BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Doug Pederson doesn’t seem like the type to buck NFL convention.
The Philadelphia Eagles coach carries himself with confidence, but he’s not brash. He spent 10 rather unremarkable NFL seasons as a backup quarterback. When he was hired as Eagles head coach, it wasn’t splashy. Certainly not as splashy as the Eagles coach before him, Chip Kelly.
Maybe that’s how Pederson became a bit of an iconoclast and did it under the radar.
The Eagles do many things in a different way. They take an aggressive approach on offense and defense. They have incorporated as many college offensive concepts as anyone in the NFL. They use analytics across the board, even as some old-guard NFL types mock that approach. In a league that seems to adore punting, the Eagles often go for it on fourth down. These aren’t revolutionary concepts, but it’s a nice change in a league that is often stuck in its ways. These Eagles are rarely boring.
“He’s made it known he’s going to be aggressive and he’s going to play to win the game, not to lose,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said.
Let’s start with Pederson’s proclivity for going for it on fourth down, because it says a lot about his approach. Fourth down is a punting down for most NFL teams. It’s so ingrained in NFL culture that announcers still breathlessly talk about a team gambling when they go for it on fourth-and-short in opposing territory, even when the numbers say they should be going for it. While some teams are scared of being criticized for going for it too much, the Eagles went for it on fourth down 26 times this season, second in the league, with an NFL-best 17 conversions.
The Eagles study fourth-down data over the offseason. They’re not just making the time-honored “gut decisions,” they’re based on probability. Sometimes Pederson has to make a 50-50 call, though it’s all based in math. And oftentimes the math says to go for it, though teams ignore statistics to their own detriment. Analytics are often derided in the NFL, even though smart teams use them and it seems weird to not want as much information as possible.
Again, none of this is reinventing the wheel. But so few coaches seem to understand the concept, that it’s refreshing Pederson gets it and has had success on fourth down.
“Aggressive play-calling and aggressive coaches breed confidence in the group, right?” Kelce said. “If you didn’t think you’d get it on fourth down, you wouldn’t go for it. The fact that he has confidence in the offense allows us to have confidence in ourselves.”
The most ironic part of Pederson’s new-age approach might be how he has incorporated college concepts into his offense. Watch Super Bowl LII and you’ll see some of the run-pass option plays (often called “RPOs”) that you’ll see when you watch the Big 12. It’s funny because Kelly was run out of Philadelphia and derided for his new ideas, like his college-based offensive concepts. Then when Carson Wentz went down, Pederson actually took some of the things Nick Foles did with Kelly and introduced them into the offense. Pederson started using run-pass options with Alex Smith when Pederson was offensive coordinator at Kansas City and carried it over to Philly.
Kelly was ridiculed for his concepts practically from the moment he arrived in Philadelphia from the University of Oregon. Pederson is being celebrated for his ingenuity at the Super Bowl. Go figure. Pederson made sure to note that the college-based concepts aren’t his entire offense, but he’s willing to incorporate some that work.
“We continue to adapt to our personnel and the type of players we have,” Pederson said. “I’m big about not force-feeding a certain scheme or play down anybody’s throats. I want to do what works.”
There’s an aggressive attitude toward play-calling, as well. The NFC championship game was a good example. Most teams would play it conservative with backup Foles against a top-ranked Minnesota Vikings defense. The Eagles instead pushed the ball downfield, Foles threw for 352 yards and the Eagles blasted the Vikings 38-7.
“Honestly, we didn’t expect that,” Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said, according to CBS Sports. “We expected him to dink and dunk, throw check downs, but he came out guns blazing.”
If this was supposed to be a more conservative offense with Foles, it hasn’t always shown. Warren Sharp of SharpFootballAnalysis.com has noted that the Eagles (who are a shotgun-based offense) used the shotgun formation 70 percent of the time with Wentz and upped that to 77 percent with Foles. Part of that is the use of RPOs.
The defense complements the offensive approach well. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has long been known for an aggressive pressure-based scheme. According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles led the NFL with 271 pressures this season, 27 more than any other team. Seven players had 20 or more pressures, which led the NFL. The Eagles don’t blitz a ton, because their front four is good at getting to the quarterback, but aggression and pressure with strong man coverage behind it is a cornerstone of their success. That plays well with the offensive mindset.
This is the mentality Pederson has set from day one, and Eagles players say you can see it in their practices. In many ways it sounds similar to Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who practically treats practices like games.
“The aggressiveness at practice, the competitiveness we practice with, it gets intense,” defensive end Vinny Curry said. “You’re just seeing things from practice carry over to the game.”
Cornerback Jalen Mills’ college coach at LSU was Les Miles, who turned risk-taking into performance art. So he’s not surprised by anything, but appreciated Pederson’s mindset from day one.
“When it comes to Coach Doug, you see it at practice,” cornerback Jalen Mills said. “He’s trying to air it out on the defense or run it down our throat on the defense. We get surprised by it sometimes. But we see it every day.”
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