What we have so far is a sample size (eight games, five starts, 162 pass attempts) that ranks among the best in NFL history. Foles’ jersey from the 7-TD performance against the Raiders is in Canton. And this week, he brought home the NFC Offensive Player of the Month award.
We’ve seen what the Eagles’ offense looks like when Foles is comfortable, firing on all cylinders, throwing completion after completion and touchdown after touchdown. His toughness has never been questioned, going back to last year when Foles started six games behind a makeshift offensive line.
But after every performance, there’s a desire to see more.
How much of this is real? How long can he keep up this pace? What’s next for the second-year signal-caller?
Which brings us to the critical Week 13 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. The Eagles know the stakes going in. The Cowboys beat the Raiders on Thanksgiving to improve to 7-5. Win, and the Eagles keep pace. Lose, and they’ll be playing from behind going into the final four games.
That’s where the chess match will take place between Chip Kelly and Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. Foles is completing 60 percent of his passes against the blitz and averaging 10.5 yards per attempt, according to STATS, Inc.
“I think Nick’s done a really good job against the blitz,” Kelly said. “I think it’s one of his strengths because I think he’s intelligent and he’s got a really good understanding of what we’re doing. A lot of it starts up front with us setting protections and making sure we’re all on the same page. But I think Nick overall has done a good job against the blitz.”
The Eagles have a few things working in their favor. Number one, they’ve started the same five offensive linemen in every game. That continuity is a huge help this late into the season. LeSean McCoy has also been very good at identifying and picking up extra pass-rushers. And the Eagles have hit on several explosive plays through their screen game, which takes advantage of aggressive defenses.
But perhaps the biggest factor to keep an eye on Sunday is tempo. One of the benefits of moving at a fast pace is offenses can try to limit the opponent’s ability to get into different looks and bring unconventional pressures.
“Whenever you’re running a tempo and you’re trying to get into a lot of exotic looks, that is a little bit harder because then you’re getting into situations where you’re trying to get lined up really fast in a position that you aren’t usually in,” said center Jason Kelce. “Very generic blitzes, teams can still get to those pretty easily. But for the most part, most of the teams we’ve played up to this point, when you’re moving fast, it’s tough for a team to get to their exotic blitz packages. Now they’ve still done it from time to time, but we haven’t seen it as much as most teams have. But obviously this team does it so often that they’re pretty comfortable with it. So we still have to be prepared like they’re gonna blitz us all the time like they have everybody else.”
For the most part, teams have not been afraid to blitz Foles. Using Pro Football Focus’ numbers, here’s a look at how opponents have blitzed the Eagles in his five starts, compared to how often they’ve blitzed other teams.
Blitzing Other Teams
The Raiders and Packers blitzed Foles less than usual. But the other three opponents didn’t change much. Given the Cardinals’ success with pressure this season, the guess here is that they’ll look to do what they normally do.
“I think most of the time this year, teams have practiced against it [tempo] because it’s more prevalent in this league now,” Kelly said. “I think teams are defensively doing more to keep their packages in there and they can still run them. So I have seen when we have tempoed people, they have still blitzed us.”
Added Foles: “Tempo can [discourage them], but then again they know that we typically do that, so they’re gonna have a plan for it. They’re gonna have blitz calls. They’re gonna have stuff that they can call fast because he’s a good coach. He knows how to adjust. So when they do blitz, I expect them to… the line’s gotta be able to see it and if something happens where I am hot or something, I just have to be smart with the ball and get the ball to the guy that’s open.”
If Foles can accomplish those things, the Eagles will likely pocket their fourth win in a row. If Bowles and his defense continue to have success with their blitz packages, the Eagles will probably open December with a loss.
1. According to PFF, Connor Barwin has batted six passes down at the line of scrimmage this year. That’s tied for most in the league among outside linebackers and defensive linemen. I asked him this week when he stops his rush and decides to get his hands up.
“You don’t even necessarily stop your rush,” Barwin said. “You continue rushing, but in Houston… there was a focus on seeing the quarterback as you pass-rush. Some guys focus on the guy blocking them. But I try to see through the blocker and see the quarterback. And as soon as I see, no matter where I’m at, in the middle of the rush, stuck at the line, almost about to drop in coverage, if I start to see the quarterback release, I instinctually get my hands up. And this year I’ve been able to get my hands on quite a number of them. Now I’ve just gotta work on catching one of those suckers.”
Barwin added that his basketball background helps too. The Texans’ coaching staff used to preach that a batted ball was almost like a sack. Barwin said Eagles coaches have been emphasizing batted passes as well.
2. Jason Peters doesn’t like talking about injuries. That’s something he has in common with his head coach. The Eagles’ veteran left tackle has started every game this season, but has dealt with a quad injury, a head injury, a pectoral injury, a shoulder injury and a finger injury.
