MINNEAPOLIS -- Doug Pederson’s instincts were correct. The math might not have been in his favor. The end result certainly wasn’t. But at the end of the game, the scoreboard backed him. The Eagles weren’t going to win this game with field goals.
You can criticize Pederson for a lot of different aspects of the 38-20 drubbing his team received at the hands of the Vikings on Sunday afternoon -- the slow start, the penalties, the sieve-like defense -- but his fourth down decision-making should not rank high on the list. He saw exactly what you saw.
On offense, the Eagles lack of downfield speed and playmaking ability at the wide receiver position was once again hampering their ability to break off big chunks of yardage. On defense, their cornerbacks were showing a near total inability to execute the fundamental act of running stride for stride with an opposing player. Heading into the game, you may have thought that 23 points would be enough to win it. By the Eagles’ third possession that illusion had been shattered.
Facing 4th-and-2 at the Vikings 49-yard line with 9:35 left in the second quarter, the conventional move would have been to attempt to pin Minnesota deep with a punt. But the Eagles had already been outgained 185-74 in total yards and were trailing 17-3 after having surrendered a 62-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Stefon Diggs. So Pederson kept the offense on the field, and, given the circumstances, how can you blame him? Sure, the Vikings ended up with a short field after Alshon Jeffery was unable to come down with a high pass from Carson Wentz. But this was a game where the field was never going to be long enough.
Same goes for an uglier sequence later in the quarter. Facing 4th-and-4 at the Vikings 21-yard line and 20 seconds remaining before halftime, Pederson called a fake field goal that ended with Jake Elliott throwing an interception to Minnesota defensive end Everson Griffen. It seemed like an odd play call given that the Eagles were out of timeouts and would have needed to stop the clock, but Pederson said the play was designed for Elliott to quickly hit tight end Dallas Goedert near the sidelines to give him the option of stepping out of bounds.
“We had the look we wanted,” Pederson said. "We tried to take advantage of it, to get a little bit closer, maybe shoot it in the end zone after that. They made a great play.”
It’s fair to question the wisdom of taking the ball out of Wentz’s hands and instead putting it in the hands of the kicker. At the same time, it’s hard to blame Pederson for thinking that he needed to manufacture a big play. Wentz played a fine game, finishing with 306 yards on 26-of-40 passing and making several plays with his feet. But the Eagles offense is at a point where its best downfield threat appears to be rookie running back Miles Sanders. That can change if DeSean Jackson is able to get healthy. For now, though, you can’t blame Pederson for feeling like he needed to get creative in a game where the Eagles seemed like they were going to need at least one quick touchdown.
“Hey, coach makes the call, and if it works, it would have been awesome,” Wentz said.
That it did not work ultimately falls on Pederson. Far more concerning, though, was a defense that had zero answers for the Vikings’ talent at wide receiver. Minnesota scored points on their first four possessions of the first half and broke off clock-killing drives of 75 and 85 yards in the second half after the Eagles had climbed back to within four points. At least one of Diggs’ three touchdowns appeared to be at least partially attributable to busted coverage, though Pederson said he’d need to look at the tape before drawing any conclusions.
This was as thorough a thumping as the Eagles have received since their 48-7 loss to the Saints in New Orleans last November. Everything about it was uncharacteristic: the 38 points that the Vikings scored were the second most in Pederson’s tenure as head coach, and the 18-point margin of defeat is tied for the second largest.
“We’ve got to look at the tape," Pederson said. "We’ve got to be critical of ourselves as coaches first, and then make the corrections during the week.”
It doesn’t get any easier, with road games against the Cowboys and Bills, followed by home dates against the Bears and Patriots. By the end of this stretch, the Eagles will have faced four of the NFL’s top five scoring defenses heading into Week 6, and eight of the top 11.
“We’ve got a lot of season ahead of us,” Pederson said. “We’ve got to get guys healthy, as we know, and we’ve got to get everybody kind of focused in on winning the next game, going 1-0."
That, right there, is the biggest challenge facing Pederson the head coach.