Doug Pederson has done a great job with the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense this season. There’s not a lot of room to complain.
But ... (you knew a ‘but’ was coming) it’s fair to question how the Eagles deploy their running back rotation. Especially after seeing what happened in the Eagles’ playoff game against the Falcons.
Heading into the game, the common thought was that Pederson was going to rely more heavily upon Jay Ajayi. And that’s exactly what happened early in the game, despite the fact the Jay Train fumbled on his first carry after picking up a 6-yard gain.
After the fumble, Ajayi started to get in a rhythm. He rushed seven times for 44 yards (6.3 average) and also caught a 9-yard reception until 13:29 remaining in the second quarter.
And then he didn’t touch the ball again for the rest of the first half.
The Eagles ran the ball four times until Ajayi’s next carry. They were all taken by LeGarrette Blount, who scored a 1-yard touchdown run but only gained a total of -3 yards on all four carries.
Pederson was asked about the decision to go away from Ajayi during his Monday press conference.
Q. After the game when asked about the stretch where Ajayi wasn’t on the field, you said it was three-and-outs and stuff like that, but maybe you didn’t realize there was 15 plays where he wasn’t on the field. Was that running backs coach Duce Staley’s call? Did you go back and look at it and wonder why all of a sudden he wasn’t out there for so long?
DOUG PEDERSON: No, because I ultimately control the personnel. Duce doesn’t sub them. I’m the one calling the plays, so I call for those guys in particular situations. A couple times when we broke off a long run or a pass particularly, it was a good time to go a little tempo. And so whoever the back was at the time on the field just kept him in there. 29 was heating up a little bit and wanted to get him going, too, as well. It’s just the way it went.
Q. So there are still set plays that are Blount plays and Ajayi plays? So Ajayi still doesn’t have kind of the full —
DOUG PEDERSON: No. Every back has, every back knows the run game, and they know the passing game. The way it is set up is by design, by scheme design, a particular back might be good at a certain run scheme, so we put that back in on that particular play. However, if we break off a long pass or a run, there’s a chance that I go hurry-up tempo, which I did the other day, and whichever back is in the -- which means they have to know the whole complement of the offense. We still go in with the same setup like we’ve done all season, it’s just now a matter of me calling that back or another back, whether it’s a pass or a run in those situations.
If Pederson truly believes Blount was “heating up,” that’s concerning because it’s not really the case. Blount is only averaging 2.82 yards per carry in his last six games. There’s just not a lot of juice there.
Some have theorized Ajayi’s absence was punishment for his earlier fumble, but that doesn’t really make sense since he got a lot of touches right after that. Plus it’s not like Blount was doing a great job protecting the rock. He had a botched handoff with Nick Foles.
The feeling here is the Eagles really need to reduce Blount’s role in the offense right now. He played 30% of the snaps and had nine carries for 19 yards against Atlanta. Ajayi and Corey Clement should be eating into his playing time.
This might come off as a nitpicky complaint but the Eagles’ margin for error is slim now that they’re playing in the NFC Championship Game. They need to make every play count.
The Vikings’ No. 2 ranked run defense is already very tough. The Eagles should look to attack Minnesota’s stout defense with an explosive Ajayi rather than a plodding Blount.
More from Doug Pederson’s Monday press conference below.
Q. When you think of Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, what do you think of?
DOUG PEDERSON: I go all the way back to 1999 with Pat, and he was our tight end coach here in Philadelphia. He is smart. He’s obviously been a head coach in this league and been a coordinator in this league. He’s done an outstanding job with Minnesota the last couple of weeks, and the last couple years. He understands defense, meaning he’s putting his guys in positions to be successful, particularly that quarterback. It’s been kind of fun to kind of watch him and watch kind of what they’ve done offensively this season, as well.
Q. You got to see the Vikings’ defense last year, but when you turn it on this year, what makes it so dominant?
DOUG PEDERSON: This team is playing -- listen, they’ve been together now for a few years. This group is playing with a lot of confidence, playing with a lot of speed. Not a lot of mistakes. It’s a scheme that just -- they just basically say, ‘Hey, line up and try to come after us, try to beat us.’ That’s what you see on tape, and it’s a daunting task for us this week.
