The Eagles can knock the Falcons from the playoffs and it can be the offense that leads the way. That hasn't been the narrative from most pundits, even from those who are predicting an Eagles victory. But it is possible, and Nick Foles doesn't have to hand off every play for it to happen.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson: My message to Nick is: Listen, we have a great opportunity. Let's go be Nick. Let's go play. Let's go execute the offense.
Pederson has tinkered with the offense to cater to Foles, but for the most part the scheme hasn't changed much since he took over for Carson Wentz. It doesn't need to for Atlanta.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn: It looks like from our watching that most things stayed similar and are not different. … We're kind of expecting status quo.
The same holds for Quinn's defensive system, which he brought from the Seahawks where he was defensive coordinator. Pete Carroll was the brains behind the scheme, which uses an aggressive 4-3 "under" front and coverages with predominantly a single-high safety. Over the last two seasons, the Eagles have seen the scheme three times — in a 24-15 win over the Falcons last November, a 26-24 win over the Chargers in October, and a 24-10 loss at Seattle last month.
Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich: I think there's similarities in all those teams that have done that and played that. Definitely similarities there. Although it does express itself slightly different and that's based on the personnel.
The Eagles' success in those previous meetings is a blueprint for Saturday's game. They are likely to return to many of the same plays and concepts, even with Foles, who has also had triumphs against the defense. He has three wins and a 94.4 passer rating against Carroll's scheme dating back to 2014.
Reich: Most of the time, 90 percent of the time, it's just finding ways to do what you do. This defense has been out there for a while and so the ways that I think we know how to attack it, we focus on those ways. We're always looking for fresh, new ideas. But really the best ideas and the best way to attack these defenses, as hard as you work from a coaching standpoint, [is] to put players in position.
>> READ MORE: Complete coverage previewing the Eagles-Falcons game
In two of the three games against the Carroll defense, the Eagles had great success on the ground. Their running backs rushed for 198 yards and two touchdowns on 34 carries (5.8 average) against the Falcons and 200 yards and a touchdown on 36 carries (5.6 avg.) against the Chargers. The tailbacks ran only 20 times for 68 yards against the Seahawks, but the Eagles also trailed for the entire game.
In each game, the Eagles employed a plan on the ground to take advantage of an aggressive, one-gap front. There were split zone runs, draws, traps, and inside zones with pulling linemen.
Pederson: Any time you play a team that's fast flow — our team is one of them, we're jet guys, we're up the field guys — there are certain schemes that are conducive for that style of front.
Here was Wendell Smallwood, last year against Atlanta, on an outside draw that negated the defensive end, and had center Jason Kelce pulling up field.
On this Ryan Mathews 5-yard touchdown run in that game, Kelce and right guard Brandon Brooks pulled on an outside zone.
The Eagles have had many positive runs with their split zone. One of the main of characteristics of the play is a tight end who motions across the formation only to cross back at the snap and "whammy" block the end. On this Mathews' burst from a year ago, Zach Ertz took out Adrian Clayborn.
Ertz: It gives the [offensive] linemen an opportunity to get up to the linebackers quickly. They don't have to worry about the d-end on the backside. We have a such an athletic line that we want to get those guys in position to get on athletic linebackers.
LeGarrette Blount had his best game this season against the Chargers. Most of his 136 yards (on 16 carries) came on the split zone. It's a linear run play and Blount is a downhill runner. On this 68-yard tote — one of the highlights of the 2017 season — Ertz dropped two defenders.
In the Eagles' first 11 games of the season, Blount averaged 12 carries for 60 yards. In the final five, he averaged 7 carries for 27 yards. Jay Ajayi's increased workload has cut into his touches, and many expect the Eagles to ride the former Dolphin this Saturday. But the 250-pound Blount could still be featured. Aside from 346-pound defensive tackle Dontari Poe, the Falcons aren't especially big up front.
Blount: I feel really good.
The Eagles, though, must feel confident with Ajayi in their pocket. His 130-yard rushing day against the Falcons pre-trade was the most Quinn's defense had given up all season. Quinn focused on the missed tackles — 96 yards came after contact — but Ajayi deserved credit, too, often beating eight-man boxes.
Ajayi: You got to have a plan prepared for that extra defender. At the same time, also it's almost like if you can get through that wave of the eight-man box there's a lot of space.
Ajayi had 26 carries. His largest number with the Eagles has been 15. Could this be the game in which the Eagles ride their new tailback?
Reich: It's always a fluid thing, as we've said. Jay, certainly his production has continued to ramp up and hopefully we keep getting good production from that position.
To get Foles' confidence going, Pederson will likely call high-percentage pass plays with just one or two reads. While there's an additional element with run-pass option plays, the Falcons could be susceptible if they have an extra defender in the box.
Here was Wentz firing a 14-yard strike to Nelson Agholor on a RPO vs. the Chargers.
Foles has the RPO in his arsenal as he showed here against the Rams last month.
There is no secret to defending RPOs, per Quinn. His general defensive philosophy: To thine own self be true.
Quinn: Play your fundamentals and trust your keys — that goes a long way. We've had more success playing our technique really soundly, really solidly, then having to change a whole lot of things based on an opponent's scheme.
