Eagles Prepare to Embrace January Football
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - The Eagles got a taste of January football in December and win or lose the one constant was the ugliness, particularly Nick Foles' attempts at cutting through the oppressive cold and wind that has engulfed the Delaware Valley.
And two games watching that has led Doug Pederson back to the thesis that has been proven time and time again during his two decades in the NFL as a player and coach -- the formula for winning in the postseason during cold-weather-games is the running game, coupled with a strong defense.
"That's a formula. Especially now, outside, January-type games, the weather can be bad. I think you have to be able to do that and keep yourself on the field and keep your defense rested," the Eagles coach admitted.
Perhaps most importantly that takes Foles, the team's struggling backup quarterback from a starring role to a complementary one.
"Somewhere in there you're going to have to make a play in the passing game, too, whether it be on a third down or maybe a first-down shot or something like that," Pederson explained. "Not ruling out the passing game, obviously, but that run game we have to get back to the way we did it a couple weeks ago."
While others were focused on how long Foles' leash will be in a win-or-go-home environment, Pederson's plan is to try to maximize the efficiency of a flawed option at the game's most important position.
And that means continuing to lean on Jim Schwartz's defense, which has been lights out in the cold, while also getting back to a running game that has faltered a bit down the stretch after an impressive mid-season performance.
"I don't think we ever got away from [the run]. I just think our execution in the run game has been poor," Pederson said. "So we just have to get back to fine-tuning and showing our guys every look potentially front-wise and making sure we, as coaches, have everything covered. Then it's just a conscious effort to stay dedicated to the run game."
Getting more physical in practice is part of that plan. Pederson scaled back to more walk-throughs during the final two weeks off the regular season in order to get to the finish line but now the players themselves have gone to the head coach to tell him to kick it back up a notch now that the stakes are raised.
"This is something that the players want. It's not a punishment thing; it's not coming directly from me. It's what the players want," Pederson said of putting the pads on at practice. "I listen to my guys. I think they understand that there is a sense of physicality that we have to get back to. I'm not saying we're not there because obviously football is a physical game, but I think there is a sense over the course of a few weeks when you've been in shells, pad level begins to rise, and intensity sometimes can be minimized."
Perhaps that's what's been missing in the running attack, which obviously needs physicality to success,
"You get back into pads and it sort of refocuses the guys a little bit," the coach explained. "It's not like we're going to tackle. It's not a training-camp-type-of practice. The fact of just having them on, banging around on one another, but still protecting each other, I think can be a nice asset for us going into our first game."
The Eagles also seem to be preparing Jay Ajayi for a bigger role.
"That's a possibility with what he's shown us down the stretch here and giving him rest last week, and we'll see where he is this week health-wise," Pederson admitted. "I think he's one of the guys that we can rely on. I do think there could be a little more role for him down the stretch."
Ajayi was the only offensive starter inactive for Sunday's regular-season finale against the Cowboys, and he isn't expected to be full-go at practice on Wednesday because of his chronic cranky knee. The kid gloves are just a precaution, however.
"As you know with his history, he's had the knee," Pederson said when discussing Ajayi's status. "Just rest on that knee is all."
Ajayi tore his right ACL in college at Boise State and was often on a load management restriction in Miami due what is believed to be a bone-on-bone issue with that knee, a condition that sent him tumbling to the fifth-round in the draft and had the Dolphins willing to ship him to Philadelphia for a fourth-rounder despite a Pro Bowl pedigree.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen