Here’s a collection of words we never thought we’d be saying in 2018: The Super Bowl goes through Nick Foles.
The Philadelphia Eagles’ starting quarterback for Sunday’s NFC Championship game was thrust into the starting job following a season-ending injury to starter Carson Wentz. Naturally, prognosticators quickly began picking against the Eagles when Foles took over. After all, it would be nearly impossible to recreate the MVP-caliber season that Philly’s No. 2 overall pick in 2016 was putting together.
But as Foles proved against the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional round, the Eagles have a strong enough defense and supporting cast on offense to compete for a Super Bowl appearance. They held the Falcons to just 10 points and out-gained Atlanta 334-281 to advance to the NFC title game.
There was certainly some luck involved in Foles’ first career playoff win. An interceptable pass bounced off a Falcons defender for a completion that set up a field goal and the Falcons botched a final-second pass play from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones.
What can we take away from the Eagles’ win over the Falcons? Should the Vikings’ defense expect to dominate Foles? Let’s have a look…
The outlier year
When Chip Kelly was hired by the Eagles in 2013 (with offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur), pundits debated on a daily basis whether his uptempo offense would translate to the NFL. Well, it did. Following an injury to Mike Vick, Foles took over and posted a stat line reserved for Tom Brady. He tossed 27 touchdowns, two interceptions and averaged 9.1 yards per attempt (a whole yard more than league leader Drew Brees this year).
The Eagles ranked fourth in scoring and second in yards behind their out-of-nowhere quarterback ended the year with an 8-2 record and 119.2 quarterback rating.
It would be a supreme understatement to say Foles was helped by his supporting cast. Superstar LeSean McCoy gained 1,607 yards rushing and DeSean Jackson caught 82 passes at 16.2 yards per catch. Four of the Eagles’ five O-linemen were Pro Bowlers at one point or another and left tackle Jason Peters belongs in Canton.
The following season, the Eagles still had a good offense, but Kelly traded away Jackson, the offensive line got banged up and Foles fell back to earth, throwing 13 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and managing an 81.4 rating. The Eagles moved on, acquiring Sam Bradford from the Rams.
Since his amazing 2013 season, here are Foles’ stats:
Now compare those to Case Keenum’s stats prior to joining the Vikings.
One conclusion we can draw from these numbers: Neither Keenum or Foles is as bad as they appear with poor situations and neither is as good as they appear with unbelievably great situations.
In order to figure out how dangerous Foles could be against the Vikings’ No. 1 defense, we have to look at his supporting cast and scheme and how they enhance his skill set.
The Eagles’ QB will certainly spread the ball around on Sunday. Against the Falcons, Foles completed passes to eight different players and six players had at least three receptions.
Doug Pederson’s offense worked the ball around during the regular season, too. The Eagles threw for nearly 4,000 yards as a team, but no receiver cleared 1,000 yards. Tight end Zach Ertz was the club’s leader with 74 receptions at 11.1 yards per catch, but when he was largely shut down by the Eagles, Foles found other options like receiver Alshon Jeffrey (four catches, 61 yards), Torrey Smith (three catches, 39 yards) and running back Corey Clement (five catches, 31 yards).
Philly’s running back with LaGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi and Clement combined to rush for over 2,000 yards with Ajayi averaging 5.8 yards per rush after joining the Eagles at the trade deadline. The group pounded away at the Falcons for 96 yards on 32 carries.
The success of the running game comes in part because of a stacked offensive line. Even without Peters, who suffered a season-ending injury, the Eagles created the most runs of more than 20 yards (19) during the regular season.
Here’s Pro Football Focus’s grades for each Eagles lineman:
The biggest drop off from Carson Wentz to Nick Foles is the ability to make big-time throws. In fact, Pro Football Focus has a metric that grades tougher throws – ones that are of a higher degree of difficulty than bubble screens or quick slants. Wentz graded only behind Tom Brady and Matt Ryan on the high-difficulty throws and just in front of Russell Wilson.
Since his magical 2013 season, Foles has a 61.9 quarterback rating on throws classified by NFL play-by-play as “deep.” He’s completed just 31.8 percent of those passes. On short throws, he’s much more effective during that time span with 66.8 percent completion and an 84.2 rating.
Taking those out of the Eagles’ offense is a big blow, but on quick throws (less than 2.5 seconds from snap to release) Wentz averaged 6.9 yards per attempt and had a quarterback rating. Those are the throws that Foles should be able to execute.
Take this run-pass option play, for example. Early in the third quarter, the Eagles trailed 10-9 and Foles took over at his own 7-yard line. He completed back-to-back passes to kick off the drive, including a 13-yard completion on a quick slant to Jeffrey. The offensive line gives the look of a sweep left with the center pulling. The tight end runs a route into the middle of the field to hold the safety and Jeffrey runs a quick slant against man-to-man coverage.
Foles hit five of seven passes on the drive, which resulted in the go-ahead score for the Eagles.
Early in the fourth quarter, Foles once again started a drive inside his own 20. On third-and-7, the Eagles surprised the Falcons with a quick screen that resulted in a 32-yard gain.
This play fully demonstrates the excellence of Philly’s offensive line. Watch as the center Jason Kelce runs out into the flat to eliminate the linebacker and No. 61 Stefen Wisniewski flies out into space, where he crushes a safety and holds off a corner so Ajayi can escape to midfield.
Notice that the receiver and tight end create traffic for the linebackers. Deion Jones is held up just enough to allow Kelce time to get to his spot and the other linebacker De’Vondre Campbell follows the tight end in man-to-man coverage.
All Foles had to do was flip the ball to his back and let everyone else do the rest.
So the Eagles’ backup can effectively execute quick slants and screens. He also has some sense for the pocket. On this play, he feels the pressure coming from the outside and quickly finds his underneath option. Foles did this a handful of times against the Falcons.
The bottom line
Overall, Foles finished the game 23-for-30 with 246 yards, zero touchdowns, zero interceptions and he was only sacked once. That’s exactly the type of performance Philadelphia will be looking for from him again. Foles showed that he can manage the game. Also, the supporting cast showed they should’t be taken lightly.
It will be paramount for the Vikings to slow down the running game and limit the effect of play-action plays. Also on those quick slants, there will also be an opportunity for the Vikings’ savvy DBs and brilliant defensive head coach to bait Foles into the wrong read.