One of the bigger challenges for Doug Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich when the postseason begins in a conference semifinal game for the Eagles will be forcing the opposing defense to play honestly despite a change at quarterback that has made the offense significantly more predictable.
Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Cowboys, a game meaningless for playoff positioning, might become very meaningful down the road if Nick Foles, in whatever portion of the game he plays, can give potential opponents something to think about. So far, in a limited sample since replacing Carson Wentz, he really hasn’t.
“We’re running the same offense,” Reich said Wednesday. “Has the game plan been slightly different, has it been called slightly different because Nick has been in the game? Yeah, it has been. Is it completely different? No. Is it a different offense? No. But there are just different things that are emphasized.”
When Wentz was playing this season, 41 percent of his passes were targeted for wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. With Foles at quarterback, only 29 percent of the passes have gone to the two wideouts. Again, it is a short sample, and one of the games, Christmas night against the Raiders, was played in sub-optimal conditions against a defense that chose, for some unknown reason, to play mostly with two deep safeties. But the number is the number.
Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli prefers a single-high alignment with an extra man near the line of scrimmage to help shut down the short passing game and the running game. It’s likely that any playoff opponent that studies where Foles is most likely to attack will do the same thing. That’s why there is more at stake Sunday than merely “getting in sync” with the wideouts after a game in which they were targeted only seven times in 38 attempts and caught just one pass.
If the Eagles don’t have at least the threat of a downfield dimension, it will be a far easier offense to defend. Foles has completed just 32 percent of his attempts to Jeffery and Smith, as compared with Wentz, who completed 54 percent to those receivers.
As a result of leaning more heavily on slot receiver Nelson Agholor and the array of running backs and tight ends, the post-Wentz offense is averaging a paltry 5.26 yards per pass attempt. Every one of the 33 ranked quarterbacks in the league – from Drew Brees (8.08) to Brett Hundley (5.70) – has a higher number than that.
Even though Wentz has been criticized for his downfield accuracy, the offense averaged 7.49 yards per attempt with him, which placed Wentz 11th in the league and made the offense more than one-dimensional. Wentz had 41 completions of 20 yards or more in his 440 attempts, one every 10.7 attempts. Since taking over, Foles has had two completions of 20 yards or more in 86 attempts, one every 43 attempts. So, where would you put your defensive emphasis against him?
“A lot of the plays that Carson makes are just his God-given ability to run and to make plays with his legs. It does help you out to make big plays that way,” Pederson said. “But Nick has the ability to make big plays through the air. Believe it or not, he is pretty efficient when he is out of the pocket in finding receivers and guys down the field. We’re going to continue to run the offense the way we have all season. We just have to get better execution.”
It would have been a more convincing expression of support if he didn’t add the “believe it or not” part, but Pederson has no intention of confirming to the world that his offense might have to dink and dunk its way to the Super Bowl. A capable downfield showing against Dallas will give some credibility to his belief in Foles and bolster the offense’s confidence after its poor effort against Oakland.
“I would certainly like to go into the postseason coming off of something better than this last game,” center Jason Kelce said. “The second half was probably our worst half of football this season.”
To that end, Pederson is faced with a difficult decision regarding how much to play Foles on Sunday. He wants to play him enough to erase that most recent memory, even at the risk of injury.
“I can’t worry about that,” Pederson said. “I got to play [him] and get him as many reps as he can, and then be smart about it. We have a lot of football left. Our season really is just beginning, quite honestly.”
That will be for the playoffs to determine, of course. Looking at the offense’s current shortcomings, however, it would be easier to believe the season was just starting if Nick Foles weren’t.