In winning three consecutive games to improbably reach the playoffs, the Philadelphia Eagles shut down some of the league’s most effective pass rushers. To wit: the combination of Aaron Donald, JJ Watt and Jadeveon Clowney combined for one sack and two quarterback hits against the Eagles; those three players had 35 1/2 sacks and 87 quarterback hits in 2018.
So what does that mean for how Doug Pederson and the Eagles’ offense will scheme against Bears’ outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who leads his team with 12 1/2 sacks and 69 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus?
“He's playing at an extremely high level,” Pederson said. “Brings a lot of energy and passion to that defense and he's tough. He's tough to defend. It's hard to, you know, just one-on-one, you're not going to slow him down. Definitely have our work cut out for us.”
Pederson, since the re-introduction of Nick Foles into the Eagles’ offense, has been able to effectively scheme some of the league’s best pass-rushers out of making a game-wrecking impact. Whether it’s through quick throws and strategically-timed downfield passes, or through committing an extra blocker to someone, Foles has only been under pressure on a little under 20 percent of his drop-backs over the last three games.
And even against the Texans — when Foles was under pressure on 16 of his 50 drop-backs — he still completed 10 of 15 passes for 178 yards with a passer rating of 101.5, per Pro Football Focus.
There’s a narrow margin between effectively scheming against an elite pass rusher and doing something too different as an offense, Pederson said, which will certainly apply to the Eagles’ gameplan against Mack and the Bears’ defense this week.
“Obviously the more guys you can get out on the route a little bit better, sometimes the ball out fast can sort of nullify a rush, which you saw early in the Rams game,” Pederson said. “So there's a fine line. You just have to mix it up. You're not always going to be in a position to chip guys like that. You're going to have to get guys out on the route just based on the situation of the game and the play call.
“Again, we don't go out of our way to necessarily design formations or different protections or anything like that, but we just have to be aware of where he is.”
Still, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has found other ways to generate pressure than by just relying on Mack and Akiem Hicks (7 1/2 sacks, 16 QB hits). Sometimes that’s meant sending slot corner Sherrick McManis on a blitz (eight pressures, one sack on 21 pass rushing attempts, per PFF), or calling on Roquan Smith to burst up the middle (11 pressures, five sacks on 52 pass rushing attempts).
But stonewalling Mack — not just in limiting his sacks, but limiting how he affects the pocket — is nonetheless an important step toward neutralizing the league’s best defense. How Pederson goes about doing that, and how Fangio counters that with his own scheme, will be one of the more fascinating chess-match aspects of Sunday’s game to watch.
“He definitely brings a level of energy and a consistency at that position,” Pederson said. “Definitely boosts the defensive line. He's definitely somebody you have to scheme for and know where he is. Vic does a good job of moving him around the line and putting him in different spots.”