Nick Foles' biggest challenge will be developing rapport with his receivers
Foles hasn't thrown much to wide receivers Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz, although he and Ertz played together back in 2013 and 2014.
Nick Foles has already proven he can play at a high level in the NFL. He has led the league in passing. He has thrown 27 touchdown passes in a season. He has been a Pro Bowl MVP.
His greatest challenge replacing Carson Wentz in the Eagles' final three regular-season games and however many playoff games they manage to hang around for will be getting on the same page with his receivers ASAP.
Backup quarterbacks don't get many practice reps with the first team during the season. So Foles hasn't thrown much to wide receivers Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor and tight end Zach Ertz, although he and Ertz played together back in 2013 and 2014.
Complicating matters is the fact that Foles missed much of training camp and the preseason with an elbow injury. So, he didn't even get to throw much to them during the summer.
Just look at how long it took for Wentz to develop a rapport with Jeffery this season. It wasn't until midseason before they finally started clicking.
In the first eight games, Jeffery was targeted 62 times but had just 28 receptions – a 45.2 catch percentage that would have been the lowest of his career if it had been a full season. He had just three touchdown catches and 14 receiving first downs in the first eight games.
In the last five games, however, he's been targeted 44 times with 24 catches — a 54.5 catch rate – and has five touchdown catches and 20 receiving first downs.
"You just have to work it out,'' offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "It's not just the reps in practice [that the starter gets]. There also are all the little side throwing sessions that Carson has with guys where they kind of work on some finer detail things. Nick will have some of those now. He's going to bring his own twist to it.
"I mean, there will be certain throws that Nick is not [just] good at, that he's great at, and I won't even get into all that. That I'm sure will come to bear over the next weeks that he's in there, and he'll find ways to take advantage of that with receivers. And he'll have his side conversations and his side sessions with receivers to make sure that they know exactly what he's thinking and what he's going to do.''
This is Ertz's fifth pro season. During those five seasons, he has played with six different quarterbacks – Michael Vick, Foles, Matt Barkley, Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford and Wentz.
His previous experience with Foles in 2013-14 should be beneficial. The only other Eagles receiver on the current roster who has caught a regular-season pass from Foles before this season is another tight end, Brent Celek.
"It's definitely not the easiest thing, switching quarterbacks,'' Ertz said. "But I think there's a lot of familiarity with Nick. The coaches understand what Nick does well. Doug [Pederson] was with him his rookie year" as the Eagles' quarterbacks coach in 2012.
"With Nick, he throws such an easy ball to catch that there's not an adjustment period in terms of getting used to catching him. Some quarterbacks throw a tough ball to catch. But Nick's ball is really easy to catch, and it makes it really easy for receivers.''
Foles has been an attentive backup this season. He has studied the Eagles' receivers and has closely watched them run their routes. He knows their tendencies and how fast they come out of their breaks and where they like the ball. He has prepared for this moment. But he knows that's not the same as playing with them over an extended period.
"We'll go out there this week and practice together,'' Foles said on Tuesday. "I've watched them run their routes all year. I've been able in practice at times to throw those routes.
"You just sort of build that database. I might not have been able to get the reps that Carson was getting. But I was always standing behind the play. Always watching film. Always watching [Wentz's] drops. Always doing those drops in the background.
"You just talk to them about what they like, how they feel, what they see this week. It'll come really fast.''
Said Jeffery: "We're going to go out there and let Nick play, and we're going to try and make plays.''
One thing you can expect to see with Foles at quarterback is the running backs becoming more involved in the passing game. Since Darren Sproles went down in Week 3, Wentz hadn't thrown much to his backs.
But he didn't need to. He had the mobility to elude rushers and extend plays, which afforded his receivers more time to get open.
Foles isn't going to extend many plays. He needs to get the ball out on time. He needs his offensive line to protect him and his receivers to get open as quickly as possible. If he can't find an open receiver, he's not going to hesitate to check the ball down to the running back.
"Duce [Staley, the Eagles' running backs coach] has been saying once Nick is back there, he's definitely able to check it down to you,'' said rookie running back Corey Clement. "He's been doing it before. He was doing it when [LeSean] McCoy was here.''
