The Nick Foles hysteria throughout Philadelphia during the last three weeks is merited, although it can obscure what has also been a storyline with Foles in the past: The ugly games, when Foles looks more like the journeyman than the Super Bowl MVP.
Foles hasn’t looked that way since taking over for Carson Wentz, but he’ll be challenged by a Chicago Bears defense that that has forced more turnovers than any team in the NFL. The Bears’ 36 takeaways include 27 interceptions -- the most by a defense since Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” in 2013. Foles has thrown an interception in all three games since replacing Wentz, but not more than one. He has six multi-interception in games in his career and his teams have been 1-5 in those games.
The Eagles don’t necessarily need a spectacular game from Foles, but they do need a clean game from him.
“The key to [avoiding turnovers] is really going out there, executing, being aware of when they have visions, what they’re doing, and ultimately playing fast and not worrying about making mistakes,” Foles said.
Foles’ film study of the Bears confirmed what the statistics suggest -- the defense hunts for the football. Although it’s the Bears’ defensive front that deservedly gets attention, the secondary capitalizes on the pass rush and makes quarterbacks pay. Cornerback Kyle Fuller tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions (he also led the league with 21 pass breakups) and safety Eddie Jackson was next with six. Both are headed to the Pro Bowl. Cornerback Prince Amukamara (three interceptions) is an established veteran, and Adrian Amos (two interceptions) is an underrated safety who has transitioned from Penn State to the NFL.
“The reason they have a lot of turnovers, obviously, is the pressure they can cause up front, which causes a little havoc, quarterbacks holding onto the ball,” Foles said. “Their secondary understands concepts, they can tell when receivers are running different routes, what else is coming behind it, so they’re able to have vision on it and cut and they have really good ball skills, which is something you don’t always see.”
The Bears excel at pattern matching, which happens when a defender covers his zone and focuses on a player coming into his zone instead of chasing a player around the field. But it can confuse a quarterback because it might initially appear like man-to-man coverage. Offensive Mike Groh lauded the way the Bears mix up their coverages against different offensive concepts.
They’re going to mix it up, try to confuse my eyes, they’re going to try to confuse us with different looks," Foles said. “Sometimes defenses do that and they’re not good at it and get gashed. They’re very good at it. They’ve been good at it all year and they’re getting better as the year’s gone out, so it will be a great challenge for us.”
And once they get their hands on the ball, they’re threats to score. Jackson has returned two interceptions and one fumble for a touchdown this season; he has five total touchdowns since entering the NFL. The Bears lead the NFL with five interceptions returned for touchdowns this season. Points might be at a premium on Sunday, so Foles cannot afford to let the Bears reach the end zone without their offense even touching the ball.
Foles must find the balance between being careful not to put the ball in harm’s way while also playing with the aggressiveness that has allowed the offense to flourish during the last three weeks, including a willingness to throw 50-50 balls to Alshon Jeffery. This will be an important week for Foles’ high-percentage targets like Zach Ertz and Darren Sproles, who can help put the Eagles into more manageable second and third downs.
“You can’t be facing third-and-12 against this team because it’s going to take too long to develop and those guys are going to rush the passer,” Ertz said. “Often times on third-and-12, you’re going to have me and Sproles chipping, so you’re going to be limited to three routes. You want to be able to get myself and Sproles out into the routes and do what we do in the passing game.”
Although his offensive weapons can help, it’s up to Foles. The bad Foles has showed up nearly as often as the exceptional Foles throughout his career, which is why he wasn’t able to lock down a starting job during the last two times he was a free agent. Foles rides the pendulum of extremes more than most; he has 17 starts with a passer rating less than 80, and he has 20 starts with a passer rating greater than 100. He has only 11 starts in between.
The Bears defense has kept 12 opposing quarterbacks to passer ratings below 80. That list includes Aaron Rodgers, Kirk Cousins twice, and Jared Goff, who had his career-worst 19.1 passer rating while throwing a career-high four interceptions during a loss to the Bears last month.
However, Foles seems to be at his best when it matters most. All four of his postseason starts fit in the greater-than-100 category. His last two starts are in there, too. Of course, the Eagles don’t need him to be that good on Sunday as much they can’t afford one of his bad days.