One hallmark of a well-coached team is situational football, and what we have in this Super Bowl matchup is two of the best situational football teams in the NFL this season. For the Eagles, that situational excellence can be quantified by their tremendous success on third down.
What’s even more remarkable is that the Eagles’ third-down offense has weathered the storm after losing quarterback Carson Wentz for the season in Week 14. Before Wentz’s injury, the Eagles ranked third in the NFL converting 45.3% of the time on third down, but in Nick Foles’ first three games under center that number plummeted to 23.7%.
However, in the postseason, the Eagles are a ridiculous 16-27 (59.3%) on third down with Foles at quarterback. Pederson has remained on fire with his play calling and designs to help prop Foles up to an incredible level of quarterback play on third down. The numbers back that up, too, with Foles’ passer rating a near-perfect 155.8 and a hefty 12.7 yards/attempt on third down in the playoffs.
So how has the second-year head coach made third down a better than a coin flips chance for his offense in the playoffs?
To put it simply, the Eagles’ formula involves a handful of elements that work together to make their offense nearly unstoppable on the most important down of the game. Those elements include run/pass options, screen passes, pick/rub routes, exploiting matchups, and most importantly, leaning on a terrific offensive line.
Below, I’ll highlight some of the best third down plays from Pederson and the Eagles against the Vikings.
Let’s start with one of my favorite third-down conversions by the Eagles in the game, and it came early on in the first quarter.
First, notice the alignment of the receivers, a three by one set with tight end Zach Ertz by himself on the left side of the formation. Throughout this piece, you’ll see how Pederson use formations and pre-snap motion to create favorable matchups and open throwing lanes for Nick Foles.
On this play, it leaves Ertz in a matchup with the Vikings’ #2 corner Trae Waynes, and most of the Vikings defense is forced to shift its focus to the opposite side of the field to combat the three wide receivers set on that side.
That opens up the middle of the field for Ertz to run an in route, and with Waynes playing cover-3 zone technique he’s too focused on covering the deep third of the field on that boundary to come anywhere close to stopping the in-breaking out.
All Ertz has to do is clear the linebacker underneath, and it’s an easy throw and catch. Then, after the catch, Ertz shows off his strength to bounce off of the defender and make the line to gain.
Plus, check out running back Corey Clement in blitz pickup: The Vikings bring four defenders to Foles’ right, and the Eagles have it blocked perfectly with Clement accounting for the extra rusher off the edge. That’s exceptional recognition and execution to pick up the blitz.
GAME-PLAN SPECIFIC PLAY CALLS
Let’s continue with a familiar site for Eagles fans this season: wide receiver Alshon Jeffery catching touchdown passes.
The play of the game in the NFC Championship Game might have been this 53-yard touchdown by Jeffery with 1:18 remaining in the first half on third and ten. Jeffery’s touchdown put the Eagles up 21-7 and came on another excellent, opponent-based play call by Pederson.
The Vikings are in cover-6 which means that one safety takes half the field and two other deep defensive backs split the other side like you’d see in quarters coverage, and the Eagles’ alignment forces veteran corner Terence Newman to cover Jeffery essentially on an island.
However, the key to this play is the double-move that Jeffery puts on Newman. The Eagles knew based on their film study that the Vikings defensive backs play a physical brand of football, and Pederson exploited that tendency by dialing up a handful of double-moves in some key spots.
Jeffrey runs a post-corner route, and as soon as Newman bites on the post, he’s gone to the corner, and it’s an easy throw for Foles.
Up next, we have the most talked about action in the Eagles’ offense in the lead up to this Super Bowl: the run/pass option (RPO).
The RPO has taken over the NFL as the spread systems we see in the college game continue to seep their way into the professional game, but a lot of things get mislabeled as RPO these days when they’re just straight play-action.
This play looks like an RPO, but it’s likely a pass the whole way, or at least a pre-snap read by Foles. When the Eagles have the ball, Pederson tries to confuse teams with a lot of window dressings to bait defenses into playing at poor angles.
A good amount of the backfield actions by the Eagles offense are all just a distraction from what the play is really trying to accomplish. Here, the play is designed to go exactly where it ends up going, to Ertz in the flat. But before the ball gets there, Pederson throws in a few wrinkles to make it even more difficult to defend.
First, the Eagles create a natural rub or pick on this play on what’s a curl-flat (similar to slant-flat) concept. Then, rookie wideout Mack Hollins throws in another fake, as he puts his hands out as a distraction to trick the defensive back into thinking Foles is throwing him the ball. Similar to how a fielder in baseball might bait a base runner into thinking the ball is in his glove on a throw from the outfield.