Q. What were your impressions of that game yesterday?
DOUG PEDERSON: Well, we were going to play the winner of the game, so for that matter it didn’t matter. But the way -- that fourth quarter was pretty exciting. For any NFL game, particularly a divisional playoff game, but one team was going to win, and one team was going to lose. And just the way it all went down was pretty exciting, I think, for fans and for the league.
Q. Where did you watch it?
DOUG PEDERSON: Right upstairs.
Q. With any other coaches?
DOUG PEDERSON: No. There were coaches in the building but not together, no.
Q. This was your first postseason game as a head coach. The players talked a lot about just treating it like another game. For you, was it just another game once it started? Did it feel that way? Do you coach differently or did you try to just kind of have the exact same approach?
DOUG PEDERSON: You try to go into it with the same approach. You don’t do anything crazy as far as just do the things that got you in that position and got you there in the first place. Once you get into the flow of the game, it’s football. You sort of block out all the peripheral stuff, whether it be the noise or the score, time of the game, wherever you’re at, and you just try to execute and try to help your team win the game.
Q. It seemed from the intensity of practices to the messaging to the team there was a lot of thought put into how you did the last two weeks. How do you regroup now and try to get the group focused for this week?
DOUG PEDERSON: Listen, we all understand what’s at stake with this weekend. It’s a great opportunity, again, for our team and for the Philadelphia Eagles. That’s the challenge, in probably our case and in the Vikings’ case is coming off these emotional, close victories, and then having to turn around and do it again. And so we’ve just got to -- I’ve just got to make sure that I continue to stay aggressive with the week of practice and prepare the guys just like we have the last couple of weeks and just try to stay in our lane and try to block out some of the noise.
Q. When you look at the offensive line and the way they’ve played, especially on that screen pass to RB Jay Ajayi, what kind of sticks out about that?
DOUG PEDERSON: Was that the one in the fourth quarter?
Q. The 32-yarder.
DOUG PEDERSON: There were a couple screens in there.
Q. The one where G/C Stefen Wisniewski got the two guys.
DOUG PEDERSON: The screen game has been something we’ve worked on the last couple of weeks, and it had to get better as the season wore on for us. I’ll tell you, it was just set up perfectly for us and well-executed to have Wis [G/C Stefen Wisniewski] downfield and block one, but take out two, obviously helps the play. But screens are a big part of the game. This is something, too, that the Vikings use quite a bit, as well. It’s a tough play if it’s called in the right situation.
Q. When you called it the second straight time, what possessed you to do that?
DOUG PEDERSON: Back to back? There you go. Sometimes you can catch a group off guard when they don’t expect two screens back to back. I’ve done it one other time in Kansas City with success. It’s just something that you just kind of get in the flow of the game, get in the feel of the game.
Q. The focusing of the playbook that you did leading up to Atlanta, to put QB Nick Foles in positions to succeed and things he was comfortable with, as you went back and reviewed, were you happy with those decisions you had made overall, and will this week require some more tinkering given what Minnesota likes to do?
DOUG PEDERSON: I felt leading up to the Falcon game and the things that [Offensive coordinator] Frank [Reich] and I had discussed and put together with the game plan was conducive to some of Nick’s strengths. It wasn’t anything crazy or out of the ordinary from what we’ve done all season, but just plays where he was comfortable. Really had a tight game plan. There really weren’t a lot of moving parts as far as motions and shifts and things like that. We had a couple different wrinkle plays in there. But other than that, just kind of felt real good about our game plan last week, and we’ve got to do the same thing again this week.
Q. There was a lot of celebration, of course, after that game and guys were really happy to be here. You saw Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Lurie dancing in the locker room and guys wearing dog masks and things like that. For this team to now refocus and turn that page, every guy, almost the entire season, has said that this team is special and that it can do special things. What is the sense you get from your players that this is not good enough to be in the conference title game and that you guys want more?
