Eagles

Eagles-Giants thoughts, starting to solve the Nick Foles mystery

Eagles-Giants thoughts, starting to solve the Nick Foles mystery

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A game that until recently looked like a speedbump on the Eagles’ path to the playoffs has all of a sudden become a matchup of intrigue and mystery.

NFC East rivalry or not, the 11-2 Eagles were expected to dispatch the 2-11 Giants with relative ease, and still very well may. However, the season’s second meeting between the two teams has taken on a decidedly different feel now that it will feature Nick Foles under center for the Birds.

It’s become appointment viewing for an Eagles fan base collectively holding its breath, hoping to catch a glimpse into whether Foles possesses the ability to lead the team deep into the postseason.

Foles has made 36 career NFL starts — seven more than the quarterback he replaces, Carson Wentz — and has appeared in 46 games total, most of that with the Eagles. Nonetheless, the sixth-year veteran is viewed as something of an unknown entity. Foles was productive for several seasons, even historically prolific, but also lost a pair of starting jobs, nearly playing himself out of the league along the way.

Now in his second stint with the Eagles, the question is which version of Foles are the Eagles getting this time around, and can they still reach the Super Bowl with a new signal caller? We will begin to get some answers Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium.

In a position to succeed
Regardless of whether Foles is up to the challenge, it wouldn’t hurt the Eagles’ chances if they were able to finish what they started and earn the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. That could actually happen as early as Sunday.

A win over the Giants and a Vikings loss to the Bengals would be enough to clinch a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Even if the Vikings don’t lose this week, the Eagles can secure the top seed in the conference with any two wins over the Giants, Raiders or Cowboys over the final three games. Of the three remaining opponents, only the Cowboys are currently above .500 at 7-6.

In other words, Foles shouldn’t have to do much heavy lifting until the postseason, while the Eagles can make his job a little easier in January if they take care of business down the stretch.

With a little help from his friends
Foles has been under the microscope all week, and the backup quarterback has been examined from just about every angle. There’s nothing much more to say about the Eagles from the offense’s standpoint, at least until we’ve seen it in action.

The group that’s flying under the radar in the aftermath of the injury to Wentz is the defense. Even the unit’s role in last week’s 43-35 win over the Rams has been overlooked to a degree, despite coming up huge in the fourth quarter.

After allowing the Rams to go up and down the field for the better part of the contest, the Eagles made two pivotal stops after Wentz’s exit. A Chris Long strip sack set up the game-winning field goal and that was followed by a quick three-and-out that allowed Foles and the offense to milk nearly the entire final two minutes of regulation.

That was against the No. 2 scoring offense in the NFL, and though the Eagles did surrender 35 points, the defense stepped up when it mattered.

Wentz might be out, but the Eagles’ defense still ranks first against the run, 13th against the pass, fourth in total yards, fifth in scoring and is tied for third in takeaways entering the week. This isn’t all about Foles and the offense. They are more than capable of limiting or completely shutting down an opponent.

Coming up short?
The one area of the offense that might be worth keeping an eye out moving forward is on third downs. The Eagles are third in the NFL with a 45.3 percent conversion rate, and Wentz just seemed to have a knack for making something happen even during third-and-long situations, often keeping the play alive or simply making a clutch throw.

Foles did find Nelson Agholor for a huge third-down conversion against the Rams, but Wentz has been uncanny in those situations. Foles is far less likely to extend a play with his feet, and he’s far more willing to make a safe throw to a checkdown receiver and live with a punt.

Perhaps more than anything else this season, that ability to keep drives alive was what made Wentz so dangerous and so difficult to defend. When it seemed the Eagles’ backs were against the wall, he’d throw a strike, or run around and find somebody or pick up the first down himself.

No matter what happens, the offense won’t be the same without Wentz. The guy is special. But on third down, in particular, there was a feeling no distance was too far, and a conversion was inevitable — and on occasion, it would break the will of opposing defenses.

The Eagles better get used to the idea of running on first and second down to create manageable thirds, punting when it’s not there and playing defense. Foles will do fine, but he’s not quite an unstoppable force, unlike Wentz.

Of all players, Big V could be key to Eagles' victory

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AP Images

Of all players, Big V could be key to Eagles' victory

Halapoulivaati Vaitai is already a huge reason why the Eagles are playing for the NFC Championship. Now, he might be the key to reaching the Super Bowl.

The Eagles couldn’t have made it this far without Vaitai, who took over at left tackle way back in Week 7 when Jason Peters was lost for the season. But on Sunday, Peters’ replacement faces one of his stiffest tests to date in Vikings right defensive end Everson Griffen.

“He's a game-wrecker,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said of Griffen this week.

Recently named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, Griffen set career highs with 13.0 sacks in 2017, finishing tied for fourth in the NFL. It was the third time in four seasons the eighth-year veteran went into double digits, and he’s still going strong, getting to the quarterback once more in the Vikings’ divisional round playoff win over the Saints.

Griffen is one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the league. Vaitai was a minimally experienced backup until mid-October. On paper, the matchup looks like a serious concern.

“Fast, strong guy,” Eagles right guard Brandon Brooks said of Griffen. “He’s played in this league for years now, got experience.

“But V is big and strong too. He has not as much experience, but got more experience than a lot of younger guys his age with the games he started last year and games he’s playing this year, so I know V is up to the challenge.”

A fifth-round draft pick in 2016, Vaitai has 17 NFL starts under his belt and 11 this season, including playoffs. The results are somewhat mixed, though the Eagles have an 8-2 record since the 24-year-old stepped in at left tackle.

Vaitai hasn’t made anybody forget about Peters — a future Hall of Famer — but the second-year player is holding his own and improving steadily.