All of this comes after he injured and then re-injured his Achilles’ prior to the 2012 season.
“It’s a great time,” Peters said when asked about the bye coming in Week 12. “Later in the year, you always want to recover. …So it felt good to get away for a couple days.”
After fielding multiple questions about his injuries though, Peters cut the interview short.
“I’m not finnin to sit here and talk to you about some injuries,” Peters said. “I play every Sunday, and I’m gonna play every Sunday until the end of the year and get ready for the playoffs when we make it.”
3. The Eagles have only had one player – Earl Wolff – missing from practice this week due to injury. It’s great news for the team that it’s healthy going into the stretch run.
But before we give full credit to the smoothies, sleep and hydration, let’s remember that teams typically get healthy during the bye week. This nugget comes from friend of the blog and Knower Of All Things Sam Lynch: The Eagles have had two players or fewer listed as out/doubtful/questionable in the game following the bye week every year since 2008.
In other words, the extra rest helps with bumps, bruises and nagging injuries pretty much every year.
Meanwhile, Barwin has played 103 snaps more than any other 3-4 outside linebacker in the league. I asked him if there’s a psychological effect to the sports science emphasis.
“There probably is,” he said. “There could be a little bit of that. And that never hurts for sure. I remember in college [then Cincinnati coach] Brian Kelly was always great for making you think that you were in better shape or always healthy. I don’t know if we necessarily always were, but we always felt like we were. And I think that helps.”
4. The Eagles face a couple big receivers this week in Larry Fitzgerald (6-3, 218) and Michael Floyd (6-2, 220). I asked Billy Davis how he teaches his corners to look back for the ball when they’re face-guarding receivers downfield.
“A lot of that we talk about is the body language of the receiver,” he said. “Two things. The receiver is always going to go exactly where the ball is thrown. You don’t have to look back for the ball. The receiver’s going to go to that ball. When the receiver’s at the ball, he has some non‑verbal tips. His eyes widen, his hands start moving. That’s when you look back and try to locate the ball.
“But you only locate the ball when you’re in a position to actually touch him. Because you know he’s going to be where the ball is. If you can’t touch him, you can’t touch the ball either. If you’re in that position, and you see the body language tips, you turn and play the ball. You have to turn back and try to find it or you get to face guarding [penalty].”
5. During last week’s Patriots-Broncos matchup, the announcers mentioned how Bill Belichick prefers left-footed punters. Based on his actions this year, Kelly might be the same way. The current punter is Donnie Jones, and the Eagles had lefty Brad Wing in camp.
“I couldn’t speak from experience because I never catch ‘em, I just kick ‘em,” Jones said. “But I’ve heard that the spin’s different. And for awhile the majority of guys in the league were right-footed.”
Jones said neither Kelly nor special-teams coach Dave Fipp have mentioned anything to him about the advantage of being left-footed. But he noted that it’s common for teams (like the Redskins) to bring in left-footed punters to practice before facing the Eagles.
“I don’t know if that’s just a personal preference or they really feel the spin’s that much different,” Jones said. “I know over the years certain guys have had trouble fielding balls, but I think it could go the other way too if a guy’s used to maybe catching left-footed, the right foot is gonna look different.”
THE BIG PICTURE
The Eagles come off the bye having won three games in a row for the first time all season. At 6-5, they’ll look to keep pace with the Cowboys atop the division.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, have won four in a row and are in good position to compete for a wild card spot. They crushed the Colts 40-11 in Week 12.
Here is how the Eagles’ offense matches up with the Cardinals’ defense:
Yards Per Play
Points Per Game
DVOA (FB Outsiders)
|Eagles Offense||6.3 (1st)||25.1 (8th)||18.9% (4th)|
|Cardinals Defense||4.8 (4th)||20.3 (8th)||-18.1% (2nd)|
And the Eagles’ defense against the Cardinals’ offense:
Yards Per Play
Points Per Game
DVOA (FB Outsiders)
|Cardinals Offense||5.3 (15th)||23.1 (18th)||-9.0% (25th)|
|Eagles Defense||5.6 (21st)||23.6 (15th)||8.6% (27th)|
Note: Click here for an explanation of DVOA.
EAGLES RUSHING OFFENSE
FB Outsiders (DVOA)
|Eagles Rushing Offense||4.9 (2nd)||21.5% (1st)|
|Cardinals Rushing Defense||3.5 (3rd)||-22.7% (4th)|
Bruce Arians was clear this week about what the Cardinals’ priority on defense would be.
Asked about Foles, he told Arizona reporters: “You don’t worry about him at the moment. You’d better take (running back) LeSean McCoy out the game first and then worry about Nick. It always starts with stopping the run for us and then getting to the quarterback. If we’re fortunate enough to stop the run in this game, I like our chances.”
