The Matchup: Eagles Vs. Cardinals

With each approaching game, words like challenge and test are thrown around frequently in conversations about Nick Foles.

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.

Through 12 weeks, the Cardinals have the second-best defense in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders’ rankings. And they blitz more than any team in the league.

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 FolesBlitzing 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.