Doug Pederson said Monday that he was not worried when Nick Foles got off to a shaky start in Saturday’s divisional round playoff win over Atlanta, and that he didn’t make any big changes to get the offense flowing better in the second half.
Instead, Pederson let Foles settle in, and stayed faithful to the concepts he’d scripted – concepts Pederson acknowledged are similar to what the Minnesota Vikings try to do, under his fellow branch of the Andy Reid coaching tree, Minnesota offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. The Eagles will host the Vikings on Sunday in the NFC championship game.
As Pederson has said before, one of the priorities over the past several weeks, in the quarterback switch from Carson Wentz to Foles, has been finding out what parts of the offense work best with Foles, and tailoring the attack more to his strengths.
Pederson said he and offensive coordinator Frank Reich prioritized “plays where [Foles] was comfortable. Really had a tight, tight game plan. There really weren’t a lot of moving parts, as far as motions and shifts and things like that.”
The Eagles scored no points in the first quarter; Foles’ first pass, though it drew a pass-interference penalty on Atlanta, was described on TV by Cris Collinsworth as “a duck of massive proportions.” Foles took a sack that killed a possible field goal and didn’t complete a pass that gained more than 10 yards until the final five minutes of the first half – and that drive died when Foles missed tight end Trey Burton on third and 5 for what should have been a major gain that would have set the table for a field goal or touchdown. His longest completion of the half, 20 yards to Torrey Smith, came when a horribly thrown pass bounced off the knee of Falcons safety Keanu Neal, to Smith.
Foles seemed to gain traction when his 15-yard completion to Alshon Jeffery set up a 53-yard Jake Elliott field goal just before halftime.
“We didn’t make a lot of wholesale changes at halftime. We just stuck to the game plan. Nick just started getting into a rhythm in the second half a little bit more, and things just began to open up,” Pederson said. “Alshon started getting the ball a little bit; [Zach] Ertz a little bit more. And being able to take advantage of some things down the field. The screen game was a big part of that in the second half. There wasn’t a lot of major changes or things that happened.”
That screen game might be something both defenses have to stop Sunday.
“Run, play action and screen. That’s what they do. That’s what we’ve done the last couple of weeks,” Pederson said, when asked if Shurmur’s offense is like his. “The other thing you’re seeing, too, I think, in our case we were able to do a much better job on first and second down and help us out on third down,” on which the Eagles were six for 13. “Those are the things that you see Minnesota do, and they’re successful on first down; keeps them third-and-manageable. “
Pederson was the Eagles’ starting quarterback and Shurmur was the tight ends coach on Reid’s first Eagles staff in 1999. It was Shurmur’s first NFL job after coaching at Michigan State, where he’d been a starting center and co-captain in the ‘80s, and at Stanford. He became the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach in 2002.
Shurmur’s departure to the Rams after the 2008 season helped clear the way for Pederson’s return to Reid’s staff, for a year as offensive quality control coach, then for four years as quarterbacks coach, until Reid was fired. Shurmur returned to the Eagles for three seasons in 2013, as Chip Kelly’s offensive coordinator, Reid and Pederson having gone to Kansas City.
“Smart,” Pederson said, when asked what comes to mind when he thinks of Shurmur. “He’s obviously been a head coach in this league [with Cleveland in 2011 and 2012], a coordinator in this league. He’s done an outstanding job with Minnesota the last couple of years. He understands defense, meaning he’s putting his guys in a position to be successful, particularly that quarterback [Case Keenum]. It’s been fun to watch him and watch what they’ve done offensively this season, as well.”
Keenum became the starter after Sam Bradford went down with a knee injury, coming out of a Week 1 victory. The Vikings lost two of Keenum’s first three starts, with the offense unable to score as many as 10 points in either loss. Apparently, there was a period of adjustment there, as well. But the Vikings overcame that, winning 11 of their final 12 regular-season games and then pulling off that final-play miracle against the Saints on Sunday.
Though Keenum has played very well, the Vikings certainly felt they had a championship-worthy team before he had to take the reins; the fate of the team hasn’t been as squarely on Keenum’s shoulders as it might have been when he was quarterbacking the Rams or the Texans.
This is how the Eagles feel about trying to win with Foles, as well.
“There is a great surrounding cast around him, and he doesn’t have to do it himself. It’s not about one guy. You saw that the other day,” Pederson said. “It was a great example of that great team effort the other day. Was it perfect? No, but at the end of the day, we won the game, and we found a way to win the game, and that’s all that matters.”