I don’t believe that anyone, particularly outside of the Eagles' locker room, expected the offensive explosion on Sunday night against the Minnesota Vikings. I felt good about an Eagles win as the game drew closer, but I certainly did not predict a 31-point blowout victory (the largest in team playoff history) that would be considered "over" by the beginning of the third quarter. This was a dismantling of one of the best defenses in the NFL by head coach Doug Pederson and his coaches as well as quarterback Nick Foles and the rest of the players on that side of the ball. I couldn’t wait to come in on Monday morning to watch how it came to fruition.
Of all the shocking numbers that came out of this game, the Eagles' success on third down was, by far, the most impressive. Through 17 regular-season and postseason games, the Vikings defense had ceded 53 third-down conversions at a rate of just over 25 percent, the best number since 1975. There was no defined reason why they had success, but it certainly came through a combination of scheme and execution out on the field. Let’s look at some of the best third-down conversions in this game for the Eagles' offense.
The Vikings were one of the best blitzing teams in the NFL, an aggressive unit that could get after opposing quarterbacks with relative ease. Last week, we covered some of their pressure concepts both on Eagles Game Plan as well as in my Eagle Eye column. The most consistent pressure scheme the Vikings features Double A-gap looks, with two defenders over the A gaps (the spaces directly next to the center right in front of the quarterback). The Vikings liked to show pressure inside and bring a safety, typically Harrison Smith, off the edge. In fact, we broke down that exact blitz in both of the segments I linked to above. The Eagles' coaches and players saw that pressure too, and on Sunday they were ready for it.
Note that there is audio commentary for each of the video clips.
Shot 1 - #Eagles were extremely successful against the best 3rd down defense in the NFL, and beating the blitz was a big part of that. Watch the job in protection here by Jason Kelce and Corey Clement to help keep Nick Foles clean on completion to Zach Ertz to move the sticks pic.twitter.com/hwlGnqMs3N — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 22, 2018
It’s third-and-long, and the Vikings show one of their Double A-gap looks with Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks standing up over the center. With the way the Eagles are choosing to protect them, Jason Kelce will be responsible for one, while Corey Clement will be responsible for the other. This is the most popular way to block this look as an offense, with Clement blocking the defender closest to him and Kelce blocking the one on the other side.
Thinking they have Clement’s attention, the Vikings send Smith from the opposite side of the formation. This concept has worked numerous times for them over the last few years, and I can think of many sacks and hits on the quarterback from the exact same blitz. This time, the Eagles are picture perfect in picking it up. Clement starts inside as if he’s going to block Kendricks, but as soon as he sees his man drop out, he gets his eyes across the formation to block the safety off the edge. The undrafted rookie running back crosses the formation, stands Smith up at the point of contact, and gives Foles time to deliver this ball to Zach Ertz, who found a hole in the Minnesota zone coverage and picked up a first down. This was an outstanding example of both preparation (the Eagles knew the blitz was coming) and execution (that’s not an easy block, especially for an undrafted rookie), as the Eagles moved the chains.
Shot 2 - TE Zach Ertz made some critical catches on third down in this game as the #Eagles coaching staff concocted some play concepts to attack the #Vikings in their man coverage schemes. #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/BpFBdFZejf — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 22, 2018
Ertz was a focal point for the offense on Sunday, coming up with a few huge catches on third down in particular. It wasn’t any one concept in particular that worked for him specifically, but Ertz found a way to get open numerous times and make plays for this Eagles passing game.
The other thing that stood out in this game was the number of throws that Foles was able to make late in the down, which is not something he’s particularly known for doing. Foles is a timing and rhythm quarterback. He’s not a player who you want holding on to the football and scrambling outside of the pocket to make throws on the run, at least not on a consistent basis. In this game against Minnesota, he did just that for some of the biggest plays of the night.
Shot 3 - How exactly did Alshon Jeffery break open for a long touchdown against the #Vikings? I'll give you a hint...he wasn't a part of the initial progression. Here are two big plays the #Eagles made on third down outside of the structure of the initial play call #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/64HY7psvKN — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 22, 2018
On the touchdown to Alshon Jeffery, Foles did an outstanding job in the pocket of holding on to the football through contact (though he does need to protect the football with both hands when he’s under pressure), keeping his eyes downfield, and then of recognizing what his receiver is doing on the outside. This is not a deep route for Jeffrey by design. He breaks this play upfield when the dig route is taken away and he sees Foles is in trouble. Jeffery breaks downfield, Foles lofts it up, and the big man came down with it to make the score 21-7. A similar type of play happened later with Nelson Agholor, who started a route to the outside, saw that Foles broke the pocket, and jetted upfield. Foles placed a beautiful throw on the run over Agholor’s shoulder for a 42-yard gain and a first down.
