On paper, the Eagles and Vikings aren’t dissimilar. Elite defenses, backup quarterbacks, running back by committee, solid special teams.
One of the things that stood out when looking at the 2017 Vikings season was that they rarely went for it on 4th down. They finished dead last in the NFL with just seven 4th down attempts, converting only one for a success rate of 14.7%.
A lot of that was due to the fact that they simply didn’t have to gamble on fourth down. They had a stellar defense and a punter who didn’t kick a single ball into the end zone during 16 regular season games. They scored points, controlled the clock, and flipped the field with regularity.
The Eagles, on the other hand, were 2nd in the league with 26 4th down attempts. They converted 17 for a 65.4% success rate, good for 3rd overall. Doug Pederson made a lot of unconventional and aggressive 4th down decisions, decisions that worked out more often than not.
You saw that manifest itself last weekend, when the Eagles scored their only touchdown on a 4th and goal to cap off a 14 play drive. Trey Burton threw a nasty block to spring LeGarrette Blount on an outside zone running play that has only provided spotty success this season.
Some of it is gut feel, sure, but the Birds use analytics in a lot of their 4th down determinations. It was a topic of discussion with Doug this week.
From Wednesday’s presser:
Q. Offensive Coordinator Frank Reich said you’re kind of an unorthodox play-caller, he said it as a compliment; is that a concerted effort on your part? (Dave Zangaro)
COACH PEDERSON: I don’t think I go in there consciously saying, ‘I’m going to be unorthodox.’ I think you either have it or you don’t. Listen, if you just look at what I’ve done in two years, you’d probably call me unorthodox with some of the decisions I’ve made on fourth downs and going for it, two-point conversions, things like that. And I’ve told you guys this before that sometimes you just don’t do the norm, just don’t do what everybody expects to you do and sometimes that can help you.
I’m calculated by it but at the same time, I’m going to make sure that I’m putting our guys in a good position.
Q. On fourth down you ended up leading the league in fourth downs converted, 65 percent clip; what did that mean as you look back to your overall success? (Tim McManus)
COACH PEDERSON: It means that your offense is staying on the field and a lot of those were quarterback sneaks when [QB] Carson [Wentz] was healthy and playing, and we got him those third or fourth and one situations where we were able to capitalize. Then there were just times when it’s a little bit longer situation and we’ve executed and done a nice job.
I just think that if you’re not staying aggressive, you’re not giving yourselves a chance to win the game. So throughout the year, I wanted to make sure that I was doing that and doing it right by the team.
Carson Wentz was stellar on 4th and short this year, running it 7 times for 12 yards at an average of 1.7 yards per sneak. Through December 3rd, he was 11 for 11 in converting first downs on 3rd and 1 or 4th and 1.
That’s going to require a different approach with Nick Foles in there.
Tim McManus wrote an interesting story regarding 4th down decision making over at ESPN:
The results of the fourth-down bids have been overwhelmingly in favor of the Eagles. According to ESPN Stats & Information, they have scored a touchdown or field goal on 13 of the 18 drives in which they converted a fourth down, totaling 85 points (4.7 points per drive). The times they went for it on fourth down and didn’t convert, the opposing team didn’t score a single point on the subsequent drive.
There is plenty of credit to hand out for those numbers, including to the defense for routinely answering the bell, but a big slice goes to the analytics department — overseen by vice president of football operations and strategy Alec Halaby — for understanding situational odds and playing them to their favor.
The Vikings defense faced 23 4th down attempts this season, allowing first downs on nine of them.
Here’s how it breaks down, courtesy of pro-football reference:
You see that they only faced three fourth down rushing attempts this entire season, while teams tried to throw it 20 times against them. That’s what happens when you have the league’s best rushing defense.
Overall, Minnesota’s 39.1% 4th down allowance rate was 12th in the NFL, while the Eagles were #1:
Keep an eye on all of that. Could be a game-changer this weekend, just like it was last weekend.