Crunching the numbers: What Pederson’s Eagles need to do if they are to make the playoffs

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A Sunday night loss to the Dallas Cowboys put the Philadelphia Eagles’ playoff hopes in a flux heading into a rough stretch of games to close out the season. Seemingly from the time Walter Camp first tucked a pigskin under his arm, the blueprint for winning games in December and onward has been twofold: play defense, run the football. The Eagles defense, while losing ground to costly injuries have more-or-less kept their end of the bargain, despite some inconsistent — uncharacteristic perhaps — fourth quarter performances. Problematic for the Eagles, they face the toughest remaining schedule in the league — much tougher than the NFC East leading Washington Redskins, who have the 2nd easiest remaining schedule.

Currently, OddsShark favorably gives the Eagles -110 odds to make the playoffs and -130 odds to miss the playoffs. Similarly, AccuScore affords a 54.1% chance to the Eagles’ playoff hopes. This number is the highest in the NFC East, although it dropped from 72.3% following this week’s loss. The Redskins, concurrently, hold a 39.8% of making the playoffs. 247Sports gives the Eagles the 12th best shot at making the playoffs with 40/1 odds. Last week they held 20/1 odds. The Redskins are 14th with a 60/1 shot, up from 80/1 following their win against the Buccaneers.

As a football player, not a bettor: I say bah humbug. In football, along with all sports, there are numbers that matter and those that don’t. What should worry fans more than a drop in odds is the actual play on the field. With reluctance and a hopeful heart, I have to say that what I see is not playoff caliber football. Unfortunately, the numbers that matter agree.

As aforementioned, the recipe to January football is, and may forever be, run the football, play defense. Accordingly, I decided to do some research. In the last three seasons, thirty of the thirty-six playoff teams have ranked in the top ten in terms of total rush yards, yards allowed or points allowed. Only six teams were on the outside looking in, and two of those teams had Aaron Rodgers. Moreover, out of those six teams, four of them were wildcard teams. Here is a key to understanding the big block of numbers below:

Italicized Wildcard Team
Bold Championship Team
Underlined Without Top 10 Ranking

 

Team Rush Yards Rank Yards Allowed Rank Points Allowed Rank
Philadelphia Eagles 22 12 6
2017-2018
Buffalo Bills 6 26 18
Tennessee Titans  15 13 17
Kansas City Chiefs 9 28 15
Jacksonville Jaguars 1 2 2
Pittsburgh Steelers 20 5 7
New England Patriots 10 29 5
Atlanta Falcons 13 9 8
Carolina Panthers 4 7 11
New Orleans Saints 5 17 10
Los Angeles Rams 8 19 12
Minnesota Vikings 7 1 1
Philadelphia Eagles 3 4 4
2016-2017
Miami Dolphins 9 29 18
Oakland Raiders 6 26 20
Houston Texans 8 1 11
Pittsburgh Steelers 14 12 10
Kansas City Chiefs 15 24 7
New England Patriots 7 8 1
Detroit Lions 30 18 13
New York Giants 29 10 2
Green Bay Packers 20 22 21
Seattle Seahawks 25 5 3
Atlanta Falcons 5 25 27
Dallas Cowboys 1 14 5
2015-2016
Pittsburgh Steelers 16 21 11
Kansas City Chiefs 6 7 3
Houston Texans 15 3 7
Cincinnati Bengals 13 11 2
New England Patriots 30 9 10
Denver Broncos 17 1 4
Seattle Seahawks 3 2 1
Green Bay Packers 12 15 12
Washington Redskins 20 28 17
Minnesota Vikings 4 13 5
Arizona Cardinals 8 5 7
Carolina Panthers 2 6 6

I also took the courtesy of tallying the average rank of teams that made the playoffs and that made their respective championship games. Last year, being able to run the football was significantly more essential to making the playoffs than the two years prior — I believe this trend will continue. This puts a paramount on Philadelphia improving their run game heading into the holidays. Statistics in the 2016-2017 season are particularly skewed due to Green Bay’s improbable success. Below is a condensed version of what we see above featuring average benchmarks for playoff and championship teams. In bold are the standards they have successfully met.

