The Eagles are having significantly more success throwing downfield over the last two games than they did in their first 13 games. It would be easy to point to the change at quarterback as the primary reason for the disparity -- and that could be why.
But the sample isn’t large enough, there are far too many other variables involved, and solely crediting Nick Foles would be overlooking his deep ball struggles earlier this season.
In the Eagles’ first two games, before Carson Wentz returned from injury, Foles averaged 5.3 yards per attempt. In the next 11 games with Wentz, the Eagles averaged 7.7 yards. And in the last two games, with Foles back under center, they averaged 9.0 yards in wins over the Rams and Texans.
Accuracy, yards after catch and other factors can affect the average, but Foles’ deep passing has made a difference. He’s completed 4 of 8 throws over 20 yards in the air for 195 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions for a 135.4 passer rating.
Wentz is 17 of 42 for 608 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions on deep passes for a 72.1 rating. In Foles’ first two games, he was 2 of 9 for 64 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions for a 56.7 rating.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson was asked to explain the recent success.
“Sometimes it’s the opponent we play,” he said Monday. Pederson added: “I think what you’re seeing is everybody’s sort of heightened awareness and just kind of sense of urgency has picked up a little bit here in the last couple of weeks, knowing that we have to win out to give ourselves a chance.”
But there was urgency in the weeks before Wentz was sidelined with a stress fracture in his back. He has been more accurate this season (69.6 percent) vs. last (60.2), but he has been taking fewer chances downfield, whether it’s plus-20 or plus-10 throws. Wentz’s average pass length in air yards decreased from 9.9 to 7.7.
Foles’ average air yards over the last two games (7.5) is actually lower than Wentz’s and near his average in the first two games (7.4), but the biggest change may be that he now has Alshon Jeffery, and he’s more than willing to toss it to his receiver even if he isn’t open.
“I tell Nick and Carson all the time, ‘Just throw it up and give me a chance. I’m going to catch it. No one else is going to catch it,’” Jeffery said after he caught eight passes for 160 yards in the Rams game.
Foles has taken more shots downfield to Jeffery than Wentz over the last two seasons, and he’s had more success. Of his 56 pass attempts to the receiver, 16 have been on deep throws (28.6 percent) and Jeffery has caught six (37.5 percent) for 221 yards and two touchdowns.
Of Wentz’s 160 attempts to Jeffery, 26 have been on deep balls (16.3 percent.) and the receiver has caught six (23.1 percent). for 185 yards and two touchdowns.
Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh declined to say that Foles was more willing to take advantage of Jeffery’s catch radius, but he did acknowledge their chemistry.
“I think they both have a lot of confidence in one another,” Groh said Thursday.
Here’s a closer look at Foles’ chemistry with Jeffery on throws downfield and how that added intangible has made the Eagles offense more explosive:
Jeffery has shown throughout his career that he can high-point passes. In the Rams game, Foles (No. 9) went downfield to the 6-foot-3 receiver on two first-half third downs. The first, a corner fade, netted a 26-yard gain. The second came on a vertical route in which Jeffery (No. 17) wasn’t necessarily open.
Foles threw it slightly behind his receiver, but Jeffery looked back and adjusted his body to make a 26-yard grab.
Foles: He’s a great player. He’s shown that he can make those plays.
The Eagles opened the second half of the Rams game with a shot play that had both Jeffery and Nelson Agholor (No. 13) run deep post routes.
Jeffery: Nick just did a hell of a job telling us to keep alive in the post.
The Rams deep safety missed his assignment and both receivers got behind the defense. Foles just had to air the ball out, but he had a defender bearing down, and took a shot just before he heaved his pass.
Quarterbacks must be prepared to take hits in the pocket on longer-developing routes. Foles had shown the Eagles long ago, before they drafted him in 2012, that he had that kind of toughness.
Pederson: When I was looking at him on tape in college, and I remember one particular game where he played USC, and he was taking shots like that in that football game. Now he ended up losing that game, but he kept coming back and kept coming back every series and staying in there, going toe-to-toe, making some tough throws.
On the Eagles’ opening drive against the Texans, Foles took a first down shot to Jeffery on a deep post into the end zone. With Houston in a quarters zone, and bracketing tight end Zach Ertz (No. 86), the receiver was up against cornerback Johnathan Joseph (No. 24).
Foles has always had a nice touch on long balls, and with a clean pocket, he tear-dropped a pass into Jeffery’s bucket. But Joseph knocked the jump ball away.
Jeffery: I think I dropped a touchdown. I should have went up and got that one.
Even though the pass failed, the shot would force the Texans to account for Jeffery on deeper routes.
Foles tossed an interception to open the second half, but he came out firing on his next pass. The Eagles’ play design helped free Jeffery over the middle. They went with an empty backfield with three tight ends, while the Texans stayed in base. The Eagles anticipated that Houston would go zone with two linebackers matched up vs. two tight ends.
