Each week this season, we’ll breakdown a player, trend or scheme from the Eagles’ previous game using the coaches all-22 film. This week we spotlight Nick Foles, who delivered a performance for the ages in the 38-7 win over the Vikings in the NFC championship.
The Eagles quarterback completed 26 of 33 passes for 352 yards and three touchdowns without a single turnover. His 141.4 passer rating was the sixth highest in conference championship history dating back to the NFL merger in 1970.
Foles is certainly capable of playing at this level, but few saw it coming after a sluggish finish to the regular season. He struggled in the first half of the divisional playoff, but since he has thrown only 10 incomplete passes out of 48 tries.
Doug Pederson’s scheme and play calling has played a significant role in Foles’ turnaround. But the Eagles coach had another explanation.
Pederson: The fact that he’s had a chance to work with our guys now for the past month, there’s a lot more confidence there. They’re on the same page.
The Eagles were aggressive against the league’s top defense. The Patriots will provide their own set of challenges in Super Bowl LII, but whenever Pederson has had a led foot, the Eagles offense has soared.
Like last week, Pederson came out firing. But Foles wasn’t throwing into a stiff wind on this deep post to Torrey Smith.
Foles: We wanted to be aggressive. Minnesota is one of the best teams in football and their defense is one of the top defenses in the league, so we had to go right at them and be aggressive.
Foles’ pass was a shade underthrown. Smith did a good job of tracking the ball, but it was knocked from his hands. Two plays later, on third down, the Eagles ran a three-level stretch concept that freed Trey Burton on an out route.
Burton appeared to have time to get both feet inbounds, but couldn’t.
Foles’ eyes appear to drop down at the rush and he escaped the pocket when he had time to fire to the open Burton. Their timing was off a touch and likely also contributed to the missed opportunity.
Foles: We missed some plays early, but it didn’t change Coach Pederson’s game plan. Our mentality didn’t change.
Foles: Any time you go against any type of defense, you want to keep them off balance.
On the Eagles’ next drive, Pederson effectively mixed the run and pass. On this second down play, Nelson Agholor motioned into the backfield. The Eagles have shown enough on film of Agholor getting the ball in similar looks for the Vikings to key in on the receiver. He ran a flat route here, though, that opened a passing lane.
Foles hit Jeffery on an 8-yard slant and the offense was rolling.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer: Most of the things they did we practiced. They just ran it better than we covered them.
Foles isn’t a statuesque quarterback. He’s not especially mobile either. But he likes to throw on the move, sometimes with just a subtle movement as the clock begins the tick in the pocket. On this third down and 10 later in the drive, Foles took a slight step up and hit tight end Zach Ertz.
Ertz’s run after the catch picked up the first down, but the Eagles’ protection played just as big a role. The Vikings showed one of Zimmer’s patented Double-A looks pre-snap. Only one linebacker rushed and safety Harrison Smith blitzed off the edge. Minnesota has had great success with this pressure, but running back Corey Clement recognized the overload and picked up the blitz.
Eagles center Jason Kelce: I thought that we communicated really well – the whole offensive line, the running backs, the quarterback – everybody was on the same page for the most part.
Foles: There’s a little bit more movement in the pocket just because of the different blitz angles. I just felt comfortable because I trusted the guys up front.
Run-pass option plays
RPOs, per usual, were a big part of the Eagles’ game plan. Foles hit Jeffery for 9 yards later in the drive, and on this third and one connected with Ertz for 6 yards.
Mack Hollins’ rub route vs. man coverage cleared out space for Ertz underneath. The receiver added a little touch to his route by acting as if the ball was coming.
Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich: The thinking there is, ‘Hey, let’s create a little traffic. We only need a yard or two on something like that.’ Sometimes when you create a rub play or a play where you’re trying to get a legal pick, because it is legal if the receiver establishes position early, we know that if the defender is on the line of scrimmage, the receiver can go block him.
