Eagles film breakdown: Doug Pederson is once, twice, three times the caller of the same play
Pederson called the same exact play three times in a row in the Eagles' 34-27 win over the Packers last week. That isn't the norm in the let's-overcomplicate-the-game, self-indulgent NFL.
The Eagles’ offensive playbook is vast. There are hundreds of plays that, dressed up in different formations and personnel groupings, could bring the variations close to a thousand. On game days, that number is whittled down to a select 100 or so.
The plays will then be divided into various categories -- base-package plays, nickel plays, third-down plays, red zone plays, etc. -- and printed out in an easy-to-read laminated card for coach Doug Pederson. Even if there are only a dozen possible choices in the, for instance, backed-up plays section, rarely will play callers select the same play on successive downs.
Three times in a row is virtually unheard of. And yet, Pederson dialed up the same play with the same personnel in the same formation on back-to-back-to-back calls in last week’s 34-27 win over the Packers.
“It’s a credit to Doug. I believe in that also,” Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland said this week. “Make somebody stop you first. … He doesn’t always do that, but there’s times where he’ll feel so strong about something that he’ll go with his gut. I think when you’re on to something like that, then ride with that.
“Until they show you that they have an answer, ride with it. We try to complicate everything so much, it’s ridiculous. It’s like a joke. Because it’s really not that complicated.”
Football can be complicated, especially at the pace in which it’s played. But there are some coaches who would rather make three right turns than just turn left. Pederson typically has no such pretense.
The Eagles self-scout and go to great lengths to break tendencies. But if a play works, particularly on the ground, there’s a chance it might work again, even on the next play. Pederson has already this season called identical run plays on consecutive downs several times.
He did it successfully midgame vs. the Lions and he did it late in the Packers game.
“Sometimes if me and you do something once and we get a good feeling for it, we’re probably going to do it even better the next time and the next time,” Stoutland said. “So I have this thing called 10,000 kicks, Bruce Lee. I fear not the man who practices 10,000 kicks one time, but I do fear the man who practices one kick 10,000 times.
“So we kind of believe that around here. The more times you and I get a chance to surface this particular block, the better we’re going to be at it. Those reps are just like bars of gold, man.”
The Eagles had already established their domination at the line of scrimmage by the time they got the ball on their own 1-yard line with nine minutes left in Green Bay. They were ahead only seven points, and couldn’t sit on the ball, but they also just needed to get the ball out of what they call a “minus-1” situation.
Pederson called an inside run play with six offensive linemen. The Packers had used their nickel and dime personnel for most of the game -- to their detriment on the ground -- but they stayed in their base here. The Eagles’ blockers got push and running back Jordan Howard (No. 24) powered ahead for 7 yards.
“That’s just dive solid with a little counter jab step by the back, downhill play for us,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “Everybody hit their blocks. The backs did a good job of being patient, and then when they saw the hole, hitting it and hitting it hard. That’s a tough play for anybody to stop if you’re blocking it right and the running back’s running hard.”
Pederson hit the repeat button. He said that there were alerts attached to the play for quarterback Carson Wentz in case he got to the line and felt like he had to check to another based on his pre-snap read.
But he didn’t. Green Bay kept their base unit on the field and with tight end Zach Ertz’s pre-snap motion indicating zone coverage, Wentz handed off to Howard again. With sixth linemen Halapoulivaati Vaitai (No. 72) taking out the defensive tackle and tight end Dallas Goedert (No. 88) sealing the edge, Howard gobbled up 10 yards.
“Those are pretty straight-up play calls,” Wentz said. “Coach made a great call and I love that he was willing to come back to it. The O-line was moving guys up front. They were asking for it, they were calling for it, and we just trusted those guys.”
The offensive linemen “clamor to run the ball in every situation,” according to Eagles guard Brandon Brooks. But that doesn’t mean Pederson has to always comply. But with the play having success and the Packers still not changing their defense, he called it one more time.
Howard gained 4 yards. On second down, Pederson chose a pass play and Wentz hit Ertz for 9 yards. The Eagles failed to score on the drive. But they advanced past midfield, and after a punt, the Packers had to start from their own 11.
A week earlier, Pederson called an outside zone run -- again with six linemen -- on successive plays. Howard picked up 10 yards on his first carry and 6 yards on the next.
“You know what we’re running. Everybody in the stadium knows what we’re running,” Brooks said. “We’re going to see who’s the best on this play. Can you stop it? Whatever works, keep running until they stop it.”
Pederson has also called the same play after it ostensibly failed, most famously in the 2017 divisional playoff game against the Falcons. The Eagles led, 12-10, early in the fourth quarter, but they were on their own 17 and had gained only 3 yards on a second-down screen to running back Jay Ajayi.
Most play callers would have moved on to some other play, even one that had worked earlier. But not Pederson. He ran the same screen to Ajayi and the second time was a charm.
Most defensive coordinators expect that a different play will be run out of the same formation. Offensive game plans are full of similar-looking plays in which the first one is meant to set up another.
“What I learned is, the defense is going to adjust,” Pederson said. “They are going to make another call. If we didn't get it right the first time, we can definitely get it right the second time, and I have a lot of faith in the guys to get that done.”
Still, it’s unorthodox play calling, as former Eagles offensive coordinator and current Colts coach Frank Reich called it in 2017.
“There [are] things that he’s called that at the time I thought, ‘That’s unique, I’m not sure that would have hit my brain like that,’” Reich said then, “and many times those things have worked out.”
How many coaches would have taken the advice of their quarterback on a pivotal goal line fourth down in the Super Bowl, as Pederson did when Nick Foles suggested “Philly Special?” In the NFL, where many coaches over-egg the pudding, not many.
“Ego’s involved. That’s what happens,” Brooks said. “With Doug, he’s a players’ coach. He listens to the players.”