- The Vikings know exactly what Foles is, and they have the personnel to make it a long afternoon for the Eagles passer. Plus, the Vikings O-line will miss an injured starter, the Eagles get one back, and an X-factor for Philly’s receiving corps
On paper, Nick Foles is one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in history. He posted an otherworldly 119.2 passer rating while going 8-2 as a starter for the Eagles in 2013, and a 69.0 rating while going 4-7 as the starter for the Rams just two years later. His other seasons since entering the league in 2012 brought similarly mixed results. And this season, after taking over for an injured Carson Wentz, Foles threw for 237 yards and four touchdowns in his first full outing (a win over the Giants), then completed just 50% of his passes the next week, throwing for 163 yards in an ugly win over the hapless Raiders. His first half performance against Dallas in Week 17 yielded stats that would barely show on a graph (4 of 11 passing, 39 yards, one interception). But in the divisional round win over Atlanta, Foles threw for 246 yards, completing 23 of 30 attempts.
But this wild yo-yoing is just Foles on paper. On film, Foles has the consistency of a metronome. Good week or bad week, his scouting report is as straightforward and irrefutable as you'll find. The key points:
• Foles has a strong enough arm and can throw with velocity at the intermediate levels if (and it’s a significant if) he has a clean platform from which to throw. If you muddy Foles’s pocket and prevent him from stepping into throws, his arm strength vanishes.
• Foles’s deep ball loses energy on the back end. Any downfield shot he takes must be wide open.
• He’s mobile enough to occasionally get out of trouble, but not mobile enough to feature on bootlegs and rollouts.
• He’s risk averse. He can anticipate open receivers, but he won’t throw with anticipation into tight windows.
Foles is a very specific quarterback with very specific limitations, which has ultimately made him a high-level backup. As a respectable timing-and-rhythm player, his success is dictated by his level of comfort, and that level of comfort is determined by his surrounding circumstances. He’s essentially the “control” in a football scheming experiment. And so with Foles, an offensive coach must draft a gameplan with clearly defined reads that present themselves to the quarterback. A defensive coach must concoct a scheme that forces the quarterback to locate reads on his own and push the ball downfield. The longer Foles holds the ball, the more his limitations factor in. Get Foles holding the ball regularly and he becomes very methodical, both in his mechanics and decision-making.
In the Divisional Round against Atlanta, Doug Pederson stumbled upon the perfect recipe for Foles: RPOs (run-pass options). Foles gets the shotgun snap and either hands it off or throws quickly inside, depending on the linebacker’s location. On RPOs he reads and reacts to just one snippet of the defense. Pederson also involved running back Jay Ajayi in the passing game and stayed committed to Philadelphia’s diverse ground game. Foles, reduced to a facilitator, responded well. This was not unlike what Foles did under Chip Kelly in that prolific 2013 season.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer will center his gameplan around making Foles play off-schedule, where rhythm and clarity can’t be found. For some coaches, this means blitzing; pressure the quarterback and make him throw before he's ready. But on Sunday, this would only play into Philly’s hands, as Pederson will continue to give Foles quick, precisely defined reads. And so Zimmer’s approach will be to show blitz and then drop into coverage—something the Vikings do better than anyone. Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are crucial; they’ll set Minnesota’s defensive look pre-snap and then change it post-snap, hunting up receivers inside. Safety Harrison Smith will also blur the picture. This, along with more of the press-man coverage that Zimmer brought out in key moments against the Saints, will alter Foles’s timing and make him play late into the down. This makes his limitations harder to overcome.
You’ll hear people talk about Foles needing to recapture his 2013 magic for an NFC title game against the league’s best defense. But there is no magic to recapture. Foles has always been what he is. The trip to Super Bowl 52 depends on what happens around him.
CAUSE FOR CONCERN
Minnesota's offensive line has not been the same since left guard Nick Easton went down on Christmas Eve with an ankle injury. Easton was the interior line’s most athletic blocker, and his absence has brought a reshuffling (with right tackle Mike Remmers moving to guard and backup Rashod Hill becoming the new starting right tackle). That makes it a weaker unit in three spots. This is a major concern when you’re going on the road to face Philadelphia’s dominant defensive line.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Nelson Agholor. The breakout slot man is the only Eagles receiver with a favorable matchup Sunday. Agholor will work against nickel slot corners Terence Newman and Mackensie Alexander (they rotate), while Alshon Jeffery will face the brutal press coverage of Xavier Rhodes, and an unrefined Torrey Smith will deal with rising cover artist Trae Waynes. Agholor isn’t just critical in the passing game; his contributions both as a runner and misdirection decoy were significant in the Divisional Round win over Atlanta. That deception will be important for running the ball against Minnesota’s stingy front seven and safeties.
Having Stefen Wisniewski back at left guard was a boost for Philadelphia's O-line. Wisniewski has been up and down this season, but against Atlanta his mobility and athleticism stood out on east-west run plays, as well as on backfield screens.
NON-FOOTBALL THING ON MY MIND
January is a tough time for regular gym goers because the facility gets inundated with the New Year’s Resolution people. These are the people who wander over to a machine (usually the one you want to use), try their hand at a few sets (all with different, unpatterned repetitions) and then leave without wiping down the equipment (which, actually, is fine since they never broke a sweat). A proposal: anyone who starts going to the gym as their New Year’s Resolution must wear a marking—say, a scarlet R, for Resolutionary. A Resolutionary can only use a machine if no regular, year-round gym goer approaches it. A Resolutionary who is seen using a machine incorrectly must leave the gym and enroll in a formal exercise class (for their own safety, of course). A Resolutionary can enter the gym with an iPod, but they cannot pull it out after entering. (Set your playlist and go. You’re here to work out, not play D.J.)
If a Resolutionary is still visiting the gym regularly by St. Patrick’s Day, the R is removed and that person is granted full gym-goer rights.
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