Better that Eagles' defense — not Foles — struggled vs. Giants

Better that Eagles' defense — not Foles — struggled vs. Giants

Just to recap, the Eagles won their last two games. Both on the road. The first victory came against a team that is tied for the NFL lead in points per game with the Eagles. They won despite losing their MVP candidate quarterback late in the third quarter. That same Rams team the Birds beat throttled the Seahawks on the road, 42-7, Sunday and has the third-best record in the league. 

That same day, the Eagles survived and beat the Giants. It was the third leg of a three-game road trip. Regardless of the opponent, not an easy task. The respective wins clinched the NFC East title and a first-round bye in the postseason. Heady stuff. But both wins felt muted a bit. The Rams game was clearly clouded by the Carson Wentz season-ending injury. The Giants win was all about how the game played out.

New York is a mess this season, that's been well-documented. Their stats and record heading into the game more than supported the chalk outline around their franchise. They stink. But despite it being a division road contest and the tail end of a grueling three-game road swing, fans and media expected the Eagles to crush the G-Men. That didn't happen; the Eagles more survived.

So now despite them having the best record in football at 12-2 and being one win or one Vikings loss away from clinching home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, there is a lot of concern in Eagle-land. And rightfully so: Whenever you lose your starting quarterback, particularly one the caliber of Wentz, that's a deathblow to most teams. 

The 2017 Eagles could be the exception. They have overcome significant injuries all season to get to where they are. And Nick Foles has taken a team to the playoffs in the past. Coincidentally, the Vikings are a case study of riding a backup to great success. However, regular-season success and playoff success are two different animals. Time will tell. But Foles certainly played well enough against the Giants for his team to win in the playoffs.

The Birds' defense is a whole other concern. Through 11 games, they allowed 17.3 points per game. In their last three games, they are surrendering 29.3 per contest. You could justify giving up 24 and 35 points on the road to the Seahawks and Rams. But 29 points to a Giants team that averages 16.3 per game? The Birds' secondary got fried in the first half and their tackling that was so sure for most of the season has gotten very shaky. New York put up 504 total yards and was within a whisker of winning for just the third time this season. So there is trepidation with Eagles fans despite the team's lofty accomplishments.

You do wonder how much greater the anxiety would be if, hypothetically, the Eagles had won 13-10 instead of 34-29. Say Foles threw two picks, and he and the receivers were not on the same page but the defense bailed the offense out? How high would the fear factor be now if those tables were turned? Foles may be the least of the issues. Maybe the loss of Jordan Hicks, the quarterback on defense, was a bigger factor than people thought? Perhaps the secondary that had overachieved all season is finally coming back to Earth?  

There has been and will be much debate about sitting the starters in the last two regular-season games if the Eagles have home-field clinched. And most of that focus will center around Foles. But it may be the defense that needs the reps to get things corrected. Doug Pederson admitted Ronald "The Blocker" Darby is still not all the way back from the injury that cost him most of the season, and he is still learning the system.         

Despite all of these "issues" and concerns, the Eagles have lost just once since Sept. 17. Their greatest trait all season has been their resiliency. Time will tell if they can overcome all the players they've lost but for now, they've earned a little rope with the folks on the outside looking in.

By just being himself, Doug Pederson has had masterful year

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By just being himself, Doug Pederson has had masterful year

Bill Belichick didn’t win a playoff game until his fourth year as an NFL head coach and didn’t reach a conference title game until his seventh year.

Don Shula didn’t win a playoff game until his sixth year as a head coach.

It took Dick Vermeil four years to win a playoff game, Dan Reeves six years, Tom Landry eight.

Heck, Pete Carroll didn’t reach a conference title game until his third head coaching stop, and Marv Levy didn’t even get to the playoffs until his eighth year as a head coach.

Just a little context.

Pederson has been magnificent this year, and out of everybody we talk about who’s played a role in the Eagles' success — from Carson Wentz to Nick Foles, Howie Roseman to Joe Douglas, Fletcher Cox to Malcolm Jenkins, Jim Schwartz to John DiFillippo, Jason Kelce to Alshon Jeffery — Pederson is the common thread that’s tied all of it together.

We saw last year that Pederson had a rare ability to keep a team together when faced with adversity. Whether it was the whole Sam Bradford situation before the season, Lane Johnson’s suspension, a couple arrests, two players publicly speaking out about mental health, or just keeping the thing on the rails after three straight late-season ugly losses, Pederson won over his players by confronting each issue openly and professionally and treating his players like grown men.

