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Overlooked over the course of this roller-coaster Eagles title defense, in which they began the season 4-6 and rallied to 9-7 and a playoff berth (losing a starting quarterback to injury along the way) has been the progression of Doug Pederson’s offense after the hiring of a new offensive coordinator, Mike Groh.
The 47-year-old former Eagles receivers coach has been key to the day-to-day operation of a passing game that has produced 4,275 yards (seventh in the NFL) and 29 touchdowns with 11 interceptions, despite losing Carson Wentz after 11 starts and again having to turn to Nick Foles, football’s most valuable backup at any position.
One under-the-radar stat: Wentz and Foles completed a combined 60.6% of their passes when hit or hurried during the regular season, second-best in the NFL according to Sports Info Solutions. And they’ve been on target with their passes 71.9% of the time when under pressure—again, the second-best mark in football. Foles on his own is on target 82.7% of the time when pressured, which is 10% higher than second-place Kirk Cousins.
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Ask Groh how Foles does it, and the answer is clear-cut: “courage.”
“I know this is a cliché, but he’s obviously got a unique ability to stand in there and look down the gun barrel, if you will, and know he’s gonna take a hit,” Groh says. “He knows when it’s worth it. He’s willing to stand in there when he knows a play can be made down the field.
“That comes with experience and being a veteran quarterback. Not everybody’s willing to do it. There’s a physical price to be paid. He says, I know they’re coming, and I can hold it an extra click and somebody might get open, or I can put the ball in play and let those guys make plays for me.”
Even so, the Eagles were vastly improved against successful pass rushes. The 2017 team that won the Super Bowl completed only 45.1% of its passes when the quarterback was pressured, 21st in the league, compared to that 60.6 mark this year. The difference? The tight ends. In 2018, Zach Ertz and rookie Dallas Goedert had a combined 200 targets, compared to the 175 targets split among Ertz, Trey Burton and Brent Celek a year ago.
“Zach is a critical piece inbeing able to complete those passes [under pressure],” Groh says. “He creates a matchup advantage for us, he’s reliable against man coverage, and the QBs have a lot of confidence in going to him in those situations. We’ve been able to have some continuity in the offensive huddle at all the skill positions, where those guys understand what we want to get done on those plays.”
On Sunday in Chicago, look for Philly’s tight end tandem to be Foles’s answer against a defense that had 50 sacks on the season (third in the NFL) and ranks fourth in combined deflections, passes batted down, passes defensed and interceptions.
From Sports Info Solutions, a key factor to monitor in the other three wild-card games:
Ravens vs. Chargers
Ravens rookie QB Lamar Jackson has made his biggest impact running the ball. He has averaged just 23 passes per game in his seven starts (and 17 rushing attempts), completing 58.2% of his passes. When he does throw, he’s been much better versus zone coverage than against man: 63.4% against the former, compared to 43.8% versus the latter. His on-target percentage is 18.1 points higher: 74.4% to 56.3%.
This should concern the Chargers, who have played the second-most zone coverage in the league this year—58% of their defensive snaps. (The Colts play the most at 59%.). Indeed, L.A. failed to adjust its defense when facing the Ravens in Week 15. The Chargers played 54% zone, and had six or more DBs on the field on 80% of plays. Facing that defense, Jackson had the best passing day of his young pro career, with 204 yards, a touchdown and a 101.3 rating.
Colts vs. Texans
Indianapolis and Houston play more Cover 2 than any other teams in the league. The Colts rank first in the league in Cover 2 usage (28.4%). That rate is:
• higher than the second-place Texans (19.43%) by a full nine percentage points
• more than double the rate of the fifth-place Browns (13.64%)
• nearly triple the NFL average of 10.48%;
• higher than their next-favorite coverage (Cover 3) by almost nine percentage points
Andrew Luck ranks third of 32 quarterbacks in EPA/attempt (expected points added) against Cover 2 (0.32), Deshaun Watson ranks 17th (0.10).
Watson has also scrambled against non-Cover 2 coverages 55 times this season and averaged 0.45 EPA/attempt when doing so. Against Cover 2, however, he has scrambled just four times, with a -0.04 EPA/attempt.
Cowboys vs Seahawks
The story here will be Seattle’s run game and how the Cowboys deal with it. The Seahawks’ offense has called a run on a league-high 49.9% of snaps this year, and Seattle ranks fifth in yards per carry. The Cowboys defense ranks fifth in yards per carry allowed. This will be a good matchup to watch, especially since the Seahawks excel at outside and inside runs, and the Cowboys excel at stopping runs in any direction.
Off Tackle Runs
Off Tackle Runs
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