Shot 4 - #Eagles offense was great in the red zone on Sunday vs the #Vikings, and they score here on a concept they've run a number of times to Zach Ertz this year. This time it goes to Alshon Jeffery for six points #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/YzOMOvgEP4 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 22, 2018
Let’s quickly get to Jeffery's second touchdown of the night, which also happened to come on third down. In the red zone, where the Eagles were 2-for-2 on the night (Minnesota was 0-for-3), the coaches draw up a perfect concept to get Jeffrey matched up on a receiver who has no chance in coverage. We’ve seen the Eagles run similar types of plays for Ertz earlier in the season with lots of success in this part of the field. With Agholor running to the flat and Ertz running across the field, the coverage is expanded horizontally toward the sideline. This puts Jeffery on a bit of an island against Trae Waynes.
The problem for the defender is that Jeffery comes across the field on a motion pre-snap, and due to his alignment at the snap of the ball (he’s lined up far inside of Waynes), the corner is out leveraged immediately. Waynes has Jeffery coming right at him, can’t undercut this throw, and Foles puts it up perfectly high in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. That’s great scheme and execution from the entire offensive side of the ball.
On the first shot, we got to see the Eagles beat Minnesota’s pressure schemes, but that wasn’t the only time that took place.
Shot 5 - One of the big factors to winning on third down for the #Eagles was burning the blitz. The #Vikings brought pressure a couple of times and Nick Foles got the ball out on time and on target to help create YAC opportunities for his WRs #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/MaBoY82oIQ — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 22, 2018
Here are two examples of the Eagles burning the Vikings in their blitz schemes. On both plays, two things stand out. First, the timing and accuracy from Foles, getting the ball out quickly and on target. Don’t take either for granted, because if he hitches for even a split-second on either of these throws or is a foot off the mark with his ball placement, both pass catchers could’ve been taken down short of the sticks. Instead, both players are able to meander their way past the marker to move the chains.
One of the hallmarks of Doug Pederson’s style as a playcaller is his aggressiveness. Everyone correlates that with his propensity to go for it on fourth down, and while that’s true, there are other aspects of his style that speak to that attacking nature.
Shot 6 - #Eagles get the ball with 30 secs left in the first half, up by 14 and with the ball to start the 3Q. Sit on it and play for halftime, right? NOPE. Doug Pederson goes pedal to the medal, goes 60 yards on three plays, sets up a field goal to take 24-7 lead #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/SMiNhZYh3V — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 22, 2018
The Eagles get the ball back in a situation where, by my guess, most coaches would sit on the football and play for halftime. There are 30 seconds left, the Eagles are backed in their own end, they’re up by two scores, and they get the ball to start the third quarter. Rather than risk a turnover or a sack here, just kneel and go into the locker room happy that you’re ahead by 14.
Nope, that’s not Doug, and I love it.
Just like he did late in the first half last week against the Falcons, Pederson called a quick screen on first down, picking up 11 yards. Then he attacked downfield on a shot play that would work against the opponent’s top coverage scheme. Pederson anticipated man coverage, and he beat it on this Post-Wheel concept, where Smith bit on what is basically a double move by Ertz. This puts the Eagles in field goal range, and they steal three points before halftime. Those types of things matter, maybe not in games like this one, but certainly in battles like the one against the Falcons in the Divisional Round.
Shot 7 - Early third quarter the Eagles keep going full-throttle, striking on a shot play from the fringe area on a Flea Flicker to Torrey Smith. Beautifully thrown by Nick Foles, great catch over the shoulder by Smith. Nice pass pro from Big V as well. #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/PNayZduSl5 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 22, 2018
Here’s another example of that aggressiveness, where Pederson goes pedal to the medal and strikes down the field on ... a trick play. It’s first down and the Eagles run a flea-flicker with rookie running back Corey Clement, Foles, and Torrey Smith. It was in the right part of the field, throwing against the right cornerback (Waynes), and Smith sold this route perfectly for a score. At this point, I would say the game was almost surely won for the Eagles, and it was still early in the third quarter. I love the aggressiveness there from Pederson, who made it a point to attack downfield in this game on multiple occasions, likely to keep that aggressive cornerback group off the line of scrimmage in press coverage.