2018-2019 Eagles 22 12 6
2017-2018
Playoff AVG 8.42 13.33 9.17
Championship AVG 5.25 9 3
2016-2017
Playoff AVG 14.08 16.17 11.5
Championship AVG 11.5 16.75 14.75
2015-2016
Playoff AVG 12.17 10.08 7.08
Championship AVG 14.25 5.25 6.75
TOTAL
Playoff AVG 11.56 13.19 9.25
Championship AVG 10.33 10.33 8.17

The Eagles currently rank 22nd in total rushing yards, 12th in yards allowed and 6th in points allowed. The only noteworthy boxes they check are by virtue of their scoring defense, which will be severely tested in coming games against the New Orleans Saints and LA Rams. The possible return of Tim Jernigan could provide a significant boost for a stifling pass rush and still-impressive rush defense, but the real issues lie in the secondary. With Ronald Darby officially out for the rest of the season, Philadelphia is likely to surrender more yards per game as opposed to less. Cornerback Sidney Jones played well in his brief time in the slot before missing three-plus games due to injury. However, he will be most likely be pushed to man the outside with Jalen Mills still sidelined and must be afforded time to make [one-lost-year-removed-from] rookie mistakes.

The biggest leap the team will need to make is in their running attack, which will be difficult to do sans running back Jay Ajayi. A jump from 22nd to 10th place would mean averaging 19 more yards per game at minimum. Admittedly, I don’t have the requisite math skills to factor in games played and retroactively adjust teams’ averages. The answer is somewhere in the ballpark of 20-25 more rush yards per game. This is no issue for a team that starts quick and can wind down the clock with relatively insignificant two to three yards runs. This has not been the case for this year’s Eagles. In fact, their struggles finishing games may stem directly from inability to run the ball consistently. Defenses aren’t worn out in the fourth quarter the way fans were used to seeing last year. Opponents don’t have to deal with tackling a 250-pound LeGarrette Blount down-after-down. Josh Adams has looked impressive in small portions so far this season, but it is too early in his career to put the ball in his hands 20-25 times a game. It seems the Eagles’ coaching staff agrees.

I believe the acquisition of Golden Tate subtly hinted at the fact that Doug Pederson and the rest of the offensive coaching staff are through with expecting the run game to get better in a hurry. Instead they will continue to ride the screen game until the wheels fall off. Unfortunately, there aren’t any statistics cross-referencing yards on screen passes to playoff success, but my guess is that teams that must rely on substitutes for running the ball don’t fare all that well. Supposedly, you could look at the New England Patriots as a reference point, but even Bill Belichick has gotten with the times. This season, the Patriots are running the football 5th most in the NFL.

Regrettably, all of this most likely means not only a change in results, but a change in scheme for Doug Pederson. It seems by the state of play as if the scramble to adapt to opposing defenses has already begun. If the Eagles are to win, they will have to play old-school football: low scoring games with strong defense and a painstaking dedication to the run. This is almost the opposite of Pederson’s MO since taking over for the Eagles. Still, the team has proven capable — think Week 1 versus the Atlanta Falcons. Essentially, the team needs to play like Nick Foles is at the helm. The locker room seemingly took a deep sigh of relief when Carson Wentz returned from injury; expecting to ride his MVP-like ability to another championship. I sensed inklings of this in Jason Kelce’s speech about accountability.

Overall, I think the 2018-2019 Eagles offence has failed to properly use and cater to the strengths of their offensive weapons, but that is a story for a different article. If the Eagles hope to not only make the playoffs, but make a run at title contention, the whole team will need to buckle down and get back to good ol’ fashioned football. They will struggle to do so against the Saints’ top run defense, but perhaps the Eagles defense can show some playoff teeth of their own.

 

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

 

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