With 3:54 left in the third quarter of last week’s playoff game against the Saints, the Eagles’ offense took the field for the ninth time.
The results of the first eight drives were ugly: six punts, one missed field goal and a touchdown. The Saints finished fourth in the regular season in scoring defense, and for much of Saturday’s game, Rob Ryan’s group got the better of the Eagles.
Nick Foles and company scored on their final three possessions to give the Eagles a 24-23 lead, but ultimately, it wasn't enough.
Defense and special teams certainly shared responsibility for the 26-24 loss, but given the way the offense had played all season, it's worth exploring why that side of the ball struggled for the first 41 minutes of the game.
During the regular season, on the rare occasions that defenses slowed the Eagles down, they generally did so with the same formula: man coverage with a single high safety. That allowed them to devote an extra defender to the run while counting on one of three things happening: Eagles receivers not getting open; Foles misfiring/making a bad read; pass protection not holding up.
Those three things didn't happen all that often. For most of the season, even when defenses played that way, the Eagles were able to burn them in the passing game.
The Saints, however, mixed things up.
"They played a little bit more zone than they had coming in," Chip Kelly said. "But I'll give credit to Rob Ryan. Rob did a nice job. They had a really good gameplan."
The gameplan was to mix up coverages (using a healthy amount of Cover-2), hold off on sending extra rushers at Foles and count on the guys up front to win their battles.
The Saints executed well, and the Eagles were not sharp. The results were Foles averaging just 5.9 yards per attempt, his second-lowest total of the year, and LeSean McCoy averaging 3.7 YPC, his lowest number since Week 9.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES IN THE PASSING GAME
When the Eagles did have opportunities for big plays, they didn't capitalize.
For example, on this first-quarter play, the Eagles use a play-fake and then roll Foles out to his right. Jason Avant was used as a backside blocker in the run game quite a bit down the stretch during the regular season. He sets up like one on this play, but then leaks out into the flat. The Eagles also have Brent Celek on a corner route to that side of the field.
Avant draws the attention of two defenders, leaving Celek all by his lonesome.
With one deep middle-of-the-field safety, this has a chance to be a big play. But Foles instead dumps it down to Avant for a 2-yard gain. The Eagles were forced to punt after a third-down incompletion and missed a big opportunity early.
DeSean Jackson was held without a catch until late in the third quarter. Cornerback Keenan Lewis definitely deserves credit for the job he did. But the Eagles had some opportunities to get No. 10 the football.
One example was this third-down play in the second quarter.
The Saints are in man coverage, and the two receivers to pay attention to for our purposes are Jackson and Celek. You'll notice only one deep safety set up in the middle of the field.
Celek is covered by safety Roman Harper on a crossing route. Jackson takes Lewis deep.
Foles went through his progressions, but never got to Jackson, who had a step on Lewis with the safety in no position to help. Instead, he tried to force one to Celek. You can see Foles has a clean pocket and plenty of time on this play.
You can also see at the bottom of the shot that Celek is being covered (held?). If Foles finds Jackson and his throw is on-target, in all likelihood, this is a touchdown. Instead, it's an incompletion, and the Eagles are forced to punt.
Another missed third-down opportunity in the third. This time, there's not a lot to draw up. It was a play you undoubtedly remember - a drop by Riley Cooper. Foles' read was good, and his throw was on-target. If you're wondering just how much open space Cooper had in front of him...
This would have been a monster gain in a big spot. Instead, the Eagles had to punt.
The most surprising development in the game was that the Eagles couldn't get McCoy going. He averaged 3.7 YPC and didn't have a run of more than 11 yards.
There wasn't really one thing to point to. A miscommunication up front on one play; a missed block by the tight end on another; or a Saints defender just making a really nice play.
This first-quarter split zone run is a good example of some of the issues at work. Luckily, we were able to get Kelly mic'd up on this play for a Birds 24/7 exclusive.
"Alright boys, nothing else is working. Let's go to the old split zone. Who says OTAs and training camp are important? We didn't put this bad boy in the playbook until Week 13! Celek's got the backside defender, and away we go!"
"Wait a minute. Lane, Todd, what on earth are you doing? Why are you blocking the same guy? That's not how we drew it up! I like to try out new ideas and leave guys unblocked from time to time, but I'm not dumb enough to ignore their Pro Bowl defensive end, you morons!"
"Wait... maybe we've still got a shot here. Hit the whole, Shady. Back get me 2, line get me 2!"
"Celek! I've been singing your praises all year and you get tossed like that? C'mon, man! If that happens next year we're trading you to Cleveland! Ok, just kidding... I'm not that cruel."
Thanks to Kelly for his insight there. If you didn't follow along, Lane Johnson and Todd Herremans blocked the same guy. That's an SIW, or self-inflicted wound, as Kelly likes to call them. And then the Saints deserve credit for being ready for Celek. Junior Galette saw him coming, tossed him back into Jason Peters, and New Orleans had two defenders in the backfield to drop McCoy for a 4-yard loss.
Suddenly, 2nd-and-7 turned into 3rd-and-11.
The Saints got some terrific efforts from their front-seven defenders. Let's pick up this fourth-quarter McCoy run mid-play. The Eagles run a sweep to the left with Peters and Evan Mathis pulling. That's two All-Pro linemen setting up to take care of Saints middle linebacker Curtis Lofton.
Still looking good in the next frame. McCoy can cut it upfield or bounce it to the edge. It looks like Lofton is pinned inside by Peters and Mathis.
But Lofton fights through the two linemen and brings McCoy down. What could have been a big gain is instead stopped after 5 yards.
The offense scored on its final three drives and left the field with the Eagles up one. But clearly, it wasn't the sharpest of performances by that unit. The Saints deserve credit for their gameplan/execution, but Kelly and his players know they left too many plays on the field and made too many mistakes to advance to the divisional round.