Speaking of press coverage, that’s one way that defenses look to try and stop RPO (run pass option) plays. RPOs are rhythm throws. It’s essentially the quick game. So if a corner can get a good jam on a receiver early in the down, it’s tough for the quarterback to fit a pass in on time if he decides to throw it. The Eagles know the Vikings are a big press coverage team with their tall, long corners, and they accounted for that in the game plan.
Shot 8 - One thing that was apparent in the #Eagles offensive performance vs the #Vikings was their use of RPOs. Nick Foles played the role of point guard, making pre-snap reads and putting the ball where it needed to go all night. This week we saw an added wrinkle as well... pic.twitter.com/ByHf8wowqu — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 23, 2018
This is from the second drive of the game, and notice where Jeffery is lined up here, inside the numbers in a "nasty" or "minus" split, tight to the formation. From this location on the field, it’s very hard for a cornerback to press his man. This is because, with so much room to the outside and the entire middle of the field to work with on the inside, the receiver has a two-way go. That’s a tough spot for even the most talented corner. For that reason, you’ll typically see a defensive back sit back in off coverage against a tight split with no one else outside of the receiver. Here, Jeffery gets his free release and is perfectly in-step with Foles on this conversion. RPOs were a huge part of the game plan against the Falcons, and that continued with Minnesota. At no time, though, did I see the Eagles' commitment to those concepts more than the start of the second half.
Shot 9 - #Eagles came out of the locker room to start the second half with what I believe to be five straight RPOs. Some were runs, some were passes, but Foles moving the offense on gains of 4, 6, 3, 10 and 5 to get them to midfield on schedule #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/eN0H9dLZFF — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 23, 2018
The Eagles came out of the locker room, took the opening kick of the second half, and ran five straight RPO plays (by my count). Now, sometimes the ball was handed off, and other times Foles threw it to the outside, but regardless it all started with Foles making some sort of quick read and putting the ball where it’s needed. Why such an uptick in RPOs on Sunday? I couldn’t say, but my guess is that it’s a good way to keep a talented, aggressive defensive front at bay because you’re essentially asking your offensive line to block in the run game play after play after play instead of letting the defensive ends tee off on the quarterback.
Staying in the run game, the Eagles' offensive line was stellar on Sunday night against Minnesota. Everyone across the board had a strong outing against the Vikings. Halapoulivaati Vaitai, in particular, way more than held his own against a supreme pass rusher in Everson Griffen. Big V got help, to be sure, but helped keep Foles upright for most of the night and created big holes in the run game.
Shot 10 - I was wowed by the blocks made on the backside all day in the run game. Whether it was Vaitai working with Wisniewski, Brooks working with Lane, or either tackle working with a TE, there was a ton of movement at the poa to help give the RBs room to work inside #Eagles pic.twitter.com/09WwS25M9q — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 23, 2018
This takes me to the rushing attack, which featured what seemed like countless big blocks in the trenches. Specifically, I want you to focus on the back side of these run plays. Whether it was Vaitai with Stefen Wisniewski, Lane Johnson with Brandon Brooks, or any of the tackles mixed in with Ertz, Brent Celek, and Trey Burton, the Eagles consistently moved people up front for Minnesota, namely defensive tackle Tom Johnson. It was really impressive to watch unfold.
Shot 11 - The Wham run play has been a staple for this #Eagles offense all season long. That continued on Sunday. Great finish by LeGarrette Blount on the TD #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/lmVQgvBl2G — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) January 23, 2018
The one play that has worked time and time again for the Eagles in the run game this year is the Wham play, which got the Eagles their first offensive touchdown of the night in the first quarter. Burton motioned in, blocking Tom Johnson, and two offensive linemen climbed up to the second level. Rookie receiver Mack Hollins planted cornerback Mackensie Alexander, and Blount played off his blocks and lowered his shoulder to bury safety Andrew Sendejo and give the Eagles the lead for good.
Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.