DOUG PEDERSON: Any time you get to this point of the season, you do want more because you’re on the doorstep of being one of those elite football teams. The word “special” with this team, it really means that. This is a really good group of men that play well together, have battled through adversity all season long with the injuries, and yet still find ways to pull out wins. To have a lot of sort of people not having a lot of confidence in us and yet to find ways to win just makes it that much more special for this group, and they understand where we are. I’m sure Minnesota is the same way. They understand where they are, as well, and the things they’ve heard all season long, too. This is a special time of the year with a special group of men, and yeah, we still have one more game this weekend, and we’ll see what happens.
Q. When you watch the film of Foles, particularly in the second half, what changed? Did you make any adjustments? Was it confidence or was it Atlanta’s defense?
DOUG PEDERSON: We didn’t make a lot of wholesale changes at halftime. We just stuck to the game plan. Nick just got -- started getting into a little bit of a rhythm in the second half a little bit more, and things began to open up. [WR] Alshon [Jeffery] started getting the ball a little bit, [TE Zach] Ertz [got the ball] a little bit more, and being able to take advantage of some things down the field. The screen game was a big part of that in the second half. There wasn’t a lot of major changes or overhauls at halftime, we just had to stick to our plan. We knew it was going to be a tough ballgame for 60 minutes. Atlanta has a lot of playmakers on offense, and they can light a scoreboard up. But our deal was just staying consistent with our game plan.
Q. When you have a veteran quarterback like that, are you kind of more confident that he’ll be able to get himself into that rhythm as the game goes on?
DOUG PEDERSON: Yeah, you feel like with veteran quarterbacks that they’ve been in those situations. They’ve been in games, and they can kind of settle down and settle down early and calm down and get into that rhythm. I feel that way with Nick, obviously, and the confidence that I have in him, yeah.
Q. RB Corey Clement had five catches, and he only had ten all year. Was that a conscious decision to involve him more in the passing game or just a product of how it went?
DOUG PEDERSON: Just a product of how it went, quite honestly.
Q. What kind of weapon is he in the passing game when he can turn the corner the way he did?
DOUG PEDERSON: I think, first of all, he’s getting better in route running. We threw some screens to him, which he’s pretty good at that. We’ve got to be smart as a staff on how we use our running backs. People can start keying in on certain guys and certain personnel groups, so we’ve got to make sure that we mix things up. He’s one of those guys that I feel like we’re getting more comfortable with throwing him the football whether it’s a screen or down the field and you saw a couple out of the backfield to him and one, big third-down play there. He catches well, and he’s done a nice job.
Q. In DT Fletcher Cox’s case, you guys have said the stats don’t show what he does. In watching film what stood out about the game he had Saturday?
DOUG PEDERSON: As you know, we went in with three tackles, and we knew these guys were going to have to play a lot. Fletcher was going to be one of those guys, and he’s definitely an anchor with that D-line. He was a man on a mission and just took a lot of it upon himself and got the rest of the D-line going a little bit. But [he was] very disruptive around the quarterback, hitting [Falcons QB] Matt [Ryan] a little bit, a couple tackles for losses in there. And just this time of year, man, it’s just guys understand that it’s win and keep going or you don’t, and your season is over. He’s a guy that we lean on a lot defensively from a leadership role, and he stood out nice.
Q. You have two quarterbacks starting a game here that did not start the season as the starter. You having been in that position as a player before, how much do you appreciate that?
DOUG PEDERSON: Yeah, you can definitely appreciate it as a backup quarterback. You definitely want to be in -- it’s unfortunate for the starter, but at the same time, it’s a great opportunity for the backups. In both quarterbacks’ cases, there’s been a lot of talk about both these guys the whole season, and in our case, the last month. They just seem to keep sort of defying the odds and stepping up to the challenges each week. That’s what’s exciting and fun to see about these two guys is they’ve just overcome everything and have really, really helped their teams get to this position, and that’s what you want.
Q. What kind of heart to heart have you had with special teams coordinator Dave Fipp after those three special teams’ errors on Saturday?
DOUG PEDERSON: We understand, too, that when we talk special teams, a lot of times it is about awareness and just being aware of the situation. As coaches we try to put our players in positions to be successful, and then once the play goes and the play and the snap of the ball, then it’s kind of up to the player to execute the plan and the details of their work. A lot of times, as much as I stand up here and talk to the guys about weather and wind and it’s cold, it’s sunny, it’s hot, and ball security, this, that and the other, it’s part of being a professional athlete sometimes, being aware of the situation and what we’re trying to get accomplished. We’ve seen it now in our case, and we saw it a week ago where punt returns have ended up not so good for the return team. It’s just something we’ve just got to keep coaching our players. I talked to Dave again today and yesterday about it, and we’ve just got to make sure we keep talking. We had some young guys on those plays that were exposed for kind of the first time in that situation, and we’ve just got to keep talking to our players and keep coaching them up.
Q. You waited until the second half to sprinkle a little inside-zone read and outside-zone read and then play action off of it. Why did you wait until the second half to do that?
DOUG PEDERSON: In the first half, you saw the first play of the game was a play action-jet sweep that we had first play of the game, take a shot, and just, again, the weather and the wind, but we got the play and got the pass interference call. As the game wore on, too, the run game, the run just -- in the first half was kind of taking off with [RB] Jay [Ajayi] and a little bit of 29 [RB LeGarrette Blount] in the second quarter. And then that’s just kind of what opens up the second half of the ballgame, you know what I’m saying? So it’s part of the run game in the first half, and then utilizing that in the second half.
Q. Did you see Foles getting more confidence when you were in that zone read and getting back to the way he was?
DOUG PEDERSON: Totally. Again, that’s one of his strengths. He’s good at that. He’s a good, play action- pass quarterback. [QB] Carson [Wentz] is the same way. And so it just fell that way in the second half, and he gained -- a couple throws to [WR] Alshon [Jeffery] were off of little play action, [TE Zach] Ertz was play action, and it worked to our advantage.
Q. As Foles got more confident, did you sense that the team was feeding off of him a little bit?
DOUG PEDERSON: Yeah, and probably with any offense and any team, I’m sure the Patriots feel the same way with [QB Tom] Brady, the way he goes, they feel that energy, and same way with us. However your quarterback goes, you’re going to feed off of that, and you’re going to feel that energy and you’re going to feel that confidence. And that’s the way the team felt as the game wore on the other day.
Q. Is the Vikings’ offense similar to yours in any way?
DOUG PEDERSON: Yeah, pretty similar. Pretty similar. Run, play action and screen. That’s what they do. That’s what we’ve done the last couple of weeks. The other thing you’re seeing, too, I think, in our case we were able to do a much better job on 1st-and-2nd down and help us out on 3rd down the other night, I think 43 percent. Those are the things that you see Minnesota do, and they’re successful on 1st down; keeps them 3rd-and-manageable.
Q. Speaking of 3rd down, the Vikings have been 25 percent defensively, which is the best since the ‘70s, I think. What have you seen from their 3rd-down defense?
DOUG PEDERSON: It’s just a smothering defense. 97 [Vikings DE Everson Griffen], he’s a game wrecker. You’ve got to try to pass protect him, and it’s just you get to 3rd down, and they’ll pressure you a little bit, they play man coverage. The thing is they just mix it in. You just don’t know necessarily what’s coming. It just comes down to your execution. But that’s what you’re seeing with this team is just the speed of the D-line getting to the quarterback and then just playing man coverage in the back end that – [Vikings CB Xavier] Rhodes is a tremendous corner, safeties are playing extremely well. It’s a good group on 3rd down.
Q. How important is it when you look at what Foles is trying to do here, his mental toughness to get through all the noise, all the outside distractions, and just be able to go out and perform at a high level?
DOUG PEDERSON: That’s what he has to do. He’s just got to focus on his task, his job. We can’t worry about -- it’s like in my case, I can’t worry about the outside. The only reason I’m here is because I’m obligated to be up here. So I try to block it out, as well, and that’s what he’s done, and he’s done a tremendous job at doing that. Listen, there is a great surrounding cast around him, and he doesn’t have to do it himself. It’s not about one guy. You saw that the other day. It was a great example of that great team effort the other day. Was it perfect? No, but at the end of the day, we won the game, and we found a way to win the game, and that’s all that matters.