LOS ANGELES — Alshon Jeffery strode behind the Rams defense and was as open as he may have ever been. In fact, the closest player to him was also-open teammate Nelson Agholor.
Nick Foles' heave hung in the air and by the time Jeffery came back, a Rams defender had finally caught up. But the Eagles receiver, who has never hid his affinity for basketball and his own prowess in that sport, sprung from the ground and went up for the ball as if securing a rebound.
He even boxed out Agholor.
“One of us was going to make the play,” Jeffery said.
When they both rose from the grass at the Coliseum, it was Jeffery who had the football and a 50-yard catch. It would be the third deep pass he caught on Sunday, as many as he had in his previous nine games. When Jeffery becomes the focal point of the Eagles offense, good things seem to happen.
Foles will garner much of the attention following the Eagles' 30-23 upset over the Rams, as he should. Jeffery’s success — he finished with eight catches for 160 yards — had as much to do with the quarterback and his willingness to throw downfield as it did the receiver.
“There was a couple times where [I] was just reading the defense, letting him go get a chance," Foles said. "He’s a great player. He’s shown that he can make those plays and he made them tonight for me.”
But this was the kind of game the Eagles had been waiting for Jeffery to deliver since they signed him during the 2017 offseason, and the fact that it took so long was mind-boggling. He had multi-touchdown games before. He finally topped 100 yards receiving with the Eagles in September. He had clutch performances in the postseason. But he never strung together a game with so many deep grabs.
Jeffery, as his coaches and teammates often like to say, is open even when he isn’t. But quarterback Carson Wentz had seemed to forget that about his receiver. He stopped throwing jump balls and 50-50 balls to his receiver. Was it because he had a fractured vertbra in his back? We may never know, but Wentz hadn’t been shy about targeting Jeffery downfield earlier this season and certainly the year before.
“I tell Nick and Carson all the time, ‘Just throw it up, give me a chance. I’m going to catch it. No one else is going to catch it,'" Jeffery said.
In his first four games, after he missed the first three following shoulder surgery, Jeffery was targeted ten times on passes that traveled 20 yards or longer. He caught three for 73 yards and a touchdown. But over the next five games, Wentz hardly ever went to Jeffery downfield. He saw only three deep targets and didn’t catch one.
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Jeffery’s numbers, overall, reflected the disparity. In the first four games, he caught 25 of 39 attempts for 306 yards and four touchdowns. In the next five, he caught 24 of 35 for 236 yards and one score.
What changed? There was likely a combination of factors, but the most prominent may have been Wentz’s back. He popped up on the injury report the Wednesday before the Panthers game and was limited at practice. While there has been a lot of ambiguity about the timetable for Wentz’s injury, which was later revealed to be a fractured vertebra, the decline in his deep passing production coincided with the first report of his ailing back.
In Wentz’s first four games, he hit on 7 of 17 deep passes for 268 yards and two touchdowns. In his next seven, he connected on 10 of 28 for 340 yards and one touchdown, along with four interceptions.
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Foles likes to talk up his gunslinging nature, and it’s true, there aren’t many deep passes he doesn’t like to throw. But he chose his spots Sunday and benefitted from Doug Pederson’s balanced play calling.
“What opens things up is the ability to run the football,” Pederson said. "And in the first half we had some success doing that, even in the third quarter. It just opened up a few down-the-field throws that we were able to capitalize on.”
The Eagles ran the ball 16 times in the first half, while Foles threw only 14 passes. Pederson had made a commitment to the ground game, and he stuck with it, even though it was tough sledding for Josh Adams. But the balance kept the Rams on their heals and opened up play action.
Foles' first deep toss to Jeffery, on third and six, was a beauty vs. the Rams' two-deep coverage on third down. There a downfield holes to attack in that zone and the quarterback strung a 26-yard rope over Rams cornerback Aqib Talib and to his receiver. The drive ended with another Jake Elliott field goal and a 7-6 deficit early in the second quarter.
The Eagles faced another third down two drives later after the Rams expanded their lead to 10-6. Foles dropped and the offensive line gave him plenty of time to find Jeffery streaking over the middle. He threw the ball a touch high, but the 6-foot-3 receiver went up and pulled in a 36-yard grab. It was the longest catch of his season — for about a quarter.
Two plays later, Foles connected with Jeffery again, on an 18-yard sideline route. And on the following play, Adams motored up the middle for a 6-yard touchdown and a 13-10 Eagles lead.
Jeffery had his way with the 32-year-old Talib. He did essentially the same a year ago when Talib was with the Broncos. Jeffery caught six passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns in that Eagles win, but three receptions for 53 yards and both touchdowns came at Talib’s expense.
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Sunday was the first time Jeffery had caught passes from Foles since the Super Bowl. And they picked up where they left off. Few in Philadelphia will forget their 34-yard hook up for a touchdown early in that game, but it was just one of three deep passes Jeffery caught from Foles during the postseason when he average 18.3 yards a grab.
“I’m a thrower," Foles said. "I just read their body language and I throw the ball.
“Nick is our quarterback right now," Jeffery said, "and we’re just rolling with him.”
Jeffery’s career average in yards per catch was 14.5 entering this season. But he averaged only 11.1 yards in nine games with Wentz this season. The Eagles had a host of issues on offense, and adding receiver Golden Tate after the trade deadline, did little to help the unit and Jeffery.
But on a night when the Eagles, clinging on to their postseason hopes, had nothing to lose, their quarterback let it loose and Jeffery tightened his grip and caught all eight passes thrown in his direction.
“Good things," Jeffery said, "come to those who wait.”
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