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October 10, 2017

How much credit does Doug Pederson's play calling deserve for the Eagles' 4-1 start?

Eagles NFL

With the Eagles off to a better start than almost anyone – those outside the NovaCare Complex, at least – expected this season, a question has been lingering on the minds of many fans:

How much credit does Doug Pederson play calling deserve for the Eagles’ 4-1 start that has them two games ahead of the rest of the NFC East?

It’s not a simple question to answer, as it’s often difficult to separate process from results in the NFL, or any sport for that matter. A coach can dial up the perfect play, but if the players don’t execute, then it could very easily seem like the wrong play was called. Of course, this works both ways. A coach could, for example, call a play that seems like the worst possible decision for the situation, but a few broken tackles and a big gain later, and it’s quickly forgotten.

So today, we’re going to look at one aspect of Pederson’s play calling this season, specifically how it has changed over the last three games regarding the team's run-pass ratio. 

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It's no surprise that the Eagles' best performance – and their young quarterback's best performance – came in what appears to be their most-balanced game of the season. 

“It's been a good recipe for us in the last few ballgames,” Pederson said Monday, a day after the Birds’ 34-7 drubbing of the Cardinals. “I think it's important – I mentioned how we need to establish the run in football games to start. It just helps our offense, helps our offensive line settle into games. And when you see your defense, the three and outs that they do have and stopping the run, it can frustrate an opponent as it would us when you can't run the ball.

“So both have really attributed to the success that we've had these last few games and our offensive line has done a really nice job at rising to the challenge against some really good defensive fronts, too.”

Following a start to the season in which nearly everyone was questioning the number of times Carson Wentz was being asked to throw the ball – and in turn asking questions about the competence of the head coach – something needed to change.

And it did. 

The Eagles starting running the ball more, racking up more rushes against the Chargers than they did in their first two games combined. More importantly, they started running the ball well, to the tune of 176.3 yards per game over the last three weeks.

"The run game is in a really good spot," Pederson said. "Again, it's a great testimony and testament to [OL] Coach Stoutland and the run-game plan that he and the guys put together. And it ultimately falls on the offensive line and the way they're working and the cohesiveness, and our backs are running extremely hard right now.

"All three of the guys in there are getting positive yards, and for me as a play caller, it's a comfort zone to be able to dial up the same run over and over. It just so happened that [Sunday] I could actually call them back-to-back because they were successful."

In their first two run-dominant games, which came against arguably their weakest competition of the season in the Chargers and Giants, the Eagles were facing two of the worst rush defenses in the league. Naturally, their game plan was going to be heavy on the ground attack.

If it wasn't, then we really would've had a problem.

But against the Cardinals, a team who entered the game ranked in the Top 10 in the NFL in run defense, the Eagles once again while deploying what appeared to be another one in which they ran more than they threw the ball. Wentz had a career day (304 yards and four touchdowns) while throwing just 30 times, more than seven attempts below his career average, but that's hardly the whole story.

When you look at the final numbers from the Cardinals game, the run-pass ratio can be slightly misleading, and not just because it doesn't take into account broken plays in which Wentz improvised and took off running himself. The intended game plan becomes even more difficult to discern when you consider that the Eagles went up 21-0 in the first quarter, and were up 31-7 in the third quarter.

So back to Pederson's quote about his team's "recipe" for winning during their current three-game streak: Have the Eagles really been trying to "establish the run in football games to start," or have they simply been able to score early and then lean on their run game the rest of the way?

A closer look at the play-by-play suggests it's the latter, that the run-first mentality people seem so eager to embrace has actually a result of the game, rather than of the game plan.

On their first possession Sunday, the Eagles drove 54 yards on 10 plays and capped it off with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Trey Burton. Of those 10 plays, eight were pass plays; two were designed runs.

So much for establishing the run early.

On their second drive, which also ended in a touchdown pass from Wentz, the Eagles only needed three plays, as they were starting on the Cardinals' 10-yard line. The first two were runs, the third was a pass. They followed this up with another three-play drive that also went run-run-pass. And like their first two, it ended with a touchdown from Wentz. 

To recap, the Eagles threw the ball 10 times and ran it six times over their first three drives. But they were up 21-0, so no one was complaining.

From there, the game plan can be tossed out the window. Whatever Pederson and his staff envisioned happening on Sunday, it couldn't have been as perfect as a 21-0 lead after their team's first three possessions. 

Even then, however, the Eagles still relied just as much on the pass as they did on the run. 

Here's a look at the run-pass breakdown for each of their first eight possessions on Sunday, ending when Nelson Agholor put the proverbial nail in the Cardinals' coffin with his 72-yard touchdown reception.

[NOTE: This takes into account the design of the play, not the result. So, for example, if Wentz dropped backed to pass and decided to run because of pressure, that counts as a pass play, since that was the call coming in from Pederson. It's also worth noting that Wentz sometimes has the option to call a run or a pass based on the coverage he sees. Pederson compared it to what Peyton Manning used to do in Indianapolis.]

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27-0321TD (14-0)
314-0321TD (21-0)
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824-7312TD (31-7)
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*At start of drive

From there on out, the Eagles gave the Cardinals a heavy dose of LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement, adding another field goal on their 10th drive to round out the scoring for the day.

There's no doubt that the Eagles showcased a more pass-heavy attack against Arizona. And guess what, Eagles fans, that's a really good thing.

You don't want to be a team known only for chucking the ball down the field. You don't want to be a team known for relying solely on the ground game. You want to be balanced. You want to be able to beat your opposition in a variety of different ways. Moreover, you want to be able to adjust and adapt to take advantage of your weaknesses without compromising your own strengths.

As Sun Tzu wrote, “Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.”

And through the first five games, that's exactly how the Eagles are winning. 

Pederson knew what he was facing against the Cardinals. It was the same thing all of us in the media had been writing all week – they're good against the run, but are vulnerable through the air, especially on the deep ball. He was willing to adjust what had worked well the previous two weeks, not because he wanted to, but because it gave his team the best chance to win. 

For that alone, he deserves a good deal of credit for how well the Eagles have looked this season. 

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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