Even under a heavy pass rush, Foles avoids interceptions

Foles sprints right , pump-fakes to DeSean Jackson (1) and then hits Zach Ertz for 14 yards. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and NBC's Cris Collinsworth said Foles has an issue with dropping his eyes, but that doesn't seem to be the case on this third-quarter play.
Foles sprints right , pump-fakes to DeSean Jackson (1) and then hits Zach Ertz for 14 yards. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur and NBC's Cris Collinsworth said Foles has an issue with dropping his eyes, but that doesn't seem to be the case on this third-quarter play.
Posted: January 02, 2014

Nick Foles' philosophy on facing pass-rush pressure can be summed up with the following sentence: Sacks are better than interceptions.

Completions, of course, are the best of all. And incomplete passes when he throws the ball away are the next-best thing. But when the pocket is hot and there is no other option, Foles has taken sacks rather than force passes.

"None of it's predetermined. It's just reaction in the heat of the battle," Foles said Tuesday as the Eagles began preparations for Saturday's wild-card playoff game against the Saints. "When pressure's there, you're trying to get a completion or you're trying to move the ball forward, but the one thing you're trying not to do is put the ball in harm's way."

Foles was pressured on 13 of 31 dropbacks against the Cowboys on Sunday and he was sacked five times. He fumbled once, but it was only the second time this season that he turned the ball over under pressure.

Overall, Foles has been pressured on 124 of 362 drops, according to Pro Football Focus. Of the 26 NFL quarterbacks with as many snaps, Foles is the only one without an interception when under pressure. Only one has taken a higher percentage of sacks.

The Dolphins' Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 26.2 percent to Foles' 22.6 on dropbacks under pressure, but he also has thrown 10 interceptions. Foles' completion percentage (48.9) is only ninth-best under pressure, but no one has avoided mistakes as much.

"I'm just trying to be as smart as I can with the ball," Foles said. "If I can throw it away, I want to throw it away. But sometimes there's not a good throwaway lane, so sometimes you just have to eat it."

The Saints like to bring extra pass rushers. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is as aggressive as they come, but he can be selective with his blitzes. He hardly blitzed against Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo in November and the Saints won in a blowout. He didn't blitz quarterback Russell Wilson that much four weeks later, and the Seahawks pounded New Orleans.

"I don't think he's going to change what he does," Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "We anticipate he'll come after us."

If Ryan can generate as much pressure with just four rushers, led by defensive end Cameron Jordan and outside linebacker Junior Galette, then there won't be as much need to blitz.

Dallas blitzed Foles on 12 of 31 drops, but he completed 8 of 9 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown on those plays. Good quarterbacks look at blitzes as opportunities to take advantage of numbers in the secondary and score points.

The Cowboys generated pressure mostly when they rushed just four. A combination of factors led to the five sacks or Foles' being forced to throw the ball away.

Sometimes the Eagles' protection broke down, or in one case a running back missed an assignment. Sometimes receivers failed to get separation downfield. And sometimes Foles held onto the ball too long.

He made the correct decision in taking the sack, but he never would have gotten into that situation if he had simply tossed the ball away. The Cowboys' first sack and the third-quarter sack on which Foles was stripped likely would not have occurred otherwise. On the latter sack, he failed to see an open receiver.

"There's some times when he could have got it out and others when he threw it away, certainly," Shurmur said. "And then always when you can't make the throw on time, for whatever reason, whether guys are not open or they have done a good job on defense, you want to try to scramble if you can."

A perfect example of Foles' scrambling to avoid pressure happened early in the third quarter. He moved to his right and kept his eyes downfield even though he was being chased by three Cowboys. DeSean Jackson was covered, but Foles bought time and fired a 14-yard pass to Zach Ertz.

NBC broadcaster Cris Collinsworth suggested that Foles' sacks were coming as a result of his dropping his eyes and not focusing downfield. Former Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb had that problem. Shurmur said it wasn't an issue for Foles.

"When a quarterback is moving around, once he's outside the pocket, you look deep, middle, short with the idea that if you can't make those throws, then you run," Shurmur said. "And then if you try to run and you can't get any yards and you're outside the pocket, then throw it away.

"So they have kind of a mental checklist they go through. They drill it off and it's something that I think he's done a pretty good job of."

In the pocket, Foles has been effective at burning plays by throwing into the feet of his receivers if a screen or some other pass play is busted or he's feeling the heat. He doesn't have the mobility, so why try to extend a play?

"That is what the really, really good quarterbacks do," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "It's one of the things that I think Peyton Manning is very underrated [at]. If the play is not there, where he just throws it away . . . [he] immediately moves on to the next play."

Manning has done a better job than Foles of avoiding sacks (11 percent) and completing passes (58.1 percent) when under pressure. But he tossed three interceptions despite being pressured on only 30 more drops.


jmclane@phillynews.com

@Jeff_McLane

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