The Eagles didn’t reinvent the wheel, or their offense, in Sunday night’s victory over the Los Angeles Rams. They did do something struggling teams try to do in every sport – get back to basics, to simpler concepts they knew they could execute, to try to generate pace and rhythm.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Monday this was not so much because Nick Foles was playing quarterback for the first time since Week 2, it was something he and offensive coordinator Mike Groh decided on coming out of the overtime loss at Dallas, before they knew Carson Wentz’s back injury would sideline him against the Rams. Tuesday, Groh reiterated this and expanded upon it.
Groh said he didn’t want to leave the impression that the offense needed some dramatic course correction.
“I don’t feel like that’s the case,” he said. “Maybe emphasizing a few more concepts. It’s not like we got way off track. I don’t think that’s what [Pederson] meant by that. It was just really kind of a reemphasis, ‘Hey, let’s get back to some core things,’ and hopefully jump-start things a little bit.”
They might have done some further tailoring after tests last week showed Wentz had suffered a stress fracture in a vertebra, but regardless, a lot of what worked well with Foles Sunday night would have been helpful to Wentz, as well, had he played.
As we saw in the victories over the Redskins and Giants, Wentz benefits when the Eagles commit to running the ball just as much as Foles does. Thirty runs and 31 pass attempts Sunday night was the most balanced the offense has been all season, edging out the Nov. 25 Giants game, a 25-22 Eagles victory that included 29 runs, 28 pass attempts and three sacks.
Pederson and Groh said they cut out a lot of presnap motion, feeling that on the road, in a loud environment, it would just add to the potential for confusion and penalties.
Cutting down on the motions, Groh said, helped provide “maybe from a play-call standpoint, just a tempo. Just to try to get up and lined up and eliminate all those things [that weren’t] altogether necessary. Just line up and play.”
Pederson said their objective was to “put together a game plan that would be conducive for anybody, any of our quarterbacks.”
They continued to expand the role of rookie tight end Dallas Goedert, setting up most of the game with two tight ends, or “12″ personnel, something that also has worked well when they’ve used it with Wentz.
It helped that the Rams failed to adjust to this, playing the entire game in their nickel defense. Even Groh, who goes to great lengths to never say anything controversial, said: “We were a little surprised to see them just stay in nickel completely the entire game. But we were committed to run the football going out there.”
The offensive line didn’t allow any sacks against one of the dominant defensive fronts in the NFL, sometimes because Foles was getting the ball out a little quicker than Wentz tends to, but mostly because they were blocking Aaron Donald and company consistently well, something that, again, would have been nice to see more often in front of Wentz.
“We got a complete game out of the O-line. We need that kind of effort again this week,” Groh said, when the Houston Texans come to town, with J.J. Watt (14.5 sacks) and Jadeveon Clowney (eight sacks).
There was “tweaking” for Foles, Groh acknowledged. And maybe there is a difference in the way Foles approaches the position – Wentz is the field general who wants to go through progressions and direct the attack, Foles, as Pederson noted Monday, sees himself as a distribution point, getting the ball to the scorers.
“I know in Nick’s case, former basketball player, and I know he said this before -- he's like a point guard in basketball, and he just wants to distribute the ball, doesn't matter where. He just wants to distribute the ball,” Pederson said.
There were several plays that might have been RPOs, which Foles likes, and maybe you could say Foles seems a little more oriented than Wentz toward the “R” part of that concept.
Some of what happened Sunday was just serendipity, however. Wentz, watching from the sideline, saw Jared Goff look as unsettled facing the pass rush as any QB the Eagles have faced this season. He saw Goff tripped by his center on third-and-1, then saw him try to save the situation by flinging the ball into the arms of Eagles safety Corey Graham, setting up an Eagles touchdown. (The league has changed the scoring of that play, by the way, to a sack by Kamu Grugier-Hill and a fumble, which contradicts what Goff said after the game, but so it goes.)
Wentz saw an opposing punt returner, JoJo Natson, just lose his grip on the ball following a bad Eagles three-and-out with a little more than three minutes left in regulation, a bailout that would have come in handy a few times this year.
And he saw Darren Sproles, playing his third game in a row after that extended hamstring rehab, add an element to the offense that definitely has been missing. Sproles ran three times for 30 yards, including a 17-yarder on third-and-4 that was the team’s longest run of the evening, converting the Eagles’ first third down. He caught three passes for 16 more yards, and managed a 13-yard punt return. But more than that, Sproles picked up the blitz better than any Eagles back has done this season – something, again, that Wentz had to be watching with envy.
“He’s starting to feel like himself and make some plays,” Groh said of Sproles. “On third down, that first third down in the game, he came squirting out of there, that was exciting, and [he] almost broke it. We’re going it continue to integrate him in the offense and utilize him.”