Eagles' Pederson kicks fourth-down habit
DOUG PEDERSON just couldn't help himself. Every page in the Book of Football directed him, as head coach, to take the three points and trust his defense. Every instinct in his football soul pulled him toward going for it on fourth down. Again.
DOUG PEDERSON just couldn't help himself.
Every page in the Book of Football directed him, as head coach, to take the three points and trust his defense. Every instinct in his football soul pulled him toward going for it on fourth down. Again.
This time, the book won out. This time, so did his team.
Caleb Sturgis hammered a 48-yard field goal with 2 minutes to play. That gave the Eagles a 24-15 lead over the Falcons, which, after an interception, became the final score.
To kick or not to kick: It sounds so simplistic. In Dougie's world, it is not.
Really, what else do you do with a six-point lead near the end of the game with a pretty good chance to make it a two-score lead? It was fourth-and-2 from the Falcons' 31. Sure, a first down essentially would have ended the game, but it also would have been an outright insult to the kicker and the defense. The answer was easy:
You give yourself the best chance to win the game. You shelve your ego. You reward the men who prepared like demons for a week and then played like devils for three hours. You give your kicker a chance for glory; you give your defense a chance to win it. Pederson did all of those things on Sunday - eventually.
Initially, incredibly, Pederson kept quarterback Carson Wentz and the offense on the field. Providentially for Pederson, the play call came in late and the play clock was dwindling and Pederson was forced to call a timeout.
During the timeout, sanity descended.
Maybe there's hope for Dougie yet.
"We knew, at the end of the day, it's about points," said defensive end Brandon Graham. "Any way we can get 'em, I'll take 'em."
This is a sea change for Pederson.
For the first eight games of the season, Pederson's worship of statistics and probabilities shaped him into a gambler of the first degree. It is his rookie season as a head coach, and one with exceptional challenges. For the most part he has navigated them with aplomb. At times, though, he has looked and acted like a neophyte. His fixation with fourth downs is especially fascinating.
Entering the game Sunday, only six teams had gone for it more than the Eagles' nine tries. Only two teams had converted more than their six conversions; but then, not all of those successes were sound decisions, either.
Little wonder, then:
"My gut instinct was to go for it and win the game."
Pederson's guts are nuts.
When the Eagles visited the Giants a week before, that gut told him to go for it twice in the second quarter with the Eagles in field-goal range. Both tries failed. The Eagles forfeited six points, then lost by five.
If his gut led him to take early chances, it gave him indigestion for the next six days. Pederson spent the past week insisting if, given the chance, he would do the same thing again.
Then, given the chance, he did not.
He put points on the board instead of taking them off. Whether the kick was made or missed, he gave his defense the chance to secure a buoyant win that put them at 5-4 with wins against the Steelers, Vikings and Falcons.
"I think that was a big part of it," center Jason Kelce said. "The defense had played so well."
It had played too well to be slighted by a fickle fourth-down gamble.
Failure would have given the Falcons the ball down by six with about 70 yards to go, or less, since a big defensive play might have given the Falcons an even shorter field. Of course, as Pederson knew, a missed or blocked field goal would have been bad, too. Also, in the moment, Sturgis was 1-for-4 for the season from between 40 and 49 yards, including a 44-yard miss in the second quarter.
It's not as if the defense had proven to be a fourth-quarter dynamo, either. Two weeks earlier it blew a 10-point lead at Dallas in an overtime loss.
On Sunday, it was missing two of its top three cornerbacks; its No. 2 cornerback hadn't started due to injury; and it was facing the top-scoring offense in the NFL with the top-rated quarterback that hadn't been suspended for cheating.
So, no, Pederson wasn't exactly crazy to consider going for it. Just unsound. Coaches criticize NFL players for unsound technique even when they make a sack or an interception. NFL players despise unsound decisions from their coach.
"I love the decision," said linebacker Jordan Hicks. "That's what we pay Caleb to do. Love the decision. It put us in a good spot. We knew with that call, it turned it into a two-possession game. We like our chances."
They still feel the sting of last week's failures.
"Us not getting it last times - maybe that factors in," Kelce said. "And yeah, Caleb had missed one. It shows a lot of confidence from the coach sending him back out there. He sends the kicker out there to get the job done, to do what he's paid for. Him nailing it - that was big-time."
Pederson nailed it, too. It's important to remember that this is his first rodeo.
He spent 12 years as an NFL quarterback but had been a coach for only the past seven years, the first two spent as a quality control peon. He rose quickly to offensive coordinator for the three previous seasons but never was fully responsible for a game plan or play-calling under Andy Reid in Kansas City. He has a lot to learn.
Apparently, he learned that if you have a rookie quarterback like Wentz, an inferior receiving corps and a depleted defense then you should lean on your running game. That is precisely how the Birds limited Matt Ryan and his explosive attack. The 38 runs and the 207 rushing yards were season highs for the Eagles. The run game and the short, high-percentage passes to running back Darren Sproles (eight catches, 57 yards) and tight end Zach Ertz (six catches, 55 yards) simplified the game for Wentz, who completed 25 of 36 passes for 231 yards. It all added up to 38 minutes, 10 seconds of possession, which, of course, is the best way to stymie a potent offense.
"I felt, coming into this game, that we were going to have to possess the football," Pederson said.
It was a brilliant game plan; this time, executed through its end.
Despite Doug Pederson's strongest instincts.