solid job covering Julio Jones on a long, overthrown ball down the left sideline, then on third-and-10 from the Falcons' 45, Jim Schwartz blitzed both Malcolm Jenkins and Nigel Bradham off the edges, while running a stunt up the middle. Ryan's pocket collapsed and he threw the ball away.

When the Eagles got the ball back they drove for a touchdown that gave them the lead for good. Probably the game's key sequence.

Running recipe

Now that the Eagles have established that they can win by running and holding on to the ball, with passing mixed in that doesn't ask too much of their rookie quarterback or their pedestrian receiving corps, is this going to be the template for success the rest of the season?

Pederson's answer Monday seemed to be sure, if we can get away with it.

" I think it's definitely a blueprint to winning games in the NFL. Anytime you can rush the ball like that, it does, speaking from experience, it alleviates the pressure to always have to make that throw or that catch and you stay manageable (in terms of converting third downs)," Pederson said. "First and second down is so important to your success on third down, and we were able to do that yesterday. You know, 36 percent, I think on third down. I would like to have one more third down, and you're even better. But, that running game is so important."

Who knew?

That the only touchdown the Eagles would allow Sunday would come on a 76-yard catch-and-run by somebody named Taylor Gabriel, cut by the Browns a week before the start of the season? Maybe we would've, if we'd studied his 4.28 40 time. Clearly, Taylor's swift . . .

Obscure stat

The Eagles came out of the weekend leading the NFL in kick return average, at 33.7 yards. The No. 2 team, Miami, is averaging 27.4 yards. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Eagles are the only team in the league with two kickoff-return touchdowns.


bowenl@phillynews.com

@LesBowen

Blog: philly.com/Eaglesblog