I’ve been thinking a lot about Doug Pederson’s decision to throw a fade to Hakeem Butler on 4th-and-goal from the 3-yard line on Thursday.
It was a bad decision. No way around that.
Sure, the ref should have called DPI but it was Butler’s first career offensive snap and he got it less than a month after he arrived to Philadelphia. In a crucial fourth-quarter situation, Pederson dialed up a play for Butler to run a timing route from a quarterback he hasn’t worked with very much. How many times could they have really repped that in practice?
I hated the decision to put Butler in that spot and it was absolutely the wrong decision, but I also kind of understand the position Pederson has been in as a play-caller in recent weeks.
Pederson on Thursday didn’t have two go-to weapons in Zach Ertz and Miles Sanders and that definitely showed in the red zone.
And he also didn’t have much on the offensive line and that showed on short-yardage plays.
“It can be a challenge at times,” Pederson admitted on Friday. “The thing is, with this many new players, new starters or guys in the lineup, you don't get much time on task. You don't get many reps during the week with these guys. So some continuity and timing in the passing game, particularly, can lack just a little bit.
“That's why we practice, right? That's why we do the things we do during the week to prepare and sometimes keep game plans a little bit simpler or smaller so these guys don't have to think quite as much, and they can just focus on a handful of plays.
But we do our best to put guys in position and utilize their strengths so they don't have to learn two different positions, for instance. They can just learn one spot for that week.
“Guys are doing a great job. They're making plays. We saw it again yesterday late in the game with some of these guys that are making plays for us and helping us win that game yesterday.”
Pederson hasn’t had much play-calling magic in 2020 but I think a lot of that is because he’s still calling plays like he has his best players available. He obviously doesn’t.
Throw a fade to Alshon Jeffery? Fine. Run a sneak behind Brandon Brooks? Fine.
But right now Pederson needs to do a better job of calling plays for what’s left of his injury-riddled offense. And that’s not easy.
The Eagles struggled in two key areas offensively on Thursday night:
1. Red zone
The Eagles were technically 3-for-8 in the red zone on Thursday but that eighth trip was a kneel down so they were really 3-for-7. Still, that’s not good.
Before this game, the Eagles were scoring on 73.3% of their trips to the red zone. After this game, they’re down to 60.9%.
The Eagles on Thursday night were 3-for-6 on 3rd- or 4th-and-short and were also 0-for-2 on 2-point conversions.
That’s not great in tight spaces where Pederson would normally be able to find ways to use a play call to get a few easy yards.
On those short-yardage plays, Carson Wentz was stuffed on a 3rd-and-1 in the first quarter and Boston Scott was stuffed on a 3rd-and-1 in the third. In these situations, Pederson has to realize he’s running plays behind Nate Herbig and Sua Opeta, not Brooks and Isaac Seuamlo.
And for how often the Eagles go for 2-point conversions, they haven’t been very good the last two weeks. In fact, they’re 2-for-6 in the last two weeks after going 0-for-2 on Thursday night.
On the first 2-point conversion Thursday, it looked like Pederson tried to offset the absence of Brooks but the play call was doomed. Instead of a sneak, Pederson called a Wentz run to the right out of the shotgun and he was stuffed.
On the second conversion attempt, Jalen Hurts was in shotgun with a wacky formation. It looked like the Eagles tried to get the linebacker to bite on Hurts running so Hurts could throw a quick pass to Richard Rodgers, but the Giants defended it well and then Hurts had to run for his life and force a pass. But at least that second one showed some innovation and, to me, it was actually a good sign. Because Pederson has to start calling plays differently with this current group on offense.
So what has to change?
Well, when asked about some of the breakdowns on Thursday, Pederson pointed at execution.
“The breakdowns were really execution, offensively,” he said. “Whether it was offensive line mistakes, receiver mistakes, quarterback mistakes. Everybody had a hand in the breakdowns. It's really something that I think as coaches with the amount of new faces, it's really a teachable moment for us, to be able to show guys.
Well, yeah, the backups aren’t going to execute as well as the starters. The play caller needs to account for that.
Ideally, one of the many offensive assistants would be able to help Pederson call a better game and possibly even take over play calling, even if just for a half. But Pederson doesn’t want to give that up. I think it would help to have a new perspective but that’s not going to happen.
So it falls on Pederson to better pinpoint his team’s current offensive strengths and try to utilize them. With so many injuries, guys coming in and out of the lineup, that’s not easy. And the margin for error is even smaller.