Foles shows a knack for timing in passing game
Nick Foles' two touchdown passes against the New York Giants had things in common - they came in the fourth quarter and after Eagles interceptions. But the most significant similarity may have been the timing.
Foles threw both passes - a 25-yard strike to Brent Celek and a 5-yard fade to DeSean Jackson - before his receivers were open. The pass to Jackson was thrown before he made his break.
"A lot of times, we're throwing the ball before the guy's even breaking, before he's in the hole," Foles said Tuesday. "That's where timing comes in handy. In high school, you can wait for guys to get open. In college, sometimes. In the NFL, not usually."
It's called "throwing your receiver open."
Foles will likely need to hit those when the Eagles travel to Tampa on Sunday to face the Buccaneers. Michael Vick has not officially been ruled out with a hamstring strain, but he is expected to miss starting for the first time this season.
Which means Foles, still very much a work in progress, will start for the first time since December.
Despite the Bucs' 0-4 record, their defense has held its own and is ranked eighth in the league in points allowed. Tampa's secondary is led by Darrelle Revis, still considered one of the best cornerbacks in the league, and safety Dashon Goldson.
Receivers could struggle to get open, especially if the Bucs go man-to-man, as the Eagles' last three opponents have had success doing. But in a little more than one half against the Giants, Foles completed 64 percent of his attempts for 197 yards. Many of his completions came when he threw his receiver open.
Vick has connected on similar throws - his 22-yard touchdown toss to Jason Avant against the Chiefs and his 24-yard hookup with Zach Ertz on Sunday, for example. But there haven't been many more instances during the last three games, in which he has completed just 46.5 percent of his passes.
Kansas City has one of the tougher defenses in the NFL, but the Broncos and Giants units are rated near the bottom. Foles' sample is small, but Vick, despite his many positives, hasn't excelled as a projection thrower.
"I think we all know what 'NFL open' means," Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "And there are times when a receiver is running down the field with a defender behind him but not looking for the football. That's typically open in our minds."
Celek's touchdown was a perfect illustration of a situation for a quarterback to throw to his first option, even when the receiver doesn't have separation.
Looking to strike after a turnover, coach Chip Kelly called for a pass play designed to look like a first-down run.
The play is common in the NFL, but it was the first time the new Eagles coach ran it this season.
"It's funny because other places I've been, we scored a lot of touchdowns on that," Shurmur said. "The Eagles have run that in the past, as well."
Foles was under center and faked a handoff to LeSean McCoy. The offensive line and other blockers sold the "sweep" by simulating protection to the right. The play-action got the linebackers to bite, plus safety Ryan Mundy, whose obligation was Celek.
"He played it pretty well, to be honest," Celek said. "I was hoping he would bite more and stay inside on the run. But he was able to come back on me, so I knew I just had to get on top of him and hopefully Nick threw it far enough."
With Jackson running a crossing pattern and drawing the single-high safety, the Giants had no one over top to help. The tight end had a half-step on Mundy, but he wasn't open by much.
Foles rolled out in a bootleg and was nearly 10 yards behind the line. He had time and space but released his throw once he set and Celek was at the 12-yard line. The ball was perfectly placed and the tight end made perhaps the best diving catch of his career deep in the end zone.
"It's an interesting play, but I don't think there's much there, other than the fact that [Foles] saw Brent running down the field with a guy in his hip," Shurmur said.
Some quarterbacks would not have pulled the trigger. Vick might have run with so much green ahead of him. That's what's makes Vick dynamic. He opens up the running game. McCoy had trouble finding holes Sunday.
"It definitely changes the dynamic of the game when he is not out there," Jackson said. "But I think as you saw with Foles, he does a great job of making a decision and really letting the ball come out early and just giving the receiver an opportunity to just go out there and make a play on the ball."
Jackson's touchdown came a series after Celek's. He split wide and was singled up against cornerback Prince Amukamara. With no Giants safety over the top and eight in the box, Foles made the correct pre-snap read.
He threw to Jackson, who ran a stop-and-go fade route, before Jackson went into his break. But the toss was perfect, as was Jackson's route, and the receiver had his first red-zone touchdown in over a year.
"You get a feel for your receivers, how they run their routes, what they're good at, so you know how to throw them open," Foles said. "It's really, really important. Timing is everything."