- Without his MVP-candidate quarterback, the Eagles coach and offensive play-caller knew he had to rely on innovative scheming—a heavy ground-game orientation, plus play-action and run-pass options—to put Nick Foles and crew in position to win. Expect the same in the NFC title game next Sunday
PHILADELPHIA — It was Lane Johnson, wearing a plastic dog mask purchased on Amazon this week in the event of an Eagles underdog win, who turned the most heads walking back through the home tunnel Saturday evening. But the person on the Eagles who showed the most emotion walking off the field, after the 15-10 divisional-round win against the Falcons? That was head coach Doug Pederson.
He was leaping, almost skipping, both fists raised high in the air, with a huge grin on his face and still holding the laminated, color-coded offensive call sheet. “Everything kind of rushes through your mind,” Pederson would say a few minutes later at his post-game press conference. He spoke of the resiliency of his players, to win the biggest game of the year with a backup quarterback, as historic No. 1 seed home underdogs, to advance to the NFC Championship Game. In the locker room the players returned the favor—they talked about the coaches setting them up to win, and they talked about that winning call sheet.
“I’m so happy for Doug,” said tight end Brent Celek, the longest-tenured player on the team. “He works so hard to put us in great positions. I know the guys appreciate it. I appreciate it.”
Pederson, along with offensive coordinator Frank Reich, put together a masterly game plan to win against Atlanta. Pederson had played the doubter card all week, posting signs around the facility of media members picking against the Eagles and showing a video the night before the game of commentary dismissing the Eagles’ chances without Carson Wentz, the MVP-candidate quarterback lost in early December to an ACL tear. But Pederson didn’t just push the right emotional buttons—he pushed the right tactical buttons to put his team in position to win.
The first play of the game was a deep, 40-something yard pass by Nick Foles that fluttered and sputtered through the air, perhaps some combination of a bad throw and the whipping 16 mph winds. (The Eagles got lucky, drawing a 42-yard defensive pass interference call). Either way, this much was immediately clear: Throwing deep was not going to be an option. The game plan was going to be built around the run, against an opponent that knew the Eagles were going to run the ball, and Philly would have to make it work anyway.
“A lot of times we try to do a lot of run-pass options, and sometimes that takes away from running the ball,” said center Jason Kelce. “This week, we had a lot of runs that, if it wasn’t there, it was killed to another run. … It seemed like it was going to be a game where they were going to rely on the offensive line to be able to win it.”
Some parts of the game plan were simple, and others were delightfully unexpected. The Eagles used some of the run plays that had worked best for them all season and gotten them to their 13-3 record, players said, but they also added new wrinkles. Like that 21-yard run by receiver Nelson Agholor, who was lined up as a wingback outside the right tackle. Foles faked a toss to the right to the tailback, Jay Ajayi, while Agholor came across the formation to the left, taking the handoff and following Lane Johnson, who pulled in that same direction. That set up a one-yard touchdown run by LeGarrette Blount, who followed blocks by a pulling guard, Brandon Brooks, and tight end Trey Burton, to get around the edge into the end zone.
The Agholor play had been in game plans before, but Pederson, the offensive play-caller, had been saving it. This was the perfect time to use it, against a speedy Atlanta defense that was fooled by the fake and flowed the opposite direction, leaving open running room for Agholor. The Eagles started repping the play in earnest early last week, once they knew they’d be playing the Falcons.
“The way they play defense, those plays are conducive,” Kelce said. “It’s great we had them in.”
“Doug is an awesome play-caller,” Blount said, “and he called it at the perfect time.”
At halftime, the Eagles trailed, 10-9, but that included two mistakes that set up both of the Falcons’ scores: a lost fumble by running back Jay Ajayi on the opening drive, and a muffed punt. The most important statistic in the first half was that the Eagles had run the ball 16 times for 77 yards, including 50 yards from Ajayi, who was averaging a whopping 6.3 yards per carry.
What that did in the second half was set up opportunities for Foles to pass into voids left in the defense while the Falcons were keying in on the run. On the Eagles’ second drive of the second half, Foles threw on seven of 12 plays, a mix of play-action passes and those run-pass options, which are predicated on sucking in linebackers who then vacate a passing lane for the quarterback. “If we don’t hand the ball off, we’re able to throw it, and that linebacker is not going to be in that void,” said tight end Zach Ertz.
The Falcons defense—like the Seahawks and the Chargers, both of whom the Eagles played earlier this season—relies on simple schemes played soundly, which has both pros and cons. In this game, Philly backup quarterback Nate Sudfeld said, that worked to the Eagles’ advantage because it allowed them to keep things simpler, too, homing in on the plays that would be good against the cover-3 variations Atlanta uses most of the time. “We kind of knew what plays would be best-suited for those coverages,” Sudfeld said. “Knowing that, we didn’t really have to worry about changing the scheme as much. We just had our plays we could get good at, and that was one of the reasons we were so excited about it.”
While the Falcons’ play-calling on offense warranted criticism, Pederson seemed to strike the right notes. On a critical fourth-quarter drive, which ended in the field goal that put Philadelphia by five points with 6:02 to play, Pederson had the stones to call the same play twice in a row, to the surprise of even his own sideline. On a second-and-10, Ajayi picked up just three yards on a screen pass to the left side, stopped by a good open-field tackle by linebacker Deion Jones. Then, on third-and-7, Pederson called it again. Left guard Stefen Wisniewski blocked no less than three defenders, first shoving off a defensive end so Foles could get the pass off, and then charging upfield to clear space for Ajayi to break free up the left sideline. The play went for 32 yards, into Atlanta territory.
“Obviously I know our playbook, and I was looking at that like, OK, oh s---, same play!” said Blount, who was standing on the sideline. “And then it happened. Jay set it up perfectly—he made [safety Keanu] Neal go inside so the lineman could capture him, and down the sideline he goes.”
Kelce: “You were kind of surprised when Doug called it again, because usually you don’t call back-to-back screens. I think that was another reason [it worked]; the defense wasn’t expecting it, either. Throw them off balance with the call.”
At the end of that drive, the Eagles had a fourth-and-1 from the 3-yard line and were poised to run it. But the play clock was winding low, so the Eagles took a time out. After the break, they kicked the field goal for a five-point lead, forcing the Falcons to need a touchdown to win when they got the ball back. If the Eagles had scored a touchdown on fourth down, the game would have been over without the nerve-wracking final Atlanta drive (which itself required a fourth-down stop with Atlanta on the Eagles 2). It was a decision that could have gone either way, but on this night, it went the Eagles’ way.
“When did Carson go down?” Pederson asked in response to a question about motivation at his press conference.
“December 10,” a reporter replied.
“OK,” Pederson said. “Since that point, no one has given us a chance.”
Everything the Eagles came into the divisional round hellbent on proving, they did it. They’re now within one win of the Super Bowl not only without Wentz, but also having lost this season All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters. And versatile running back and returner Darren Sproles. And Jordan Hicks, their best linebacker. And special teams ace Chris Maragos.
To keep winning, they’ll have to out-play their opponents, yes; but they’ll have to out-coach them again, too.
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