McCoy is the league’s leading rusher, but as we discussed extensively in Friday’s Wake-Up Call, he got hit behind the line of scrimmage too many times in the Eagles’ last game.
The offensive line will be tested by a stout Cardinals’ run defense. Up front, they’ll have to contend with 6-foot-8 Calais Campbell and three-time Pro Bowler Darnell Dockett. Each player has seven tackles for loss.
The Cardinals have talented inside linebackers too in Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington. Dansby leads the team with 85 tackles (six for loss).
Arizona has limited opponents to 3.5 YPC, third-best in the league.
EAGLES PASSING OFFENSE
FB Outsiders (DVOA)
|Nick Foles||63.6% (10th)||9.59 (1st)||*56 (1st)||*25.9% (6th)|
|Cardinals Passing Defense||58.9% (11th)||6.4 (5th)||29 (7th)||-15.3% (3rd)|
* Team stat, not individual stat.
We covered a lot of this at the top. Foles has been on fire and looked as comfortable as he has all season two weeks ago in the team’s win over the Redskins. He’ll face a blitz-heavy attack from Arizona.
Outside linebacker John Abraham leads the Cardinals with seven sacks. Peters has been good in pass protection, but Lane Johnson has lacked consistency.
Campbell (5.5) and Dockett (4.5) have combined for 10 sacks. Todd Herremans has struggled in pass pro, although he’s coming off perhaps his best game of the year against Washington.
Dansby is the Cardinals’ most frequent blitzer, per PFF. He has three sacks on the season.
In the secondary, Arizona features shutdown corner Patrick Peterson and fifth-year veteran Jerraud Powers. Rookie Tyrann Mathieu plays a variety of roles and has been terrific with eight passes defended, two interceptions, a forced fumble, four tackles for loss and a sack.
DeSean Jackson needs just five catches to set a new career high in that department. He needs 15 yards to hit the 1,000-yard mark for the first time since 2010 and is averaging 17.0 yards per grab.
EAGLES RUSHING DEFENSE
FB Outsiders (DVOA)
|Cardinals Rushing Offense||3.7 (27th)||-14.6% (26th)|
|Eagles Rushing Defense||4.1 (T-13th)||-6.1% (16th)|
The Cardinals will go with Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington out of the backfield. Among the 37 players who have had at least 100 carries, Mendenhall ranks 33rd in YPC at 3.0. He has not had a single carry of 20+ yards all season.
Ellington has been a different story. The rookie is averaging 6.0 YPC and has five runs of 20+ yards. He also has 28 catches for 247 yards.
The Eagles’ defensive line has been outstanding against the run. Bennie Logan has provided a boost at nose tackle over Isaac Sopoaga. Fletcher Cox is playing at a Pro Bowl level. And Cedric Thornton has been the team’s most consistent defensive player.
DeMeco Ryans is sixth in the NFL with 76 tackles. And the Eagles expect to get Mychal Kendricks back from injury.
EAGLES PASSING DEFENSE
FB Outsiders (DVOA)
|Carson Palmer||63.3% (12th)||7.31 (11th)||*30 (25th)||*3.4% (20th)|
|Eagles Passing Defense||61.2% (18th)||7.2 (18th)||42 (25th)||19.0% (26th)|
* Team stat, not individual stat.
Carson Palmer has thrown 78 interceptions in his last 68 games. He’s been picked off 15 times this year, third-most in the NFL. But he’s played well in the last month, completing 69 percent of his passes during Arizona’s win streak.
Fitzgerald has killed the Eagles throughout the course of his career and leads the team in catches (50), targets (91) and touchdowns (eight). Michael Floyd is playing at a high level and leads the Cardinals with 761 receiving yards. His 12 grabs of 20+ yards are also a team-high.
Palmer will spread the ball around. Five different players have at least 25 catches.
The Eagles still give up chunks of yardage in the passing game, but they’ve kept teams out of the end zone. Bradley Fletcher is expected to return from a pec injury and will start opposite Cary Williams. Brandon Boykin has a team-high four interceptions.
Nate Allen has been dependable and is playing the best football of his career. Patrick Chung will start at the other spot as Wolff has yet to recover from a knee injury.
Up front, the Cardinals are OK. They rank 19th in adjusted sack rate. But that number is probably more a function of Palmer than the offensive line talent. Palmer gets rid of the ball on average in 2.48 seconds, per PFF. That’s fifth-quickest in the NFL.
Barwin and Trent Cole combined for three sacks against Washington. Cox leads the team in hurries (19).
Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. EST on FOX. Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston will have the call. The Eagles are 3-point favorites. According to Sports Insights, 61 percent of the money is on the Cardinals to cover.