After one of the most frustrating seasons in recent memory, the Eagles have miraculously made their way into the playoffs. Coming off an embarrassing loss in New Orleans, sitting with a disappointing 4-6 record, the season felt like it was a wrap. But with a little Foles magic, holes being plugged in the secondary, and some key players returning from injury, the Birds have won five of their last six to snag the final spot in the NFC playoffs.
There were a handful of factors that played into the Eagles late season turnaround, so let’s talk about them.
The Nick Foles Factor.
As much as I like Carson Wentz and have faith that he’ll come back next year at full strength, I don’t know if the Eagles would be in the position that they’re in right now if he was the starter. The offense struggled to find rhythm for most of the year with Wentz at the controls. And although his play started to improve before his injury, the offense took a huge leap with Foles under center.
Since he took over in week 15, the Eagles offense has averaged 420 total yards and just over 28 points per game. Also during that same time span, the Birds have converted 53 percent of their third/fourth down plays.
Comparing those numbers to the games where Wentz started: 358 yards, and 22 points per game with a 39 percent conversion rate on third/fourth down; it’s easy to see the boost that Foles has brought to the table.
The most glaring stat here is the conversion rates of Foles and Wentz. Foles brings a fluidity to the offense that Wentz just couldn’t provide. Converting third and fourth downs isn’t only crucial for an offense’s production, but it has a trickle-down effect on the defense as well. When the offense converts on a third or fourth down, that’s three/four extra downs that your defense will get to rest (barring a turnover on one of those plays of course).
So not only is Foles’ higher conversion percentage benefitting the offense, but it’s also allowing the defense to rest up and better prepare for their next trip on the field.
Granted, Foles’ sample size is much smaller than Wentz’s, but there’s no denying that the offense has been much more productive over the past three weeks than it was in the 13 games prior. And the only major change to the offense’s personnel has been at the Quarterback position, so clearly we can trace that difference back to Foles.
Sproles’ Return to the Lineup.
Once Sproles went down in week one and missed several games in a row, I really didn’t think he would contribute much of anything to this year’s team. But once he got healthy enough to return in week 13, he added an element to the Birds’ offense that was missing all season; the threat of a running back catching balls out of the backfield.
Doug tried to thrust Smallwood into that role, but he just doesn’t have the same play making ability that Sproles does. Over the past five games since he’s been back, Sproles has 15 receptions for 160 yards with three total touch downs.
At 35, Sproles is still a threat to score every time he touches the ball, and he’s proved that he’s still one of the hardest backs to bring down in the open field.
A versatile player like Sproles is invaluable to an offense, especially with a QB like Foles.
Foles’ whole game is predicated on taking what the defense gives him. When a play breaks down, Sproles is the ultimate check down weapon because he can take a five yard dump off and turn it into a 20-yard gain. He did exactly that against the Texans when he took a swing pass out of the backfield all the way to the house for a touchdown.
Sproles is also the perfect compliment to a big back like Josh Adams. In years past, when the Eagles struggled to find consistency in the backfield, Sproles was relied upon to take more inside zone carries and run between the tackles. And while he was effective doing that when called upon, he’s best suited as a third down change-of-pace back.
With Adams taking the bulk of the carries, Sproles has been able to excel in the limited touches he’s gotten.
“Next Man Up” Mentality on Defense.
Much like last year’s team, the defensive mantra when faced with injuries has been the “next man up” mentality. It took Jim Schwartz awhile to figure out the right combination of players to best compensate for all the injuries, but he found it at just the right time.
With both starting corners on IR (Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby) and the projected starting nickel being in-and-out of the lineup (Sidney Jones), the trio of Avonte Maddox, Rasul Douglas and Cre’Von Leblanc have solidified the defensive backfield. If we’re being honest, this trio has been the best combination of corners that the Eagles have put on the field all season.
Maddox has proved to be a stellar cover corner and has shown early signs of being a ball hawk. Douglas has also stepped up and has provided some play making ability at the second corner back position. And while Leblanc doesn’t jump off the screen at you, he’s been much more consistent in coverage than Jones.
Players like Timmy Jernigan and Corey Graham have also quietly gotten healthy over the past few weeks. Graham struggled earlier in the season, but he’s found his way recently and has really helped with the absence of McCleod.
Jernigan has been able to provide some juice to the front-7 as well, along with Haloti Ngata’s late season resurgence. Once these two got healthy, the run defense became much better. Over the last six games, the Eagles rush defense has only allowed 89 yards per game after giving up 136 per game in the previous five.
Aside from Jim Schwartz figuring out the right combination of players to plug in, the entire defense has really been peaking over the past six games. They’ll need to carry this momentum in to the playoffs if they want to keep their season alive.