Here’s how Chicago Bears can force Eagles’ Nick Foles into mistakes Sunday
Stop me if you have heard this one before: The Philadelphia Eagles, riding the right arm of backup quarterback Nick Foles, find themselves in the postseason in an underdog role.
Last season, the Eagles rode that all the way to a Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. If Philadelphia is going to repeat as champions this year, however, it’ll need to do something that no NFL team has in over a decade: Win three road games just to get to the Super Bowl as the sixth seed. Their first test comes at the hands of the team that helped them get into the dance, the Bears. Thanks to Chicago’s Week 17 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia earned the final spot in the NFC playoffs.
As for Foles, who took over for Carson Wentz in Week 15 after Wentz was diagnosed with a back injury, the ending of the 2018 season is eerily similar to the final few stretches of the previous campaign. Foles took over for Wentz last year in Week 14, during the Eagles’ game against the Los Angeles Rams. Down the stretch, he threw for five touchdowns and two interceptions, leading the Eagles to three wins (and a loss in a meaningless Week 17 game in which he barely played). This season, Foles started in Week 15 against the Rams, and led the Eagles to three-straight wins to close out the year, throwing for six touchdowns and three interceptions.
Two things have been critical to Foles’ success during the past three weeks: Processing speed and execution in the vertical passing game. But even with these factors, there are still ways the Bears can force some mistakes from the veteran backup come wild-card weekend.
Attacking Cover 1 Press
During Foles’ recent stretch of play there have been many hours dedicated to uncovering the differences between him and Wentz. In the Philadelphia area, there are already some corners of the Eagles’ fan base wondering if Foles, and not Wentz, is the quarterback for this team in 2019. That is a debate for another time, but one area to watch is in the downfield passing game. Looking at the splits between the two passers, there is a marked difference in their execution on throws over 20 yards. This season, Wentz completed 15-of-41 passes for 603 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions on throws of 20 yards or more, for a quarterback rating of 61.33.
Foles this year on those same throws? 6-of-18 for 259 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, for a quarterback rating of 100.5.
One thing to watch is the connection between Foles and Alshon Jeffery. On a few occasions during the past few weeks, if Foles identifies Cover 1 press coverage from the secondary in the pre-snap phase of a play, he’ll look to Jeffery on a vertical route. For example, look at this play from Philadelphia’s Week 15 game against the Rams. On the first play of the second quarter, the Eagles face a third-and-6 in their own territory, and they see this look from the defense in the pre-snap phase:
Los Angeles is in a pure Cover 1 look, with the corners up in press alignment. Foles (#9) throws this vertical route to Jeffery (#17) along the right sideline:
Here is another example of this, from Philadelphia’s Week 17 victory over Washington:
Again, Foles sees Cover 1 press in the secondary, and dials up a vertical shot to Jeffery along the right sideline for a big gain. While there are some things in common between these two plays, including the alignment of Jeffery and the coverage from the secondary, there is something else:
Did you catch that? Before both of those plays, Foles gestures with his right hand toward Jeffery. Perhaps this is an adjustment made at the line of scrimmage by the quarterback and wide receiver when they see this coverage in the secondary. This will be something to watch on Sunday when these teams do square off, as the Bears play a lot of man coverage in the secondary. According to charting information from Sports Info Solutions, the Bears played man coverage more than league average through 16 weeks of the season, playing man on 44.7 percent of their defensive snaps, above the league average of 40.5 percent.
Dino or Double-Post
Another aspect of the Eagles’ vertical passing game during this stretch of play from Foles is a passing concept that has its roots in the Air Raid offense. Dino, or double-post, has been used for two huge plays by the Eagles during the final few weeks of the season. Astute readers of Pro Football Weekly will recognize this as a passing concept that we argued the Bears should use with Mitchell Trubisky, given his familiarity with the concept.
Here is a look at this design on paper:
Late in the third quarter of their Week 16 game against the Houston Texans, the Eagles face a first-and-10 in their own territory. They line up with Foles in the shotgun and three receivers to the left, with Golden Tate (#19) on the outside, Nelson Agholor (#13) in the middle and Zach Ertz (#86) on the inside. Jeffery is the single receiver to the right. They run the double post concept with Agholor and Ertz.
The Texans run a Cover 2 Man Under Cone concept in the secondary:
The safety and the corner on the weak side use a Cone technique, basically double-teaming Jeffery. The safety who is rotating back is forced to cover the inside post from Ertz, which puts Agholor in a man-to-man situation on his outside post route:
Foles takes his deep shot, and Agholor beats the defender for an 83-yard touchdown.
Here is the Dino concept against the Rams:
On this play, Foles is flushed to the right, and that allows both Jeffery and Agholor to get behind the defense. The QB uncorks a deep shot and the two receivers actually fight for the football, with Jeffery coming down with the big reception.
The beauty of the Dino concept is that it can create some favorable one-on-one matchups, even against zone coverage, with the receivers having the inside leverage advantage against either a cornerback or a safety. Some of the best offensive designs have an answer for both zone and man coverage, and Dino is a vertical concept that checks that box.
