By Lewis Gould
Four years is an eternity in NFL years.
Which, if you’re a member of the Oakland Raiders’ defense, is a good thing.
On Nov. 3, 2013, Foles tied an NFL record by throwing seven touchdown passes in a 49-20 win over the Raiders, becoming the seventh player to accomplish the feat.
The Foles the Raiders will face tomorrow night at the Linc is in his second stint with the Eagles and no longer their primary starter, having been thrust into the role by a season-ending injury to Carson Wentz. That has seemed to make little difference to the Raiders this week.
“This is probably the best team in football,” coach Jack Del Rio said of the Eagles (12-2). “Really well-coached, good across the board. … I know they lost Wentz, but in Foles, they have a very, very capable guy who’s won a lot of games in this league.”
The Eagles lead the league in points per game (31.3) and red-zone success (a 67.3 percent touchdown rate). They rank second in converting third downs (45.4 percent), third in total yards (386.9 per game) and eighth in passing yards (246.4 per game).
Most of that was accomplished with Wentz under center. But last weekend, in his first start of the season, Foles completed 24 of 38 passes for 237 yards and four touchdowns, albeit against the 31st-ranked pass defense of the New York Giants.
Raiders assistant head coach of defense John Pagano said he didn’t see “a lot of difference” in the Eagles with Foles running the offense.
“Probably the biggest thing is you saw Carson really move around,” Pagano said. “How they run — probably different type of quarterbacks. Still, Nick can run. Their offense really didn’t lose a lot from the standpoint of (Foles) being able to throw touchdown passes.”
The Eagles spread the ball around, featuring three players — tight end Zach Ertz and receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor — all with at least 55 catches, 700 receiving yards and eight touchdowns.
It will be a challenge for a Raiders secondary that has played better of late, holding opponents to an average of 201.8 passing yards in the four games since Pagano began calling plays.
“I think they’re a top unit just because of how they’re able to use each individual receiver,” said Raiders cornerback TJ Carrie. “You have bigger receivers, smaller and quicker receivers. I think they’ve got a variance of a lot of those attributes, and they’re able to really maximize them.”
Carrie, who typically moves inside to cover the opponent’s slot receiver when the Raiders have three cornerbacks on the field, could match up often against Agholor, one of the top slot receivers in the league this season. Agholor has 55 catches for 722 yards.
“He’s a very fast, quick guy,” Carrie said. “They like to get him in space. He knows the concepts of how he sees defenses, so he’s always fighting to get into the open zone or pivoting away. So he brings a lot of challenges.”
The task of shadowing Jeffery (55 catches, 781 yards), could fall to Sean Smith, who has embodied the improved secondary play the past month. After largely assigning their corners to one side of the field in the first half of the season, the Raiders have tasked them more to follow specific receivers recently, a switch that has seemed to benefit Smith.
Last Sunday against the Cowboys, Smith was mostly assigned to shadow Dez Bryant, who finished with two catches. Del Rio said he thought Smith “did a pretty solid job” against Bryant, and that Pagano has “done a good job of getting those guys on the same page on how we’re going to cover certain groups.”
“I think any time you can get those types of matchups that you’re looking for, it benefits not only us individual-wise, but it benefits us defensively,” Pagano said.
“That’s tough moving around like that, playing from the left to the right. A lot of the credit goes to (cornerbacks coach Rod) Woodson and (safeties coach Brent Vieselmeyer), just to be able to get those guys to relax, be calm, to be able to get them lined up. Sean’s responded really well with that.”
Improved coverage has helped the Raiders record 14 sacks in their past four games. Pressuring Foles would benefit the Raiders, a team that has witnessed what can happen when they don’t.
“I don’t take it lightly that we’re not playing Wentz,” Carrie said. “I think they’re both very talented. I think they can do a little more with Wentz. But Foles, he can be a starter in this league anywhere else.”