When Foles led the league in passing with the Eagles in 2013, McCoy won the league rushing title that year but also was the team's second-leading receiver with 52 catches, averaging 10.4 yards per catch.
"Duce said when we're running our routes, make sure you're running them to catch the ball,'' Clement said. "Carson was a guy who loved to keep a play alive. He loved to make big things happen. And you love that in a quarterback.
"But sometimes it's OK to check it down, and Nick is going to check it down to us. We have to be ready.''
The one problem there is that two of the Eagles' top three backs – LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi – aren't particularly good at catching the ball. Clement caught only 29 passes in four years at Wisconsin and has just eight catches this season for the Eagles. But two of them have been for touchdowns, including a spectacular end-zone catch against the Redskins earlier this season.
Blount’s shrinking role
When Ajayi arrived from Miami in late October, the Eagles were very careful not to disrespect Blount.
Head coach Doug Pederson and running backs coach Duce Staley both talked to Blount after the trade was consummated and assured him that he still was the starting running back and would continue to have a vital role in the Eagles' ground game.
But it's becoming pretty obvious that his role is shrinking. In the last two games, Ajayi, who is seven years younger than Blount, played 74 of 166 snaps with 24 carries for 113 yards.
Blount, who turned 31 last week, played just 29 snaps against the Seahawks and Rams, with 15 carries for 38 yards.
In the first 11 games, Blount had 81 of the Eagles' 176 first-down carries. In the last two games, he's had just five of 23. Ajayi has had 13.
Earlier this week, offensive coordinator Frank Reich insisted that nothing has changed.
"There's been no discussions where we said, 'Hey, we're making a shift,' '' he said. "The discussion each and every week, it's the same process. It's been the same process every week.''
Figuring the Eagles
— The Eagles ran 85 offensive plays in Sunday's win over the Rams. That's the most since Week 10 of the 2015 season, when Chip Kelly's no-huddle offense ran 87 plays in a 20-19 loss to the Dolphins. The Eagles ran 80 plays six times in the three seasons Kelly was Eagles coach.
— The Eagles controlled the ball for 39 minutes, 12 seconds against the Rams. That was their second-highest time of possession of the season and third-highest in Doug Pederson's two seasons as the Eagles head coach. They controlled the ball for 39:18 in their 26-24 Week 4 win over the Chargers and for 39:20 in Week 1 last season against the Browns. The Eagles lead the league in time of possession average this season (33:35). Carolina is second at 32:50, and Jacksonville is third at 32:08. The Eagles also led the league in time of possession last season (32:31).
— The Eagles have scored 42 offensive touchdowns in their first 13 games, which are 10 more than they scored all last season. Twenty-four of their 42 TDs have come on drives of 75 yards or more. Last year, they had just 13 touchdown drives of 75 yards or more.
— With 43 points against the Rams, the Eagles have an NFL-high 404. That's 31.1 points per game. The franchise record is 31.3 by the 1948 championship team.
— The Eagles, who blitzed Jared Goff on seven of 28 pass plays Sunday, have been very effective with the blitz this season. They have a 59.5 opponent passer rating when they have sent extra rushers, compared to 89.6 last year. Jim Schwartz has blitzed on 115 of 520 pass plays (22.3 percent), which is right around his career average. The Eagles have an impressive 35.6 passer rating when Schwartz has sent six or more rushers, including a 35.7 completion percentage and just 4.6 yards per attempt. The Eagles have a 37.5 passer rating on third- and fourth-down blitzes (36.3 completion percentage, 4.4 yards per attempt).
— Torrey Smith's 24-yard catch from Carson Wentz in the third quarter Sunday was his first reception on a throw that traveled 20 yards or more in the air since Week 5 against Arizona. In the previous seven games, he had been targeted just three times on 20-plus yard throws and had no receptions. In 13 games, he's been targeted 15 times on 20-plus yard throws. Ten of those throws came in the first five games.