If there is another difference between the two Philadelphia quarterbacks, it comes in the realm of processing speed. Wentz has made some great strides in his ability to work through reads quickly and make a decision with the football, but as a younger player, he is still a tad bit slower than Foles, the veteran. That has led to the ability of the Eagles’ offense in the past few weeks to exploit some coverages and/or coverage breakdowns, as we will see.
Against the Texans in Week 16, Foles was able to make some quicker decisions with the football when he identified man coverage, leading to big gains through the air. On this fourth-and-2 play in the first quarter, Foles identifies that the Houston defense is in man coverage, and he quickly hits Darren Sproles (#43) on a wheel route out of the backfield before the linebacker can rotate over in coverage:
The Eagles have the perfect concept called here, with the two slant routes creating traffic for the linebacker responsible for Sproles in man coverage. Foles identifies the coverage and quickly looks to his running back out of the backfield. If he is a step late with this throw, the linebacker is able to get there and make a play on either the man or the ball. Instead, Sproles is off to the races.
Another passing concept the Eagles like to run with Foles is Pout, or Post/Out. This is a great design to run against zone coverage, particularly Cover 3 or Cover 4. The Eagles hit on this play against the Rams late in the first half, and here is what it looks like on paper:
Against Cover 3, the post route from the outside causes the cornerback to drift inside a bit as he passes that route to the middle of the field safety, which opens up a chance for the out route outside. This is also known as a Cover 4 beater, as the cornerback will stay on the post route, which requires the inside safety to try and run with that out route working away from him, a difficult ask.
Here, the Rams run a variation of Cover 3, with the strong safety dropping down into an underneath zone (Buzz) and with some more man-to-man principles on the two receiver side against the Pout concept. As the cornerback starts to run with the post from the outside receiver, the out route gets separation working toward the sideline, and Foles hits that route for the first down:
We will see this concept a little later, as an example of how to perhaps force a mistake from Foles. But here, the quarterback identifies the late coverage rotation and the combination coverage, and he exploits it on the out route for a big gain.
Finally, here’s a look at Foles identifying a soft defensive coverage when the Eagles are trying to run a vertical passing concept, and quickly taking what the defense gives him:
Philadelphia tries to get vertical here, with a corner/go combination on the left and a slot-fade design to the right. But Washington drops seven defenders in coverage, running a soft Cover 3, and they stay on top of each vertical route. Foles identifies that quickly, and simply checks the football down to running back Josh Adams (#33) on his flat route out of the backfield. Rather than hold the football and try and force something downfield into coverage, Foles takes what the defense gives him, quickly, and gives Adams a chance to pick up the first down with his legs after the catch, which he does.
Now, Foles has made some mistakes during these past few weeks, and looking at three of his interceptions uncovers some common themes: Pressure and “the unexpected.” If you can get pressure on Foles, you can see him make some mistakes. In addition, if you show him something in the secondary that he might not be expecting, you can take advantage of what he does in the passing game.
Let’s return to that Pout, or post/out, route combination we were discussing earlier. As we saw, the Eagles hit that for a pretty big play late in the first half. But Foles threw an interception on that in the red zone in the second half of that game against Los Angeles. Early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles have a chance to deliver the knockout punch against the Rams, as they hold a 30-13 lead and face a first-and-10 on the 17-yard line. Here is the Pout concept again:
Here, the Eagles catch the Rams in more of a pure zone coverage, a Cover 3 Buzz concept without the man-to-man principles we saw on the earlier example:
Foles looks to throw the out route to Ertz, expecting that Aqib Talib (#21) will drift toward the middle of the field with the post route, freeing up Ertz on the out to the sideline. But Talib peels off the post route quicker than Foles expects, jumping the out route for the interception:
Foles gets a look from the defense that he is not expecting, and it turns into a turnover for the Rams.
This interception against the Texans is another example of Foles getting a bit of a different look:
The Eagles run a mirrored slant/flat combination here, and Foles opens to his right to work the slant/flat combination between the weak side receiver and Sproles out of the backfield. As we saw on a previous play from this game, the Texans often played man coverage, asking a linebacker to cover the RB out of the backfield. Foles is expecting that look from the defense, and he believes he’ll have an easy throw to Sproles on the flat route. But Houston is in zone coverage here, and as Foles starts to throw he sees the cornerback passing off the slant route and driving downhill on the running back out of the backfield. That forces the QB to pull the ball down. As he does this, however, the pocket starts to collapse, and we see Foles panic and force a throw to Ertz that is off target, and intercepted.
Finally, here’s another example of a collapsing pocket leading to a mistake from Foles:
The Eagles face an early third down against Washington, third-and-5 with over ten minutes remaining in the first quarter down in the red zone. Foles drops to pass and looks over the middle, but with the pocket starting to constrict around him, his throw is high and off the target, making for an easy interception.
If the Bears are going to prevent history from repeating itself, they’ll need to force some mistakes from Foles this Sunday. Thankfully, they have the defensive front to get some pressure on Foles, which has led to some errors from the Super Bowl MVP. Whether Vic Fangio can dial up some ways to show Foles the unexpected after the snap remains to be seen, but the experienced defensive mind likely has a trick or two up his sleeve.