The Eagles finished among the top 10 in the NFL for third-down conversions this season, a great improvement over the year before, when they were well into the bottom half of the class. That was one big reason the offense was able to sustain drives and ring up more than 26 points per game.
All season long, the coaches never talked much about the third-down production except to compliment it and move on. If it was that remarkable, and not just one byproduct of an offense that was chugging right long, you'd think someone would have remarked on it more.
In any case, people are talking about third down now. Oh, yes. And to a large extent, the outcome of Saturday's playoff game against Atlanta might be decided by the Eagles' ability to extend drives with third-down conversions, because they're definitely going to face some.
Third down became a hot topic after the final two games of the regular season in which Nick Foles, stepping in for Carson Wentz, led the team to exactly one first down in 17 third-down attempts, which, despite being a short sample, is enough to get your attention.
Even adding in the decent enough game against the Giants and the quarter Foles played in Los Angeles after Wentz was injured, the numbers aren't that great. Under Foles, the Eagles have had 35 third-down opportunities and been successful on eight. That's a 22.9 percent conversion rate, compared with 45 percent with Wentz at quarterback this season.
Admittedly, the Foles numbers are from a limited span and don't necessarily indicate how the offense would operate with him in a meaningful game against a very good opponent – like Saturday, for instance – but those are the numbers.
Doug Pederson has been asked about the third-down problems under Foles, and he has been careful to avoid the obvious answer.
"I don't think third down is the problem," Pederson said. "I think first and second down is the problem, because we're losing yards on first and second down with penalties, negative rushing plays, sacks. That's what's put us in third and long. You can't get to third down until you fix first and second down."
The implication is that these problems with first and second down are leaks that have sprung recently in the hose and it just so happens that Foles is the one getting sprayed. The stats from the season don't necessarily support that, however.
In his small sample, Foles has faced 20 third downs that were for 7 yards or less, and 15 third downs that were for 8 yards or more, which is a reasonable breakdown for manageable vs. less-manageable situations. By that breakdown, he was in "third-and-long" situations on 43 percent of the third-down attempts.
Wow, so that's a lot. Who could possibly succeed under those circumstances?
The answer, of course, is Wentz. He was in "third and long" 44 percent of the time this season and still managed to place the team's conversion rate among the league leaders. There were nine times he scrambled when it was third and 8 or longer and came away with five first downs, which is really the X-factor he brings to the game. He was either going to throw for a first down (which he did 35 percent of the time on long attempts) or scramble for one, or it wasn't going to happen. The longest called run from scrimmage that netted a first down this season was on a third and 6.
OK, there's some news: Carson Wentz can do things Nick Foles can't. The problem isn't the difficulty of the third-down attempts, as the coaches have been suggesting. The problem is who takes the snap to solve them, something they don't like to mention. Well, what to do?
"The quick throws … the play-action pass, the shotgun stuff," Pederson said. "And those are all things that are in our system and we might just have to dust a few more off and get that ready to go."
Running the miniaturized offense against an Atlanta defense that also knows the identity of the quarterback will be the challenge. The Falcons will clog the box to bottle up the run game, cover the underneath routes, and force the Eagles to construct 12-to-14-play drives to putter down the field. Somewhere along the way, it's going to be third down.
"There are a lot of ways to create and make plays on third down," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said, "and Nick has proven that he knows how to do that."
Not recently, he hasn't, and his one-game postseason history, which consists of the wild-card loss here to New Orleans at the end of the 2013 season, shows the Eagles were 3 for 12 on third down that day.