Was Nick Foles struggling to see the field on Monday night or were his receivers failing to get open?
It’s a lot easier to answer that question with the all-22 film that becomes available a few days after the game.
Receivers were targeted 14 times in the Raider win but only caught five passes, with Nelson Agholor snagging four and Torrey Smith one. Alshon Jeffery had zero grabs on two targets. Foles primarily connected with his tight ends and running backs, who caught 14 of his 19 completions.
For what it’s worth, Foles provided a pair of relevant post-game quotes, one about Jeffery and one about the receivers in general:
On only targeting WR Alshon Jeffery twice:
“There were times when they were trying to double him and rolling the coverage. The rest of them I have to look at, too, with different ways to get him the ball because he can make so many plays.”
When Foles says “rolling the coverage” he means that the defense is shifting after the snap to support one side of the field or the other. It’s basically just disguising your coverage.
On the low production from wide receivers in the game:
“I’ll have to go to the film to answer that question and to see and analyze that. I know there were times when they had a safety over the top and that makes it difficult, so we have to work more inside. But it’s something I’ll look at on film. These are the games where they’re difficult. You have to grind through them, but you learn a lot. That’s the great thing; we watch film of everything and we’ll improve on it and that’s the exciting thing. I know the group we have and I know the coaches. I can’t wait to look at the film to see how we can improve in these areas, because there are so many areas we can improve.”
Let’s take a look at a few plays, beginning with the 3rd and 4 where Foles threw the ball out of play:
The Raiders are in nickel here and they show blitz before dropping seven into coverage.
Jeffery is up top alongside Nelson Agholor and runs a slant and go route that doesn’t fool Sean Smith at all. Foles looks in that direction but doesn’t see anything materialize, so he starts to roll right. There’s a window where he has Corey Clement wide open coming out of the backfield at the first down marker, along with Torrey Smith, who didn’t run a great route but found just a bit of separation after Foles started to move:
It’s a couple of things; 1) good coverage on the outside, 2) Foles not seeing his running back, and 3) a couple of unconvincing routes.
This is what Doug Pederson said about the coverage on Jeffery:
“Sean Smith matched him all night. He’s long and big and physical, just like Alshon is. Obviously the plan was to try to get him involved from time to time and continue to target him. Then as the game unfolded, it just got to the point where we were just trying to get a completion, and trying to move the ball just a little bit more.”
Let’s find another clip.
Here’s the 3rd and 9 that was thrown behind Jeffery in the red zone:
Same coverage from Oakland with a bite on Smith’s crossing route that opens up the middle of the field for Jeffery. The route is much better and he drops a ball that’s thrown off-target. Some people were saying he should have snagged this one, but I don’t know about that.
Foles was asked if he was targeting Jeffery or Agholor on this play:
“It was for Alshon. When he was coming in, I was trying to put it on his back shoulder. There was a backer underneath so you try to keep it away. That’s something we’ll continue to work on, I’ll be a little more accurate. Down in the red zone I wasn’t as accurate as I wanted to. I was high on a couple to [TE] Zach Ertz and obviously that one to Alshon. Those are all things I can fix. It’s not like you look at it like, ‘Well, there’s no way I can do anything about it.’ That’s stuff I can fix and that’s stuff we’ll work on. That’s on me, I have to be more accurate. If I’m a foot shorter on Zach’s throws, we have two touchdowns. If I’m a little bit more on Alshon, he makes it in there. Those are the things in the red zone where you have to be that accurate, and I can do that and I will get there.”
He’s not wrong, the second linebacker, Nicholas Morrow, is in the vicinity. He tried to keep the ball away from him but misfired a bit.
Here’s the last clip, which was Jeffery’s second and final target of the game on a 3rd and 4 in the fourth quarter:
Foles is looking for Zach Ertz here, who doesn’t get his head turned and plows right into the defensive back. There’s a pump fake and the QB is flushed out of the pocket to the right, where he tries to get the ball to Jeffery while falling down. Jeffery runs a nice route through the zone coverage to find a big chunk of space but Foles has eyes on the other side of the field:
There’s just not enough time for Foles to bring that ball down, scramble, and pick out Jeffery on the run. He can’t progress through his reads quickly enough to turn this play into something. Maybe Carson Wentz gets out of the pocket a bit faster and connects downfield as the receivers try to circle back.