The pick by Hollins is the key to this play, as the Vikings don’t switch their assignments to combat the rub route, and safety Harrison Smith has no chance to beat Ertz to the flat.
Another aspect of the Eagles’ offense that makes it so difficult to stop is how Pederson utilizes pre-snap motion to get his skill players into favorable matchups.
Let’s start with this third down conversion in the first half once again to tight end Zach Ertz (also notice how involved Ertz is in all of this). The Eagles bring Ertz from left to right before the snap, and that gets him matched up on Vikings safety Anderson Sendejo rather than All-Pro Harrison Smith.
Foles’ first read on the play is to wide receiver Torrey Smith, who’s running a slant with the slot receiver and Ertz clearing out space underneath.
The Vikings defend the slant well, but Foles knows he has Ertz on a deep out on the sideline in a favorable matchup. This is where the Eagles’ terrific offensive line comes into play, as it gives Foles just enough time to allow this route to develop to Ertz.
To add to the pre-snap motion discussion, check out this play that Pederson pulls out in the fourth quarter.
The Eagles start in a jumbo package, motion to a three by one set, then add one last wrinkle motioning into a two by two set, and they do it all within a matter of seconds. That leaves the Vikings scrambling trying to align correctly before the snap, and it leads to another touchdown for Alshon Jeffery.
Rams boy-wonder Sean McVay will probably win Coach of the Year, but the Eagles’ Doug Pederson will finish a close second. Pederson’s vision and leadership qualities make him a good head coach, but his schemes and play calling are what elevates him from good to great.
As you saw above, creativity and diversity are what make the Eagles offense so difficult to stop on third down. Along with a group of skill players that has been tremendous this season in large part because of the coaching staff.
Against the Vikings, Pederson learned from his mistakes against the Falcons the round before when the team scored just 15 points.
Backup quarterback Nick Foles is not a natural playmaker like injured starter Carson Wentz. So to help Foles complete more passes downfield, Pederson found ways with scheme to create open shot plays that Foles is more than capable of hitting. In fact, Foles’ completions of over 10 yards doubled in the NFC title game (six) from the Eagles’ divisional round matchup with the Falcons (three).
Now, how do the Patriots stop it? Well, the Falcons and Vikings had a similar approach on defense, but there were a few things the Patriots can learn from both teams.
The Vikings played more zone coverages against the Eagles than Atlanta, and even in man coverage at times, they didn’t have their top defensive backs follow the Eagles’ receivers when Pederson motioned them pre-snap, which allowed Philly to dictate matchups.
Overall, the Vikings’ secondary had one of its worst games of the season. The Eagles took advantage of their over-aggressive nature more than once and caught them sleeping on a flea flicker that led to another touchdown.
On the other hand, the Falcons formula appears to be a blueprint that the Patriots can follow.
Atlanta played mostly press cover-1 man and cover-3 zone in the secondary and put seven defenders in the box in a 4-3 front with a safety serving as a third linebacker. The Falcons held the Eagles to three yards per carry with an aggressive attacking front against the run, and safeties Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal were a major part of that.
Neal mostly served as the hybrid safety playing in the box as a third linebacker but Allen did it at times as well. The Falcons used both in a variety of ways to stop the run and had one of the two on Eagles tight end Zach Ertz in the passing game most of the time.
That allowed their athletic linebackers to do their best to undercut the Eagles’ quick throws over the middle and RPO elements.
This is the role that Patriots safety Patrick Chung will most likely play on Sunday, and although he often doesn’t get the credit he deserves, he does it better than just about anyone in the NFL.
The Patriots don’t have the athletes at linebacker that the Falcons do, but they can matchup in a similar fashion in the secondary.
What ultimately buried the Vikings talented defense wasn’t anything schematic, though, it was execution, especially on third down. And the Patriots defense, which ranked 21st during the regular season on third down, will need to have its best game of the season on Sunday.
Remember when I mentioned that the Eagles also utilize a terrific screen game on third down?
Well, here’s a play that the Patriots will likely see, and it’s a wide receiver screen to the speedy Torrey Smith. However, take your eyes off the ball for a second, and look at the athleticism of the Eagles’ offensive line.
The right side of the Eagles’ offensive line does a great job getting out to their blocks to clear the way for Smith, but also check out center Jason Kelce. Kelce is without a doubt the most athletic center in the NFL, and even though Smith doesn’t get past the second level, it’s incredible how quickly Kelce gets downfield. He looks like a tight end on this play.