Solving Nick Foles

While discussing the Rams’ victory yesterday, I made note of the impact of playoff emotion in the performance of the home teams in last weekend’s playoff games.  The Chiefs, the Rams and the Patriots all began their 2018-19 playoff runs with emotion-driven first halves that propelled them to victory.  Playoff emotion would be a palpable factor in the Division Round’s final game – although this game would serve up a variation on the theme.  This time the emotion would be present – at the start, anyway – on the visitor’s sideline.

In Week Eleven, the Philadelphia Eagles made their first visit to New Orleans.  The visit was less productive than they had hoped, as the Saints waltzed over and through them 48-7.  Now the Eagles – under the direction of their magical quarterback Nick Foles – were back in the Big Easy with a trip to the Championship Game on the line.  They vowed things would be different, and from the very first snap, they were.

With the first offensive opportunity, the Saints tested the Eagle secondary vertically.  Speed receiver Ted Ginn – who was injured when these teams met for the first time – went up the field, and quarterback Drew Breese rifled it out there.  But defensive back Cre’von Leblanc reached up and picked it off.

(As a side note, Breese would finish the first half with just 6 incompletions – four of them on pass attempts to Ginn, covered mostly by Leblanc).

Before the home crowd could digest the transpirings, Foles had lofted a 37-yard touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews.  The Saints managed nothing on their second possession, and Foles promptly marched the Eagles 75 yards in 10 plays, leaping over the goal line himself for their second score.

As the dust of the first quarter settled, it was the sixth-seeded Eagles – the team that had been blown out on this very field not quite two months previous – the team who had advanced this far only because a last second field goal in Chicago the week before had hit the upright – was taking it to the top-seeded New Orleans Saints 14-0.  At that point in the contest, the Eagles had 151 total yards, 8 first downs, and 9:19 of possession.  The Saints had no yards, no first downs and 1:04 of possession.

Missed Opportunity

After the Saints punted on their third possession, the Eagles missed a huge opportunity to put a dagger in the hearts of the Saints and their fans.

The second quarter had just started.  Philadelphia faced second-and-nine from their own 48.  Against the cover-2 zone of the Saints, Matthews ran a deep cross – holding safety Vonn Bell toward the middle of the field, while tight end Zach Ertz surprised cornerback Marshon Lattimore by streaking up the left sideline.  With Ertz clearly open, a good pass would have opened up a 21-0 lead, and would probably have sent Philly on to Los Angeles.  I point out that this was just the type of pass that Foles had flawlessly delivered all throughout last year’s playoff run and in the first quarter of this game to Matthews.

But, in what would be a growing pattern though the rest of the contest, the Saints got just enough pass rush pressure.  This time it was Alex Okafor who just managed to get around left tackle Jason Peters quickly enough that Foles rushed the throw, hanging it just enough for Lattimore to run under it and intercept.

The Turning Point

Having barely survived what could certainly have been a game-clinching score, New Orleans coach Sean Payton knew his offense had to wake up and get his team back in the game.  The last thing his team needed right now was another three and out.

But that was exactly what he got.

When Mark Ingram’s dive over left guard resulted in no gain, the Saints were left to punt from their own 30 on fourth-and-one.  There were still almost 12 minutes left in the half.

Sometimes it is uncertain at exactly what point a team turns the tide in a game.  Some games pivot obviously and clearly on one single play.  In this game, that turning point was clear.

Backed deep in his own end, down by two touchdowns and facing fourth down, Payton rolled the dice on the season.  The punt was faked.  The snap went directly to up-back Taysom Hill who bulled his way through the middle of the Eagles punt return unit to earn the first down.  With that play, the New Orleans sideline – as well as the entire stadium – erupted.  From that moment, the game belonged to New Orleans.

On the next play, Brees hit Michael Thomas on a deep crossing route that went for 42 yards.  Seven plays later, Drew flipped a two-yard touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood, and the Saints were officially back in the game.

Footnote on Hill

Used at quarterback, tight end, and receiver as well as on special teams (where he had blocked a punt earlier this year to turn the tide of another game), Hill’s biggest impact on offense has been as a running quarterback.  As a receiver, he had caught 3 passes on the season for 4 yards.  As a passer, he had thrown 7 passes, completing just 3 – albeit for 64 yards.

In all this usage, Hill had never caught a touchdown pass or thrown a touchdown pass.  On consecutive plays in the third quarter, he almost did both.

There is 7:45 left in the third quarter.  The Saints – still trailing 14-10 – have first-and-ten on the Eagle 46-yard line.  Hill lines up wide right and run a go up the sideline, streaking into the end zone and behind the secondary.  But Brees’ pass is just underthrown enough that Avonte Maddox was able to get back and just get a hand on the pass, knocking it away.

Undeterred, Payton lined Hill up at quarterback on the next play, where he delivered a perfect 46-yard touchdown strike to running back Alvin Kamara – a play nullified by a holding penalty on Andrus Peat.

Well, maybe this week against the Rams?

