The Eagles’ Third-Down Blues
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Any play can change an NFL game but third down is where most contests are won and lost.
In fact, the Eagles' dominance when Carson Wentz was running the offense can be traced directly to the team's ability to keep the chains moving on a consistent basis. With the second-team All-Pro in the lineup, Doug Pederson was seemingly pushing all the right buttons as Philadelphia converted at a sizzling 45 percent pace.
A downward trend should have been expected when Wentz was lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered in Week 14 against the Los Angeles Rams and Nick Foles entered. The depths of the offense's fall on the game's most important down, however, has been staggering.
The Eagles are just 8-of-35 on third downs with the backup running things, a dismal 22.9 percent. Over Foles' last five quarters of the regular season -- against Oakland and Dallas -- Philadelphia is an almost unthinkable 1-of-17 on third down, a laughable 5.9 percent.
To highlight just how poor that is, understand Minnesota has the best third-down defense in football this season and the top performance during such situations in over a quarter of a century by allowing its opponents to convert at a 25.2 percent rate.
Pederson has traced the ineffectiveness to the team's recent issues on first and second downs which have put Foles in some untenable situations.
“I don’t think third down is the problem,” the coach claimed. “I think first and second down is the problem, because we’re losing yards on first and second down with penalties, negative rushing plays, sacks. That’s what’s put us in third and long. You can’t get to third down until you fix first and second down.”
Pederson's intent is clear and the Eagles need to play a clean game against Atlanta on Saturday in the divisional round to advance.
Penalties and negative plays put the offense behind an 8-ball which Wentz could often overcome. Foles doesn't have the same skill set to extend plays and create unscripted offense. When you add in the Falcons' conservative Cover-3 approach on 3rd-and-long situations, expecting Foles to convert is such circumstances is unrealistic.
More manageable opportunities are the goal.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen