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Eagles' poor play on third down is cause for playoff concern

The Eagles' 1-for-14 performance on third down against the Raiders is troublesome with their first playoff game fast approaching.

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles passes during the first quarter against the Raiders.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles passes during the first quarter against the Raiders.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

One of the biggest reasons for the Eagles' 13-win success this season has been their impressive play on third down.

They went into their Christmas night game against the Raiders ranked second in the league in third-down efficiency, having converted 45.4 percent of their opportunities, which is the highest third-down success rate by an Eagles offense in at least 40 years.

While they managed to beat the Raiders, 19-10, and clinch home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs, their joy over the win was somewhat muted by the fact that they converted just 1 of 14 third-down opportunities against a Raiders defense ranked 27th in the league in third-down prowess.

"One for 14 is not pretty high,'' coach Doug Pederson said after the game. "When you're 1 for 14 on third down, you're not doing very well on first and second downs.

"We've got to be in more manageable third downs. We were in too many third and longs. Then we've got to convert. We've done that all season long. We've got to get back to that.''

The Eagles averaged just 4.7 yards per play on second down Monday. The week before, in their five-point win over the Giants, they averaged 7.0.

But the fact is the Eagles have been in too many third and longs most of the season. Their 91 third downs of eight yards or more going into Monday night's game were the fifth most in the NFL

But with Carson Wentz at quarterback, they were able to navigate those dangerous third-and-long waters. They had converted a league-high 36.3 percent of their third downs of eight yards or more. The second-most successful third-and-long team in the league was the Patriots, who had converted 30.3 percent.

Wentz led the league in third-down passing (123.7 passer rating) and also led the league in third-and-long passing (133.0).

But Wentz tore his ACL two weeks ago and has been replaced by Nick Foles. Foles played pretty well on third down and overall last week, completing 6 of 10 third-down passes against the Giants, including one for a touchdown.

On Monday night, however, third down was a mountain Foles and the rest of the Eagles offense couldn't climb. He completed just 1 of 11 third-down passes for 10 yards. The Eagles' only third-down conversion came on a 12-yard run by rookie Corey Clement.

"We just didn't execute very well on third down,'' Foles said. "Third downs are a big thing for a quarterback. (You need) pinpoint accuracy. (You need to make) good decisions. I'll look at the film. I'll improve.''

To find the last time the Eagles had just one third-down conversion in a game, you have to go back to 2012, a season in which the Eagles lost 12 games. They converted 1 of 10 third downs in a 15-point, mid-November loss to the Cowboys that season.

"We put ourselves in tough situations,'' wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "Not too many teams are going to convert third and forever. Our key to success has been keeping it third and manageable. Today, we didn't do what we normally do. That's why the game was the way it was.''

Again, that's not really accurate. In their first 14 games, they averaged 6.5 third downs of eight yards or more. Against the Raiders, they had just five. The difference is they didn't convert any of them. Foles was 1 for 4 for 10 yards and a sack on third and long.

Wentz had a 69.0 completion percentage on third and 8 or more. He averaged a whopping 11.6 yards per attempt, with seven touchdowns.

Foles wasn't very accurate on any down against the Raiders, completing just 19 of 38 passes and averaging 4.3 yards per attempt.

Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery had 28 catches in the last six games, 24 for first downs, including eight on third down. But the Raiders did a good job of taking Jeffery out of the game. He was targeted just twice by Foles and, for the first time this season, didn't have a single catch.

"(Raiders cornerback) Sean Smith matched him all night,'' Pederson said. "He's long and big and physical, just like Alshon is.

"Obviously, the plan was to try to get him involved from time to time and continue to target him. Then, as the game unfolded, it just got to the point where we were just trying to get a completion, and trying to move the ball just a little bit more.''

The Eagles' third-down failures Monday weren't all the fault of Foles and the Eagles' passing game. Their ground game also came up short.

The Eagles came out running the football against the Raiders. Twelve of their 17 first-quarter plays were runs, which gained 53 yards.

In the next three quarters, however, they rushed for just 25 yards on nine carries.

"They made a couple of adjustments,'' center Jason Kelce said. "They went to that one blitz where they brought the WILL (weakside linebacker) off the edge and were slanting the front a little bit. And they were doing a good job of holding it, so that it was hard to tell it was about to happen.

"It's stuff we're going to see. It's stuff we've seen all year. But if a team is just going to line up and try to play gap-sound, responsible defense, we need to find a way to find the leverage and execute good runs. We have to be able to adjust to it better than we did today.

"I thought (the team's run game) was pretty good in the first half. But obviously, the second half, some things here and there, some missed assignments (hurt). We didn't help our quarterback or anybody else in the offense.''