The Drive

Those plays came in the middle of the most impressive drive that I have seen in quite some time.  With 13:22 left in the third quarter, and still leading by four points, the Eagles punted the ball away to New Orleans.  The next time the Eagle offense took the field – now trailing by three points – there was only 1:40 left in the quarter.  Over the 11:29 of game time in between those points, the Saints had put together an 18-play, 92-yard drive, culminating in a touchdown pass to Thomas.  The drive highlighted another interesting variation on the trend established in the other Divisional Round games.

The Chiefs, Rams and Patriots had all had dominating halves in their victories.  In their case, those had all been the first half.  The Saints put together a half just as dominating as any of those teams – they just did it in the second half.

Over the last thirty minutes of this contest, the Saints racked up 15 first downs (to only 4 by Philadelphia) and 226 total yards (to just 51 by the Eagles).  They never punted – converting 6 of 8 third downs.

They held the ball for 22:32 of the final thirty minutes, running on 19 of their final 38 snaps.  Behind Ingram and Kamara, they pounded the Eagles for 96 yards in the half.  During the season, Philadelphia had ranked seventh in the NFL in stopping the run, allowing an average of just 96.9 yards per game on the ground.

And when they decided to throw it, Breese completed 15 of 19 (78.9%) for 130 yards and the touchdown to Thomas.

They didn’t light up the scoreboard like those other teams, but in its own way this victory was just as impressive.

But the clock-grinding offense was just one factor in the impressive second half.  At the end of the day, this team would still have to find a way to stop Nick Foles and his magic carpet ride.

The Pass Defense Finds Answers for Foles

In a sense, this game was a microcosm of the Saints’ pass defense this season.

As the 2018 season dawned, the Saints were something of a mess on pass defense.  Without a real concept, and with little feel for what they do well, they were consistently sliced up by opposing passing attacks.  The fact that they won seven of their first eight had more to do with an impressive offensive unit outscoring its opponents.

The first time they faced the Rams this season, LA quarterback Jared Goff threw for 391 yards and 3 touchdowns (in a 45-35 Saints win).  Eight games into the season, New Orleans had allowed at least 20 points in five game, giving 30 or more three times.

The first 294 passes thrown against them had resulted in 206 completions (70.1%) for 2601 yards – 8.85 yards per attempted pass, and 12.6 yards per pass completion. Opposing passers had flung 18 touchdown passes against them in just 8 games, while the Saint defenders had managed just 4 interceptions.  The Saints exited that game with the Rams with a horrific passer rating against of 112.1.  For the season.

But change was coming.

The first Ram game was Eli Apple’s second game with the Saints.  The story of the evolution of the Saints defense is tied to the acquisition of Apple, and his growing comfort level in the New Orleans secondary.  From shaky ex-Giant to solidifying presence, Apple hasn’t been the only change in the Saint secondary.  But he has been one of the most important.

Since the first Rams’ game, the Saint secondary has improved from one of football’s worst, to one of it’s best.  Over the 8 games preceding Sunday’s game against the Eagles, New Orleans had allowed just 178 completions in 279 passes (63.8%).  These completions have resulted in just 2022 yards (7.25 per pass and 11.4 per completion).  The touchdown-to-interception ratio has also become much more competitive at 12-8.  The second-half passer rating against is an impressive 87.7

This game followed a similar pattern.

In the two nearly flawless first drives, Nick Foles was the Nick Foles of last year’s playoffs.  Up until the throw that was intercepted, Nick had completed 9 of his first 10 passes for 127 yards and the Matthews touchdown.  His passer rating at that point was 152.1.

Beginning with that first interception from Lattimore (and, yes, there would be another), Foles completed just 9 of his last 21 passes (42.9%) for just 74 yards.  He would throw no more touchdown passes (the Eagles would not score again) and would end the day with 2 interceptions.  After his first 10 passes, his rating plummeted to 12.9.

After racking up 151 total yards and 8 first downs on those first two drives, Philly managed just 94 yards and 6 first downs the rest of the way.  After starting 2-for-2 on third down, the Foles third-down magic evaporated.  Philadelphia ended their season coming up short on their last 5 third-down attempts.

Much of the answer was the New Orleans offense.  With the Eagles getting only 7:28 of clock time in the second half, it was difficult for them to sustain any rhythm.  But even when they had their opportunities, the Saints’ defense found answers.

Covering the Receivers

If there was one constant after the first quarter it was the inability of the Eagle receivers to gain separation.  This actually happened from time to time during the season last year, and also earlier this year.  While the combo of Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor came up huge in last year’s playoffs, they have had frequent games where they have mostly disappeared.  In the second half of Sunday’s playoff game, Jeffery caught 2 of 5 thrown to him for 8 yards.  The only pass thrown in Agholor’s direction bounced incomplete.

After trying varying schemes and matchups early in the game, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen settled on a mostly simple scheme.  Man coverage with one or two safeties ready to help over the top.  For the most part, it was Lattimore accompanying Jeffery, while Apple occupied Agholor and P.J. Williams supervised Matthews or Tate.  While Foles’ performance wasn’t up to last year’s standards, in fairness he frequently had no place to go with the ball.

