Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson has come under a lot of fire in recent days after two straight losses to division rivals. The team’s Week 9 loss to the New York Giants was tough for the fans to take. After allowing a quick 14 points early in the first quarter on two interceptions by rookie quarterback Carson Wentz along with mishaps in the secondary, the team rebounded and pulled within five points before falling just short of a comeback win.
The majority of the focus, and blame, after the game was on Pederson’s decision-making. Throughout the game, the head coach attempted three fourth down conversions, only one of which was successful. His play calls, particularly on the first of the two unsuccessful attempts, came under intense scrutiny after the game. Let’s dissect that crucial play below.
The call in question was on the first play in the 2nd quarter. Starting the drive on their own 20-yard line, the Eagles had driven all the way down to the Giants 23-yard line in five plays and seemed to have some momentum after a few big plays down the field. Facing a 4th and 2, Pederson decides to pass on the field goal and go for the 1st down. The Eagles come out in 11 personnel, shotgun formation with running back Darren Sproles (#43) to Wentz’s left and two receivers aligned close to the formation in nasty splits in a 2X2 alignment. The Giants have their 4-2-5 nickel personnel package on the field and put eight men in the box pre-snap with safety Landon Collins (#21) as the lone deep safety.
When the ball is snapped, Wentz fakes the handoff to Sproles and runs to his left on a designed QB run to the edge. The offensive line blocks for a zone stretch play with left tackle Jason Peters (#71) looping outside to take out the cornerback. The key to this play for the offense is sealing off the edge. The two receivers in nasty splits, Jordan Matthews (#81) and Nelson Agholor (#17) play a key role here. Matthews must execute a crack block on defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (#90) while Agholor gets upfield to seal Collins to the inside. While Matthews is obviously no match physically for Pierre-Paul, his outside leverage from his split should give him enough of an advantage to seal Pierre-Paul inside at least momentarily to allow Wentz to get out around the edge.
This is a common blocking concept that occurs in almost every game in college and professional football. With Pierre-Paul being sealed inside, any pursuing linebackers would also have to loop out around him to get to Wentz, which should theoretically give him time to get to the edge. In addition, using Wentz as the ball carrier on this play, allowed Pederson to fake the handoff to Sproles in the opposite direction, adding an element of misdirection into the play while not losing a numbers advantage up front. This is a constraint for the defense, giving them one more thing to think about before finding the ball. The last domino for this play to work is Peters getting outside and taking out cornerback Janoris Jenkins (#20), something the athletically-gifted Peters can do more often than not.
Obviously, we now know that the play didn’t work, but why? In Pederson’s Monday press conference, he mentioned a missed assignment as the reason why the play didn’t work. When he said this, it was met with question by fans and media. How did one missed assignment result in Wentz being tackled by five Giant defenders? The answer is actually quite simple and Pederson is not wrong in his assessment of the play.
As mentioned above, one of the keys to the play is Matthews’ ability to seal Pierre-Paul inside. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, he whiffed on the crack block. Pierre-Paul then gets upfield in a hurry, which really stretches out the angle that Wentz must take for the first down.
In addition, Peters now unexpectedly has to block Pierre-Paul which leaves Jenkins free to come upfield and set the edge. When Wentz sees Jenkins close off the edge, he stops and looks to cut it up backside. When Wentz stops, he sees the entire Giant defense in pursuit and has no place to go.
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This play is a great example of how crucial all eleven players on the field are on any given play. In this case, one missed assignment had a major domino effect on the entire play.
After looking at the play, was this a poor play call? Not being in the meetings each day with the team, it is hard to assess exactly what Pederson and his staff saw in the Giant’s defense that they wanted to exploit. What we do know for sure, though, is that this play would not have been put in the game plan if they didn’t think they could win with it. In one early look of the play, the result looks very promising.
Pierre-Paul is not yet in the backfield and Wentz has miles of open space in front of him with two blockers paving his path. This is how the play was designed and, if executed correctly, what it would have looked like.
On each play, it is the coach’s job to put the players in position to succeed. That is what Pederson did on this play. If he split Matthews out wide and asked him to come all the way inside to seal Pierre-Paul, that would have been a poor design. On this play, Matthews aligns just outside of him and has to win that battle but Pierre-Paul beats him. This play is a microcosm of how games are won and lost in the NFL, big players making big plays.
One can make a valid argument that Pederson should’ve opted for the field goal on this play or on his other failed fourth down attempt later in the second quarter and that is a fair argument. That is a personal preference, however, driven by one’s own tolerance for risk. An argument can also be made that settling for field goals will not win games. In this game, Pederson’s team was on the road and down early. A big fourth down conversion could’ve swung momentum for the team in that situation. In early season matchups with Cleveland and Chicago, two key fourth down conversions led to big touchdowns that broke both games open and cemented a win for Philadelphia. Late in the fourth quarter versus the Giants, another conversion on 4th and 9 with six minutes left, one which Troy Aikman blatantly disagreed with during the broadcast, made a big difference in getting the Eagles within one score. On the season, Pederson is 6 of 9 on fourth down conversions, good for 5th in the league. That isn’t too shabby for a rookie head coach. Unfortunately, like any other gamble, sometimes you lose as Pederson did this time but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have valid reasoning for making the decision.
Head coaches are always the first to be blamed after a loss. Some would argue that, as the head and leader of the organization, that is appropriate. From that perspective, however, it is really just a label that is being placed on him as he shoulders the responsibility. In actuality, the head coach is only one small variable in the outcome of a game.
In this situation, fans and media zeroed in on one out of 135 total plays in the game. Equally important to the outcome of the game were the untimely breakdowns in coverage, the lack of pass rush from a defensive line that should have dominated the line of scrimmage or the poor third down conversion rate. That all still completely ignores the impact that the Giants’ players and coaches had on the game. Sometimes, it can be easy to forget that the opponent is made up of equally talented players and coaches who have spent much of their entire lives trying to be the best in their field. There are a vast array of ever changing variables in the game of football and it is these variables that make it the best sport in the world.
Follow Sean on Twitter @PhllyDraft. Check out more of Sean’s work here, such as what Dorian Green-Beckham can do for the Philadelphia Eagles, how coach Bronco Mendenhall gets to the quarterback, how Carson Wentz did in his first preseason game, what Justin Fuente brings to the Virginia Tech Hokies offense, and on Mark Richt and the triangle offense in Miami.
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