— Nearly half of Wentz's pass attempts this season – 49.9 percent — came on throws of zero to 10 yards. In 2013, just 39.5 percent of Foles' attempts were on 0-to-10-yard throws. But 18.2 percent were throws behind the line of scrimmage, compared to 12.4 percent for Wentz this season. The Eagles ran a lot more screens with LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackon in Chip Kelly's offense than they have this year in Doug Pederson's offense.
This and that
— Torrey Smith is getting a chuckle out of all the doomsayers who are convinced the Eagles can't make a playoff run with Nick Foles as their starting quarterback. "Nick can make big-time throws just like Carson can,'' the wide receiver said. "Didn't he throw, like, seven touchdowns in a game once? We're not talking about meat coming off the street. He can play ball.''
— The Eagles have gotten their money's worth from Chris Long. They signed the 32-year-old defensive end to a two-year, $4.5 million deal in the offseason. Through 13 games, he has the third most pass-rush pressures on the defensive line behind only Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. He made the play of the game Sunday with his fourth-quarter strip of Rams quarterback Jared Goff. "He's been a consistent player in our rush packages,'' defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "He's smart. He has a lot to do. We have guys all across the front that can recognize different things that we want to do. Chris is a very good communicator of those things. He's got great hands. And, as he's gotten older, like a lot of players as they get older, his technique has gotten better. Your skills may start declining, but your technique gets better, and you can stay productive. Chris has been productive in that role for us.'' Long has played 270 pass-rush snaps, which is the second-most behind Brandon Graham among the team's edge-rushers. He has four sacks, including the one Sunday, nine quarterback hits and 28 hurries. "When I've been healthy in my career, that's something that I've been able to do,'' Long said of his pass-rush ability. "I came in with no expectations for playing time or being a rotational guy or starter or whatever. I just wanted to play the kind of football I was used to playing when I was healthy. It's been fun. I love this group. At the end of the day, for much of my career, I didn't get to play meaningful games in December. And now, here we are. It's fun.''
— Nick Foles on the birth of his daughter, Lily, this spring: "There is no greater joy than having a child. If you were to ask me, 'Hey, would you rather throw seven touchdown passes or go home to your daughter, I would say go home to my daughter. But it makes coming to work … you know that some day, she's going to know what her daddy did. And that's what gives you the juice to go every day and do everything to the best of your ability. Your kids are going to some day google you or check and see what you stood for. Whenever I get tired or frustrated, I think about that.''
From the lip
— "Hopefully, it gives a lift to some of the guys. But I'm not coming back to save the team. I'm coming back to play quarterback the way I know how to play it. Hopefully, we all raise the level of our play collectively and find a way to win these three games.'' – Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who will return to the lineup this week after missing the last seven games with a broken collarbone.
— "He feels terrible about it. It's not the kind of kid he is. He just emotionally got overrun, and he lost it. Fortunately, people restrained him and all that. It's a tremendous learning opportunity for him and any other young guys.'' – Seahawks coach Pete Carroll on defensive lineman Quinton Jefferson who tried to go up into the stands and confront some abusive Jaguars fans after getting ejected from last week's game in Jacksonville.
— "Where is the harassment at? I'm the notorious one. I'm always the bad guy. Ain't no #metoo, nothing. No sexual harassment. You are not going to put that on me.'' – Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who has admitted giving sex toys to female employees at the NFL Network when he was employed there.
By the numbers
— Cam Newton, who leads all NFL quarterbacks with 585 rushing yards, can tie former Eagle Michael Vick for the most seasons with 600 or more rushing yards by a quarterback. Vick did it four times with the Eagles and Falcons. Newton already has done it three times.
— Russell Wilson has 29 touchdown passes and is second to Newton in rushing yards by a quarterback with 482. With one more TD and 18 more rushing yards, he'll become the first quarterback in NFL history to throw 30 touchdown passes and rush for 500 yards in multiple seasons. Wilson also did it in 2015.
— LeSean McCoy rushed for 156 yards in the Bills' 13-7 win over the Colts last week. It was his 10th career game with at least 150 rushing yards. The only other active player with that many 150-yard rushing performances is the Cardinals' Adrian Peterson.