The trouble with man coverages, of course, is what to do with Zach Ertz.  Allen’s answer was a composite answer, with almost everyone else in the line backing corps and secondary taking a turn at covering Zach.  Sometimes – though not as often as you might have expected – Ertz saw double coverage.  Of the varying defenders assigned to him, Ertz may have seen linebacker Alex Anzalone and safety Vonn Bell more than others, but it was almost always someone different.  In short, it took a village.

On the surface, this wouldn’t seem like an awe-inspiring plan.  But it held up for two reasons.  First, when Foles saw his receivers in man coverage, his first looks were for Jeffery and Agholor down the field.  Second, the Saints – although they never sacked Foles – managed just enough pressure to disrupt him before he could cycle down to Ertz. 

When he did, he found opportunity.  Zach caught all three passes thrown to him in the second half for 35 yards.  Two of those receptions went for 16 and 17 yards – Philadelphia’s only second half plays to cover at least ten yards.

But if lack of open receivers was Nickys’ principle problem, it wasn’t his only problem.

Discomfort in the Pocket

One of the under-remembered aspects of last year’s playoff run was the pass protection afforded Nick Foles.  Almost all of those devastating deep passes that he delivered came from a very clean pocket.  Allen, of course realized that pressuring Nick would help his cause.  That, of course, would not be easy against the Eagles’ able offensive line, and became harder when New Orleans lost their second best pass rusher Sheldon Rankins for the rest of the season during Philly’s second offensive drive.

But Nick Foles isn’t one of those dangerous quarterbacks who gets outside the pocket and causes trouble with improvisation.  We have talked already this playoff season about young quarterbacks who have difficulty winning the game from the pocket.  The other side of that coin is a guy like Foles who does his work from the safety of the pocket and is less comfortable on the move.  Sometimes it only takes a suggestion of pressure to make him feel uncomfortable and throw him off his game.

Even without Rankins – and without ever sacking Nick – New Orleans was consistently successful in tightening the pocket around him and not allowing him the full extension of his long arms.  Additionally, the Saints’ defenders increasingly played tighter and tighter on the Eagle receivers.  Knowing that Foles likes to get the ball out quickly, they took away his easy first reads and forced him into quicker decisions than he was comfortable with.  And with Rankins unavailable, most of the heavy lifting would fall to star defensive end Cameron Jordan.

Matched against one of the top offensive tackles in the league in Lane Johnson, Jordan (with no sacks and one pass batted down) wasn’t as disruptive as he’s been in other games.  On Sunday, he was just enough.

On second-and-ten from his own 40, with 14:55 left game and trailing by three, Nick had Jeffery open up the right sideline.  But Jordan was pushing both Johnson and Stefen Wisniewski back into the pocket, and Foles opted to check down to Darren Sproles for a 2-yard gain.

On the very next play, Golden Tate was running away from P.J. Williams on a deep cross.  But Jordan was pushing Johnson back into the backfield again.  He flushed Foles from the pocket almost into the arms of David Onyemata.  Nick got the pass off, but not accurately.

Now there is 2:58 left in the Eagle season, and they are on their own 42 down by six.  Saints back in cover-2.  Jordan was coming around his right side, flushing him up into Tyeler Davison – who was pushing center Jason Kelce back into Foles’ face.  Tate was barely open in a tight window, but Nick couldn’t get a good throw off.

It was like this most of the night for Nick.

Where Were the Hot Routes?

The Saints don’t blitz much – they only did so a handful of times on Sunday.  But the few times they did they were more disruptive than they should have been.  There were only a couple of times that they actually came free against Nick, but, surprisingly, the Eagles didn’t have anyone running short routes (hot routes) to beat the blitz.

This caused an incompletion to Jeffery on the first play of the last quarter when P.J. Williams wasn’t picked up.  Again, on third-and-eight with 8:50 left in the game, Anzalone came untouched on the blitz and Foles rushed a throw in Matthews’ general direction.

There were other occasions when the blitz was picked up, but Foles still rushed his decision making process.

The Endgame

For all of this, Philadelphia still had that last shot.  One tick before the two minute warning, sitting on the Saints 27, but needing the touchdown, the Eagles’ run as defending world champions ended on a simple curl route against a soft cover-two and a well thrown pass that slipped through the grasp of Jeffery into the hands of Lattimore.  And with that, New Orleans secured its 20-14 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Marshon Lattimore played and excellent game.  He finished, ironically enough, with interceptions on two of his least impressive moments.  His first came on an underthrown pass to a receiver who was open behind him.  His last came as he was simply sitting in his zone minding his own business when the ball fluttered in his direction.

All talk of strategy aside, sometimes these things come down to the bounce of a ball.

And Now the Rams

So now, the Saints get the Rams with a Super Bowl trip on the line.  The world, I think, expects a shootout similar to the earlier game.  I am unconvinced.  The Saints still have one of football’s better run defenses, and they have actually played excellent pass defense over the second half of the season.

For their part the Rams are coming off, arguably, their best defensive game of the season – and a game in which they ran for 273 yards, to boot.  Additionally, both of these teams are now familiar with each other’s offense.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not predicting a 3-0 game won on a last second 50-yard field goal.  But my feeling is that the defenses on both sides will make points more hard earned this time around.

On Sunday afternoon, we’ll find out.

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