Doug Pederson’s run-pass imbalance is a symptom and not a cause of the Eagles’ struggles
In his book, Doug Pederson admitted that he got away from the run in last season's loss to the Chiefs. Did he hit a similar crossroads after the Vikings loss?
In his memoir, Doug Pederson confessed that he got pass-happy in the Eagles' Week 2 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last season.
"We were having success throwing the ball in the game, and that's what I wanted to keep doing," Pederson wrote. "But I knew in order to win the game I was going to have to call more run plays. I didn't, and I put the team in a bad situation."
The Eagles coach questioned whether he became ultra-aggressive because he wanted to upstage his mentor, Andy Reid. "I think a little pride got in the way," he answered.
After the 27-20 loss, Pederson said that he shouldered the blame in the locker room and told his players that he should have called the game differently.
"After that, I made some decisions about play calling that probably changed the course of our season," Pederson wrote.
While Pederson was less willing at the time to admit as much, his lightbulb-over-head conclusion was to have more balance on offense, he said Wednesday. To maintain a conservative run-pass ratio, he would get ahead early, allowing for a larger selection of plays and a more patience approach.
Of course, that's easier said than done, as this season has shown. The Eagles, for various reasons, have struggled in the first quarter. They've scored only once on their opening drive and have been outscored 23-7 in the first 15 minutes of their five games.
The Eagles' 36-64 run-pass ratio through five games doesn't have as much to do with Pederson's play-calling – although there have been times when a dab more of the run might have helped – as it does the team's slow starts.
Pederson typically scripts the first few drives, but the Eagles' lone series that produced points came in the Colts game, when the offense went no-huddle, and quarterback Carson Wentz was given the freedom to audible at the line. In Sunday's 23-21 loss to Minnesota, the Eagles had only six plays in the first quarter — four pass plays and two runs — for minus-4 yards.
"We've got to figure out how to start games faster, stay on the field longer, and generate points early in football games, because if you go back to our history, the times that we've had success as a football team, we've been able to do that," Pederson said Monday. "We've been able to score on opening drives, get the lead early, which allows for your running game to really take over, play-action pass, all of that."
The same could be said for most teams. Last year, during the Eagles' eight-game winning streak following the Chiefs loss, the run-pass balance was 51-49. They scored first in six games, led from start to finish in five, and trailed in the fourth quarter only once.
But in that game – a Week 3 victory over the New York Giants – Pederson stuck with his ground game even though the Eagles trailed twice in the final seven minutes. He called runs on two of four plays before a game-tying rushing touchdown, and he dialed up runs on three of seven plays before a game-tying field goal.
The Eagles went on to win on a walk-off, 61-yard, Jake Elliott field goal.
A week earlier, the Eagles and Chiefs were knotted, 13-13, early in the fourth quarter, with Pederson calling 12 runs to 36 passes to that point. After a 12-yard Wentz scramble, a run for a 1-yard loss, and an incomplete pass, the Eagles ran a screen that was deflected for an interception.
"We had an opportunity there … and then it kind of changed things from there," Pederson said Wednesday. "They scored twice, and then the next thing you know, we were behind."
Pederson had Wentz drop back to pass the rest of the way, but he had little choice by then. The lopsided run-pass disparity (17-52) had some claiming negligence, but there were only a handful of moments when a rush might have been appropriate.
What was the defensive look, though? Did the Eagles see something they could exploit through the air? Did Wentz check out of a run or choose to throw on a run-pass option play?
"Circumstances dictate the calls each and every week," Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh said Tuesday. "Sometimes, you get off track of maybe the way you intended to play the game."
In the Vikings game, for instance, Wentz had a run-pass option on the first play. He kept the ball and threw to Alshon Jeffery. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes nearly intercepted the pass. Defenses have done a better job of defending RPOs this season, Pederson said. He wouldn't go into detail, but defenders appear to be disrupting receivers' routes at the line.
Pederson said that the coverages on RPOs have led to more handoffs.
The Eagles trailed, 17-3, at the half, Sunday, but on their opening drive of the third quarter, the Eagles ran six of nine plays, to the Vikings' 6-yard line. But Jay Ajayi fumbled, and any plans to establish the run were out the window.
Last season, Pederson relied on the run to open the second half of games in which the Eagles trailed, most significantly in Dallas, where a 5-3 run-pass ratio resulted in a Corey Clement touchdown bolt that led to a rout.
But there were also times when pass-heavy play-calling at the start of the second half produced points and kick-started a comeback (the Giants in Week 15). And others when it was necessary in the fourth quarter, most memorably in the Super Bowl, when a 2-12 ratio led to Zach Ertz's game-winning touchdown.
Are there occasions when you run the ball no matter what? When you force a defense to stop you on the ground even though they know it's coming? Sure. But the best offensive schemes are adaptable pre- and post-snap. And when defenses are daring you to pass, you pass.
The Eagles have an assortment of issues plaguing their offense and stunting their starts. Pederson's unbalanced play-calling is more a symptom than the cause. But the Giants game Thursday night would be a good time to change the course of this season.