Jeffery found a hole, Foles hit him in stride before the post safety and it was off to the races.
Pederson: As a quarterback, I would just say, “Hey, just run your route. I’ll find the completion.” That’s that mentality that Nick has right now, and he just wants to distribute the ball.
Foles’ most important throw to Jeffery came at the start of the Eagles’ game-winning drive. On third and ten, he dropped just short of his own goal line. Jeffery was running a deep dig route.
Jeffery: Coach Groh said we going to lose, we going to throw it up and give me a chance. So that’s what Nick did.
The throw was again slightly high and Jeffery climbed the ladder to pull it in. Foles stood in and delivered the pass even though he was about to get popped by Jadeveon Clowney (No. 90).
Clowney drove his helmet into Foles’ sternum and the quarterback writhed on the ground in pain.
Foles: I had no clue if Alshon had caught it or anything.
Pederson: It goes a long way to your teammates. It just shows the toughness of your quarterbacks to be able to stand in there and take hits like that. And to deliver the football and be accurate with the football.
Earlier in the second half, Foles hooked up with Agholor for an 83-yard touchdown – the longest of his NFL career. When the Eagles lined up, he saw that the Texans were in a similar coverage from earlier and checked to another built-in pass play.
Foles: We had a play in our arsenal that wasn’t the one that was called, and I felt like I had time on the clock to check it and really take a shot with some speed with Nelly.
Groh: You have to give him a lot of credit because he has to recognize it in that instant, get it communicated, and then the other ten guys out there have to have what we say is reflexive recall.
Houston had three on two coverage – two safeties and a linebacker vs. Ertz and Agholor – to Foles’ left and potential double coverage to the right over Jeffery. The Eagles wanted to stretch the field vs. the matchup on the left. Ertz ran under and took out the deep safety, while Agholor ran a skinny post vs. man coverage.
Agholor got beyond safety Tyrann Mathieu (No. 32) and Foles, after he climbed the pocket, dropped a dime into his receiver’s lap.
Agholor: I can’t say enough about the ball. He threw a beautiful ball and gave me a chance to run under it and that was it.
Pederson: I think that’s one of the differences with Nick is he puts a little more air on the ball, gives the receiver an opportunity.
Wentz had more success throwing deep to Agholor over the last two seasons than he did to Jeffery. Of his 127 targets, 29 were over-20 yards (or 22.8 percent) and Agholor caught 12 (or 41.4 percent) for 540 yards and three touchdowns.
Last season, Wentz was very good on deep throws. He completed 25 of 65 passes for 912 yards and ten touchdowns with four interceptions for a rating of 100.2. His completion percentage this season (37.8) vs. last (38.4) was essentially the same, but he threw fewer long balls per pass attempt (11.2 pct. vs. 14.7 pct.).
It’s a small decrease, and the following play against the Giants is just one example vs. the many when Wentz did make the correct read on vertical routes, but he missed an opportunity to hit either Jeffery or Agholor on this play.
Pederson: You have to have a lot of courage. You have to have a lot of faith as a quarterback being able to throw some of those balls, in your receivers.
Mike Wallace (No. 14) was brought in this offseason to offset the loss of Torrey Smith, but he played in just a little over one game before breaking his fibula. Foles went to him twice down the field in the opener against the Falcons, but they failed to hook up for whatever the reason.
Wallace was brought off injured reserve Monday. He is unlikely to be active Sunday against the Redskins, but if the Eagles make the playoffs he could give the offense another big-play threat.
Shelton Gibson was drafted with that label in 2017, but, aside from a 48-yard grab in the Colts game in September, he hasn’t done much as a receiver in two seasons. When Wallace left the Buccaneers game early, Foles’ outside receivers were Gibson (No. 18) and Kamar Aiken.
Much of public discussion surrounding the Eagles’ quarterback situation has centered around Wentz vs. Foles. An appreciation of one has been perceived as a slight against the other, and players have had to juggle that conundrum.
Ertz: It’s hard to talk well about one guy and then it seems like the comments are going to come off as demeaning to another.
Both quarterbacks have shown that they can be efficient on deep throws. Wentz has struggled this season for various reasons, not all of them his fault. But his relative lack of chemistry with Jeffery, his reluctance to pull the trigger, and likely his injury have hurt the Eagles’ production.
Foles, who is likely to leave the Eagles this offseason, has played fearlessly the last two games. After missing a play on the final drive, he returned to complete another third and long pass – this time to Ertz for 20 yards.
Ertz: Something happened where my feet got tangled up so I was kind of off balance and Nick just kind of laid the ball out there and allowed me to run under it.
Foles: I tried to put a little more air on it because I was hoping he would keep his feet.
Ertz: I think he just ultimately trusts us to make plays.