When you go for it on fourth down and make it, you’re considered an aggressive, fearless football coach.
When you go for it on fourth down and don’t make it, particularly when you don’t make it as many times as Doug Pederson hasn’t made it this season and last, well, the words aggressive and fearless get replaced by much less complimentary terms.
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For the 21st and 22nd times this season, the Eagles coach rolled the dice on fourth down Monday night against the Seattle Seahawks. For the 14th and 15th times, the gambles, which came on successive possessions in the fourth quarter, failed.
With the ball near midfield and his team trailing by 17-9 early in the fourth quarter, Pederson went for it on fourth-and-2 rather than have Cam Johnston pin Russell Wilson and the Seahawks against their own goal line. Carson Wentz’s quick pass to tight end Richard Rodgers was batted by linebacker K.J. Wright.
The Seahawks took over on the Philadelphia 48-yard line and used a 31-yard reception by DK Metcalf to get close enough for a Jason Myers field goal.
A fourth-and-4 gamble at the Seattle 15 on the Eagles’ next possession resulted in Wentz’s 15th interception of the season and pretty much took the air out of any Eagles comeback hopes in the 23-17 loss.
The Eagles’ 22 fourth-down tries are the second most in the NFL, behind only the Cowboys’ 25. No one is calling Mike McCarthy an offensive genius these days, either.
The Eagles have made just seven of those 22 tries. That’s a 31.8% success rate. Only the Jets (31.3), Jaguars (27.8), and Broncos (18.2) have been more inept on fourth down.
When the Eagles won the Super Bowl in the 2017 season, they had the third-best fourth-down success rate (65.9) in the NFL. But they slipped to 10th in 2018 (60.9) and 29th last year (33.3). That hasn’t deterred Pederson, however.
“My mindset [on going for it on fourth-and-4] was we have to stay as aggressive as possible on offense,” he said after his team lost for the third straight time and dropped to 3-7-1. “We had to try and make a play and get something going.”
Pederson has little trust in Wentz and his offense right now, which has only increased his willingness to go for broke on fourth downs. The Eagles are 25th in scoring and 28th in total offense. Scoring opportunities have been few and far between.
The Eagles’ offensive line has been devastated by injuries. Wentz is 30th in passing (73.4). He’s been sacked a league-high 46 times and has a league-high 15 interceptions.
But except for Darius Slay’s difficulties with Metcalf, the defense played well Monday. The Eagles were keeping Seattle out of the end zone. They weren’t letting the Seahawks convert third-down opportunities (Seattle was 2-for-10 on third down).
Why risk giving them a short field to work with on the first fourth-down gamble when you’re down by only one score? Why forsake a Jake Elliott field goal on the second fourth-down gamble that would have made it a 20-12 game with 8½ minutes still to play?
In Pederson’s defense, both fourth-down play-calls should have worked. The receivers — Richard Rodgers on the first one and Dallas Goedert on the second — were open.
On the first one, Wright, a 10-year veteran who lined up on the right side of the line as a rusher, read the pass, stopped his rush, and was right in Wentz’s throwing lane when the quarterback released the ball for Rodgers.
The second one was an inexplicable miscommunication between Wentz and Goedert, who ran a 10-yard sit route to the Seattle 5 in front of linebacker Bobby Wagner, then slid inside. Wentz expected him to slide to the outside. His pass went straight into the hands of Seahawks safety Quandre Diggs rather than to Goedert for a first down at the least and possibly a touchdown.
“I tried to work the leverage [on Wagner],” said Goedert, who had seven catches for 75 yards and a touchdown against the Seahawks. “I was kind of [sliding] inside so he wouldn’t be able to break up the play and I’d be able to make it. Carson thought I was going to be going down and away and threw it there.
“I should’ve been where he thought I was going to be. I’ll take the blame for that one. It was a crucial point in the game. Mistakes like that can’t happen.”
Wentz has had a number of miscommunications with some of his younger receivers this season, largely because of the limited time they’ve had to work together and establish chemistry and timing. But he and Goedert have been together three years. They don’t finish each other’s sentences like Wentz does with the Eagles’ other tight end, Zach Ertz. But Goedert is absolutely correct: Screwups like the one on fourth-and-4 can’t happen. Not 11 games into a season.
Goedert said they ran that play four times Monday night.
“I think I had three receptions,” he said. “The fourth time, I might’ve been trying to do too much. I was just trying to make a play. We needed it. I knew the matchup was good, and I knew the ball was going to come to me. And I just tried to do too much.”
“We just weren’t on the same page,” Wentz said. “That’s on me. I’ve got to make sure we’re squared away there.