If the Eagles can establish the run game, they should be able to use play-action. Last year against the Falcons, Wentz completed several passes off the three-step fake, this one for 16 yards to Jordan Matthews.
Foles' three-step drop isn't as natural, but he can get the job done, as he did here on a similar play-action pass in the Chiefs' 2016 win over the Jaguars. Then-Jacksonville coach Gus Bradley is also a Carroll acolyte.
Pederson: You know where they are going to be. That's the thing with this defense. They are going to line up and show you exactly.
The loss of Darren Sproles hindered the Eagles' screen game. But it is almost certain that Pederson will call one of the misdirection screens that has picked up chunk yards against Carroll's scheme.
Here was Mathews for 20 yards against the Falcons.
And Smallwood for 28 yards against the Chargers.
Ajayi hasn't been involved much in the Eagles' passing game, but he took a basic screen 17 yards for a touchdown against the Raiders in Week 16.
Pederson: It's not as easy as you may think to put a guy into the mix in the early part of the year and how to feature him. And [Ajayi] certainly looks like he has the full complement of things in the offense.
When the Falcons play man-to-man coverage, they typically have one safety deep (Keanu Neal or Ricardo Allen). Quinn can go light in centerfield because he has two excellent man-defending corners in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford.
Eagles receiver Torrey Smith: They have two good corners out there. We're going to have our hands full with that. Everything's going to be contested, going to be grabbing, going to be physical. Things aren't going to be called. It's the playoffs.
Smith and Alshon Jeffery have struggled to get separation on the outside, especially since Wentz's injury. They have just a combined eight catches for 79 yards in the final three games of the season. Jeffery's forte is winning contested balls. He'll have at least a three-inch advantage on both corners.
Foles: I just got to throw it. I do trust him. I've seen him play enough. … It's just me giving him opportunities to make plays.
The Eagles' best matchups vs. man will likely come in between the numbers with Ertz and slot receiver Nelson Agholor. If Ertz is lined up opposite a linebacker — even the speedy Deoin Jones — it should be a green light for Foles. Here was Wentz lofting a 38-yard strike to Ertz when he got beyond a Chargers linebacker.
And, yes, Foles can make that throw, too. Here he was connecting with Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce for a 23-yard fade vs. the Jaguars last year.
Pederson: That's playing quarterback. [If the] opportunity's there, rip it. If it's not, check it down. It's been the mindset all season long, and we're not going to change it now.
Agholor had a field day against the Seahawks. He finished with seven catches for 141 yards and a touchdown and could have done more damage if Wentz had brought his "A" game. Here he is knifing through the Seattle defense on a great play design that found a hole in Cover 3.
Quinn: When you play three-deep that's a chance for teams, a lot of times, where they'll try to take shots down the field on some singled-up coverages.
Agholor runs most of his routes from the slot — 82 percent of the time — but a possible wrinkle would be to line him up more outside to utilize his speed. Trufant (right side) and Alford (left) typically stay on their respective sides, so moving receivers and lining them up in bunch formations could give the Eagles some advantageous matchups.
Ertz: We have to take shots. It's going to be hard against this defense to kind of dink and dunk.
The Cover 3 can be difficult to decipher pre-snap if the corners are at the line feigning press when in zone or if they're playing off and in man. Reich said that one indicator of zone in the Carroll scheme comes from the free safety.
Reich: This defense, one of the trademarks of it, the free safety is usually outside the hash and he's in the 60/40 range.
Foles has been reluctant to take shots downfield. Is he lacking confidence? Is the elbow still an issue? Have Pederson and company been advising him to play it safe? Whatever the case, he has shown in the past that he can hit receivers downfield and outside the numbers, as he did here last season against the Colts' Cover 2 zone.
Foles: With defenses like this it's always going through your progressions because someone's going to be open. You can't cover everyone.
Asked for their initial take when watching the Falcons defense, almost every Eagles coach and player mentioned its speed. Up front, they're quick on the edges, especially with sub-package rushers like Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley. Quinn usually relies on just his four down linemen to rush the quarterback.
Pederson: This team's not a big blitz team. Again, they are just going to line up and play. … They will bring one extra, rush five quite a bit.
Eagles tackle Lane Johnson: They still run some games, but not as much as they did last year. They're good with them as far as 'V' stunts, 'U' stunts with the d-tackle and the d-end.
On this play from last season, Beasley got around Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who was filling in for Johnson at right tackle, and stripped-sacked Wentz. The Eagles handled a "game" on the other side, but Viatai will be on the left this time.
The Falcons had the fifth-best red zone defense in the NFL during the regular season. The Eagles were first in the NFL (67.4 pct.) before Wentz's injury. They completed only 50 percent after he went down.
Wentz (39 of 60 for 297 yards and 24 touchdowns with no interceptions) was the league's best red zone quarterback. He hardly ever hesitated. This 8-yard touchdown pass to Jeffery against the Chargers was a prime example.
For the Eagles to turn possessions inside the 20 into touchdowns, Foles must get the ball out quick and on time, especially against man coverage. He is capable as this 10-yard touchdown pass to Ertz on a similar route against the Giants showed.
The Eagles aren't going to leave the offense solely in Foles' hands, but they still need him to make the necessary throws.
Reich: Not trying to force anything but being aggressive.