Third down success
The Vikings’ third down defense during the regular season was the best statistically since 1975. The Eagles were nearly as good on offense until Carson Wentz’s injury. But they found the magic with Foles and converted 10 of 14 third downs on Sunday.
On this second quarter possession, the Eagles faced third and eight.
Ertz was Foles’ go-to guy on early third downs. At one point, he caught three straight. His route here got Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo to commit inside and Foles, who once again stepped up in the pocket and threw on the move, tossed a 15-yard strike.
Ertz: I want to make plays when my number is called. I’ve spoken a lot about being the guy on third down and in the red zone. I got my number called fairly often in the beginning of the game, and I just tried to make the most of the opportunities.
Foles was remarkably efficient against the blitz. He completed 12 of 13 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown when the Vikings sent more than four rushers.
Kelce: They tried to come after us and he hurt them bad.
On this third and six, Foles had a pretty good idea that the Vikings were coming. So he dumped to Clement, who broke a tackle and ran past the marker.
The big left hook
Halapoulivaati Vaitai kept all pro defensive end Everson Griffen in check for most of the game. On this third down and 10 late in the second quarter, he had a little trouble as the end bull rushed him back into the Foles. But the quarterback kept his composure and stood in the pocket for about five seconds.
Foles: It was sort of a broken play where they thought they probably had a sack.
Jeffery was running a dig route.
Jeffery: When I saw [Foles] move, I thought it was a scramble play and I just took it up field and he did a great job of finding me.
It takes time to develop feel between a quarterback and his receivers.
Foles, meanwhile, kept his eyes downfield and went for the knockout punch.
Reich: He’s not afraid to throw it. He wants to throw it. But what he’s demonstrated in the last few games is that, ‘Hey, we can dink and dunk, we can throw it deep, take your shots.’ Again it’s the analogy we’ve used of boxing, it’s: jab, jab, jab, then throw the big left hook.
The Eagles came out in the second half with a series of RPOs. If Foles read man coverage and the numbers in the box were light, he typically handed off. If it was zone and the corners were playing off he threw.
Reich: Everybody thinks RPO, they think young, athletic college quarterback and that’s not what the RPO game is all centered around. It’s centered around accurate throwing, good decision making and good execution. When we use it, Nick has shown a great aptitude of doing that very well.
On this second down, Foles found Jeffery for 10 yards.
Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr was the unblocked defender, but he timed his rush well. Foles got crushed and was clearly hurt. But he stayed in the game and just four plays later stuck a dagger in Minnesota.
Every team has the flea-flicker in their play book. Both the Patriots and Jaguars ran versions of the play in the earlier AFC championship. The Eagles had practiced it during the previous week.
Reich: It didn’t look particularly that good.
But Pederson included it in the game plan.
Reich: Just talking to Coach the night before, I was pretty confident he was going to dial it up.
With the Vikings reeling, Pederson called the flea-flicker.
Foles: I don’t know if I’ve ever run a flea-flicker. It was my first time so I just tried not to smile.
The play fake didn’t necessarily catch the Vikings, but Smith slowed his route and cornerback Trae Waynes eased up.
Smith: We practiced it a few times and it’s always different in practice than it is in games. Just kind of had a good feel for it and Foles threw the ball where it was my ball and no one else’s.
Foles’ footwork was seamless after Clement lateraled back. He hopped to his right and tossed a dime on Smith’s outside shoulder and away from the safety.
Reich: Sometimes you see in a flea-flicker you’re running ten yards behind a guy. It wasn’t one of those deals. At the end of the day, it was two players making a great play.
Red zone success
The Eagles had converted only two of their previous six red zone possessions into touchdowns. But they were a perfect 2 for 2 on Sunday. On this early fourth quarter play, Jeffery motioned across the formation. He was the first read as Ertz and Agholor ran horizontal routes.
Ertz’s route cleared a throwing lane for Foles, who threw high and away for Jeffery.
The Eagles installed the play early in the season at the request of Wentz, who had run a similar concept at North Dakota State.
Reich: Every time we score on his play, the smile’s going to light up. It was just executed very well. Doug called it at the perfect time.
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