“He’s got a lot better, especially from last year to this year,” left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. “His technique has improved greatly. I think his football IQ has gone up. He’s really worked hard to get better every day, and his pass blocking has improved tremendously.”

This week perhaps more than any other, the Eagles can’t afford a liability at the tackle position.

The gravity of the situation is obvious, with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Plus, in addition to Griffen, the Vikings boast the league’s No. 1 defense both in scoring and yardage. Points and positive drives will be hard enough to come by for the Eagles without consistent disruption at the line of scrimmage (see story).

Naturally, Pederson plans to provide assistance for Vaitai. However, the Vikings are also known for using exotic double A-gap blitzes up the middle and other overload pressure packages, and the Eagles can’t double-team one guy the entire game.

There will be occasions when Griffen is one-on-one, and it’s on Vaitai to shut him down.

“It's a lot of respect for him,” Pederson said of Griffen. “He can change the ballgame.

“He knows that tight ends are going to help over there, backs are going to help over there, slide protection. It’s not rocket science. But Big V has had a challenge all season. We've faced some tremendous defensive ends all season long, and this will be his greatest challenge in this game. I have a lot of confidence in V and what he's done this season.”

Whether out of comfort or necessity or resignation, at this point, the Eagles seem fine with the idea of Vaitai versus Griffen. Right tackle Lane Johnson doesn’t see the potential mismatch as a big deal at all.

“We’ll have some chip pros and some slams tied in, but other than that though, I think he’ll be alright,” Johnson said. “Just another guy in there.”

Vaitai has often looked like “just another guy” this season, in varying senses of the phrase. He’s experienced his share of struggles, then been able to quietly blend in with a strong offensive line for long periods.

Whichever Vaitai the Eagles get on Sunday could go a long way toward determining the outcome on Sunday.

Corey Clement adding element Eagles didn't expect

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Corey Clement adding element Eagles didn't expect

Corey Clement corrected himself.

His initial answer, when asked how far he's come as a receiver this year, was, "I think I've really come a long way."

Then he stopped, smiled and reconsidered.

“I think in a funny way I don’t think I made that big a leap," he said. "Because I always knew I could catch."

Clement never caught the ball at Glassboro High. Never caught the ball at Wisconsin. Never caught the ball during the regular season.

So guess who the Eagles' leading receiver was in their playoff win over the Falcons.

Who else?

"Five catches … that's not just a career high, it's probably my highest in life," Clement said laughing. "My lifetime high."

Clement caught five passes for 31 yards in the Eagles' 15-10 win over the Falcons at the Linc. The numbers may seem modest, but considering that Clement had only 29 catches in 39 games in four years in Madison and caught just 10 passes during the regular season, it's eye-opening.

Clement became the first undrafted rookie running back in NFL history to catch five passes in a playoff game and became only the ninth running back in Eagles postseason history to catch five passes in a game.

“[He's come] really far," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "We've said it all year, that's been a surprise, a running back from Wisconsin who is running power [in college]. You’re not thinking he's going to come in here and be your third-down back. But he's worked very hard at it and really made a role for himself."

Clement is a very good ball carrier — he averaged 4.3 yards per carry during the regular season — but on a team with Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, he's not going to get very many carries. He had just one for five yards last Saturday, on one of the Eagles' last plays of the game.

But none of the Eagles' other backs are much in the way of receivers. In fact, this was the first year since 1956 the Eagles didn't have a running back with at least 15 catches. And they were the only NFL team without a back catching 15 passes.

Wendell Smallwood is probably their best receiving back, but he's been inactive since the Eagles acquired Ajayi.
 
"I know in college I had one season (junior year) where I had only two catches," Clement said. "It just shows you that some of the college coaches got to give you an opportunity to catch.

"But I knew the opportunity I was walking into. It’s a running school and that’s the offense we ran, so I knew I wasn’t going to catch much.

"I’m happy with where I came from and I wouldn’t want it to be any different, but I know what I can do. I know I can catch the ball, but at the same time I know I can get a lot better at it as well.”

Clement never caught more than three passes in a game in college and had only three catches in the Eagles' first 10 games (two for touchdowns) before recording seven in the last six regular-season games.

A functioning screen game can be a terrific tool to offset an aggressive, pursuing defense like the Vikings' highly regarded unit. It's something the Eagles have been missing much of the year.

So Clement's emergence as a legitimate receiving back is timely on an offense that's lacked punch since Carson Wentz got hurt.

"First of all, he's getting better in route running," Doug Pederson said. "We've got to be smart as a staff on how we use our running backs. People can start keying in on certain guys and certain personnel groups, so we've got to make sure that we mix things up.

"He's one of those guys that I feel like we're getting more comfortable with throwing him the football whether it's a screen or down the field, and you saw a couple out of the backfield to him and one big third-down play there. He catches well and he's done a nice job."

Still, this is all new to Clement.

And he's learning as he goes.

"I’m getting a lot of help from (Nick) Foles and the other receivers on how to pinpoint a ball at a better location, so I think the ball is slowed down a lot for me in the air as far as looking it in and keeping it secure once I get it," he said.

"There’s so many fine points that I can keep working on, but I think as far as making a tremendous leap, I think I’m in a good position to keep excelling, especially going into the offseason."

Clement's five catches last Saturday are the fourth-most in Eagles history by a rookie in a playoff game, behind Keith Jackson and Jeremy Maclin (seven) and DeSean Jackson (six). 

The previous record, believe it or not, was two, shared by Heath Sherman, Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook.

“I think it helps me stay on the field, just to show them I can run after the catch as well and not basically be a rock out there catching the ball," Clement said.

"Just showing versatility and staying calm out there is big, because I know I can catch, but if you make the game bigger than what it is, you’ll start doing weird crap. So I kind of just stay to the fundamentals and just play fast."