By the time the team training camp ended this past summer, Pederson had earned the respect of the veterans by preaching discipline without being over the top about it and by constantly keeping the lines of communication open with his players. 

Here’s a young, inexperienced coach who had a long but undistinguished playing career and no real track record or resume as a head coach trying to convince a locker room of Super Bowl winners and all-pros that he knows what he’s doing.

But he did that. Just by being himself. Tough, smart, open, honest.

And once you get guys like Malcolm Jenkins, Jason Peters, LeGarrette Blount and Alshon Jeffery to buy in, the younger guys just fall in line. 

And that might be the biggest challenge any head coach faces. Getting guys to believe in his message. To believe in him.

But Pederson has tremendous instincts when dealing with people, a real natural, honest way of getting his point across, and it enabled him to seamlessly win over the locker room. 

Once that happened, this team was built to withstand whatever challenge it faced. To withstand whatever roadblocks stood in its way.

And as it turned out, there were plenty of them. 

We don't have to run down the littany of season-ending injuries the Eagles faced, but what this team has accomplished without its MVP quarterback, its Hall of Fame left tackle, its best linebacker, its all-pro returner and its top special teamer is nothing less than astonishing.

Nick Foles is their quarterback and they're in the NFC Championship Game.

Think about the last month.

They came from behind in Los Angeles to beat the Rams after Wentz got hurt. They beat the Giants on the road. They beat the Raiders to clinch No. 1 seed. They "upset" the Falcons in a conference semifinal playoff game. 

For this football team to be one home win away from the Super Bowl after all it has been through speaks volumes about Pederson. He's guided this franchise through adversity that would have crushed some locker rooms, and he's done it in his second year as a head coach above the high school level.

Pederson found a way to get 53 guys to believe in themselves even when very few other people did. And they returned the favor by consistently playing smart, physical, disciplined football for him no matter who the opponent, no matter what the score, no matter how long that Injured Reserve list grew.

This has been a masterful year for Pederson, and anybody who can't see that just isn't looking very hard.

Why lack of touches for Jay Ajayi after 1st quarter?

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Why lack of touches for Jay Ajayi after 1st quarter?

Jay Ajayi wasn't hurt Saturday night. So why did he barely play after a huge first quarter?

Ajayi dominated the first quarter of the Eagles' 15-10 playoff win over the Falcons at the Linc with seven carries for 49 yards. But after a one-yard carry a minute into the second quarter, he didn't touch the ball again until the third quarter.

After his hot start, he didn't even get on the field on the Eagles' last two drives of the first half.

LeGarrette Blount actually had more carries than Ajayi after the first quarter, but netted only 19 yards on nine attempts, although he did score the Eagles' only touchdown from a yard out in the second quarter.

Ajayi never got into a rhythm after his long layoff. He had eight carries for five yards after the first quarter and finished with 15 carries for 54 yards along with four catches for 44 yards, including a 32-yard catch and run that was the Eagles' longest offensive play of the game.

Head coach Doug Pederson said Monday he just wanted to get Blount some work. He also said he likes to go hurry-up after long plays and was unable to sub Ajayi while the offense was going with tempo. But there weren't any plays longer than 15 yards while Ajayi sat.

Pederson said the decision on which back to use rests with him and not running backs coach Duce Staley.

“I ultimately control the personnel," he said. "Duce doesn’t sub them. I’m the one calling the plays, so I call for those guys in particular situations, and a couple times when we broke off a long run or a pass particularly — it’s a good time to go a little tempo. So whoever the back is at the time on the field, I just kept him in there.

"And [Blount] was heating up a little bit and we wanted to get him going as well and it’s just the way it went."

Ajayi had 35 of the 86 net yards on the Eagles' only touchdown drive of the game.

After that second-quarter TD drive, the Eagles ran 15 times for 17 yards, not including three Nick Foles kneel-downs.  

Pederson said all the backs know all the plays, but he just prefers different backs depending on what the Eagles are doing offensively. 

Of the Eagles’ 67 offensive plays, Ajayi played 29, Blount 20, Corey Clement 16 and Kenjon Barner one (see Snap Counts).

"The way it is set up is by design, by scheme design, a particular back might be good at a certain run scheme so we put that back in for that particular play," he said.