When I look through the video, I see a combination of things. One, Foles was slow to go through his progressions and misfired high and wide a couple of times. Two, Smith played good coverage on Jeffery and there was usually a safety over the top of that matchup. Three, Jeffery didn’t create a ton of separation with his route-running, which shouldn’t be surprising.
Alshon ranks 120th in the NFL in the “SEP” category, which means average separation from coverage at the time of a catch or incompletion.
This is how he finished on Monday night:
He was 2.39 yards away from the nearest corner or safety on those missed throws, which is below the league average of 2.75 yards. I know two targets isn’t much of a sample size, but it is what it is.
For clarity, his season average is 1.7, which is lower than guys like Josh Doctson (2.4), Eric Decker (2.5), and Pierre Garcon (2.7). Albert Wilson leads the league with a 4.1 in this category.
The number speaks to me. It says two things. First, Jeffery is the Birds’ WR1, so he’s facing the opponent’s toughest corner. You’re going to get less separation when facing a Josh Norman or Marcus Peters. Two, the fact that he has 56 catches for 700+ yards and 9 touchdowns, despite a low SEP number, proves that he’s a guy who makes contested catches and snags well-timed throws.
Pederson was asked a series of questions about that during his day-after press conference, the one where he can actually reference the film and provide a bit more context in his answers. The first answer is kind of milquetoast, but Mike Sielski and Martin Frank throw some good follow-up questions:
Q. Because WR Alshon Jeffery’s game is predicated on timing passes and contested catches as opposed to gaining a lot of separation, how important is his rapport with the quarterback, and what have you seen in that regard with him? (Jimmy Kempski)
DOUG PEDERSON: It’s important for he and really all the guys to have that rapport. They work every day in practice. They’re constantly throwing and getting extra reps. We just got to keep shooting, keep throwing, and keep trying to find ways to get him the football.
It’s our job as coaches, offensively, to make sure that he’s in position, whether it be by formation or just by play design, to try to give him an opportunity to, number one, get targets, and then to get hands on the ball.
Q. In those situations, do you need a quarterback more willing to throw the ball to a receiver like Jeffery who might be covered but could still go up and get the ball? (Mike Sielski)
DOUG PEDERSON: No, I don’t. I do agree with sometimes you do have to challenge the receiver, challenge the DB, and make it a contested catch. I think as we all know, Alshon has a tremendous catch radius, and can catch a high ball [off a] back shoulder throw. We’ve seen it this season already.
It’s just those two guys working out the details of body language and understanding route combinations, and how he runs certain routes, and continue to work that way in order to have that trust and ability to make those plays.
Q. What was going on as far as Jeffery not getting any targets in the first half? Was he just not getting open, or was Foles not looking at him? (Martin Frank)
DOUG PEDERSON: It was a little of both. Give credit to [Raiders CB] Sean Smith. This guy is a long, tall, physical guy, same as Alshon. It was a really good matchup all game. I won’t stand here and say there weren’t any opportunities to throw him the ball, because there were.
We just got to make sure we as a staff we’re coaching the play right, I’m teaching the play right, teaching the quarterbacks the progression on plays, and making sure we’re doing all that right so that we can make those plays in the future.
Remember how long it took Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffery to start clicking in September and October? We thought it might be a new team, a new city, a new quarterback, and a new offense. Maybe it was all of those things. But he’s a guy with a very specific skill-set, and I think Pederson is both right and wrong in his assessment. He’s right when he says that you have to “challenge the DB and make it a contested catch.” He’s wrong when he says that the QB doesn’t need to be willing to throw that ball. Sometimes you have to trust your guy to go up and make a play.
Jeffery did have 49 yards and a touchdown in New York, but only caught 4 of 10 targets. Factor in the Raider game and he’s caught only 33% of the balls thrown his way since Nick Foles took over for Carson Wentz. I think the best idea here – and this is just, like, my opinion man – but you give the first team offense a quarter of work in week 17 to try to iron out some of the kinks against a real team.
As Andy Reid would say, “we’ve got to do a better job.”