After the regular season concluded, Eagles coach Doug Pederson identified what he thought must be the team’s formula for postseason success: “Play great defense and be able to run the football.”
With the fan base wondering whether the Eagles can win a playoff game (or two or three) with Nick Foles at quarterback, Pederson’s aim doesn’t require Foles carrying the Eagles. He’s trying to reignite the run game and hoping the defense continues to thrive at home.
“ I think that’s a formula,” Pederson said. “Especially now outside, January-type games, the weather can be bad. I think you have to be able to do that and keep yourself on the field and keep your defense rested. But somewhere in there you’re going to have to make a play in the passing game, too, whether it be on a third down or maybe a first-down shot or something like that. Not ruling out the passing game obviously, but that run game we have to get back to the way we did it a couple weeks ago.”
With Carson Wentz, the Eagles might have been better equipped to win a shootout. That’ll be harder to do with Foles. But even when Wentz was healthy, the Eagles were at their best this season when they could run effectively.
Pederson noticed a decline in rushing production in recent weeks. The Eagles finished the season third in the NFL in rushing offense with 132.2 rushing yards per game. But they’ve been down to 98.4 yards per game during the last five games, and that average drops to 85.3 yards per game in the three games without Wentz.
During the Eagles’ nine-game winning streak, they averaged 161.9 rushing yards per game. Teams usually run better when they’re winning because they’re playing with a lead, but the ground game was a big part of jumping out to those leads.
It was especially the case when the Eagles acquired Jay Ajayi. They averaged 196 rushing yards per game in Ajayi’s first three games with the team, and they’d be well served making him a key part of the offense.
Ajayi, who was inactive on Sunday, has 70 carries for 408 yards (5.8 yards per carry) since coming to Philadelphia. He has not had more than 15 carries in a game. It could be time for the Eagles to ride the “Jay Train,” although he needs to be healthy for the Eagles to do so. Pederson will sit Ajayi during Wednesday’s practice to rest his knee. Pederson has preferred a committee approach and keeping Ajayi fresh, but featuring Ajayi might be best for the offense.
“I think that’s a possibility with what he’s shown us down the stretch here and giving him rest last week, and we’ll see where he is this week health-wise,” Pederson said. “I think he’s one of the guys that we can rely on. I don’t want to get away from the things that got us to this point, too. That’s the other thing is you don’t want to just abandon ship on everybody else. I do think there could be a little more role for him down the stretch.”
Pederson is exploring ways to help Foles, such as utilizing the up-tempo style that helped Foles have a career season in 2013. The best way he could help Foles, though, might be something else he said Tuesday: “A conscious effort to stay dedicated to the run game.” If the running game is productive, Foles will likely encounter manageable third downs and can effectively mix in the play-action.
“The run game, we get that back on track and that’s going to help [Foles’] confidence,” Pederson said. “Then just getting ball out of his hand where he’s not having to hold it a lot on first and second down. We know that on third down — that’s been kind of our Achilles Heel these last two weeks is third down. We’ve been in some third-and-long situations, which we have to do better on first and second downs.”
That would also help the defense, although Jim Schwartz’s side of the ball has held its end of the bargain during the past two weeks. While Foles has struggled, the defense has carried the Eagles. It’s a good thing for the defense that the Eagles have the No. 1 seed, because they’re especially tough at home. They’ve allowed only 13.4 points in eight home games this season. They allow 16 fewer rushing yards per game at home and have not allowed a rushing touchdown. They allow 33 fewer passing yards per game at home and keep quarterbacks to an inferior passer rating.
The Eagles’ defense is a confident group, and they invite the burden on their shoulders during the playoffs. Safety Malcolm Jenkins said they’d feel that way regardless of who’s playing quarterback.
Most of attention during the next two weeks will be focused on Foles, but if the Eagles advance, it could be because of the defense and the running game.
“Everybody understands that a run game and defense is what you carries you [in] the playoffs if you don’t have one of those top three elite quarterbacks,” Jenkins said. “So we’re going to have to be able to run the ball, have to be able to play defense and get those takeaways we’ve been doing all year, play well against the run. That goes without saying.”