On the season, Eagles quarterbacks have handed (or pitched) the football to LeSean McCoy 193 times. On 180 of those occasions, the play began in the shotgun.
So it was awfully strange to see three straight running plays on the first drive Sunday that began by looking like this:
The first two runs were successful, picking up 11 yards and a first down. The third ended less well, as motion by the tight end drew a defender to the play side late and not everyone on the line registered the change in the count, leaving linebacker AJ Hawk unblocked:
For as much as Chip Kelly loves his shotgun spread, this was a puzzling development. Could he just have been setting up the third-quarter touchdown to Riley Cooper by having Green Bay think “run” when they saw this formation? It’s certainly possible, especially because the Eagles broke another tendency on that play by having Cooper run a post-corner route, rather than continuing inside towards the safety:
On the other hand, maybe this goes back to some of the other adjustments we’ve seen Kelly making as the season progresses, like the quick pitch version of the outside zone he unveiled against Dallas.
According to the charting done by Football Outsiders, the Eagles lead the league in outside rush attempts, but they’re squarely middle-of-the-pack or worse in terms of how well those runs are working.
Many aspects of Chip Kelly’s Oregon offense have translated well at the NFL level, but those explosive outside run plays have been missing. Watch Oregon any week when the Ducks aren’t playing Stanford and you’ll see at least one play where a speedy tailback zooms around most of his linemen before making one cut up field and blasting off to the end zone.
It might be that those plays will come with more practice (or different personnel), but so far it has looked like perhaps NFL defenders are too fast to consistently beat outside – especially when they have a head start. Which is exactly what they can get in the normal shotgun alignment, where the running back being on one side usually means you should get ready to start chasing him to the other.
Now look at this:
There’s no more pre-snap read available from the running back’s positioning. The defense can align to the tight end, but the Eagles have shown all year they’re just as happy running to the weak side when the numbers are right.
The downside of putting the quarterback under center is that he has to turn his back to the line and can’t run the read option. That doesn’t matter in the example above (the numbers are six on six) and as long as you’re running to one side or the other, it’s generally still fine to leave an unblocked defender on the back side, since he has to respect the possible quarterback bootleg:
As we’ve seen new kinds of “cheating” each week from opposing defenses, I’ve wondered if the pistol formation – where the quarterback is in a “mini-shotgun” only four yards behind the center and the running back is directly behind him – could make things harder to decode. But Chip Kelly has never been a pistol guy and it may be that what we saw in these plays against Green Bay is a portent of things to come.
None of this is to suggest Kelly’s offense isn’t working. Against Green Bay, we got our best single-shot example so far of how the spread stretches a defense:
The threat of a wide receiver screen or quick hitch means four defenders are near to or outside the numbers. Foles is reading the back side defender on the handoff, taking him out of the play. Upfront, it’s five linemen blocking five defenders – with the lone safety 18 yards from the action, not daring to come down too early and risk giving up the big play.
If someone tells you Kelly’s “college stuff” has been figured out and won’t work at this level, show him this shot.
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For the last piece on the run game, here’s something we can’t see without the benefit of the coaches film the NFL now makes available to fans. Compare these two plays:
Both came came on the final drive of the day, when the Eagles were able to chew up 71 yards and over nine minutes of game clock to salt away the lead.
At a glance, these two plays look very similar. Both are shotgun runs behind a two tight end set. Upon close inspection, however, there are a couple differences:
1) In the first frame, Foles is reading the edge defender, safety Morgan Burnett. In the second, he’s not reading anyone. All seven defenders will be blocked.
2) Up top, the linemen are all mid-kick-step, moving laterally in the classic zone fashion we’ve gotten very used to seeing this year. On the bottom, they’re instead firing vertically off the ball.
That right there is the difference between a zone blocking scheme and a man blocking scheme. It’s fun to see both at once.
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On the defensive side, things didn’t look good when starting inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks went down early with a knee injury. The Eagles have little depth at any linebacker spot and defensive coordinator Billy Davis rarely takes Kendricks or DeMeco Ryans off the field.
Najee Goode, Kendricks’ replacement, pleasantly surprised fans by having some good moments in pass coverage and otherwise avoiding any major mistakes – even if his contribution to the stat sheet was pretty meager.
Davis frequently called on Goode to attack the line of scrimmage at the snap, which limits the thinking an inexperienced player has to do once the ball is snapped:
This isn’t to say Davis completely closed up his bag of tricks. This next play is the McDermott-iest thing we’ve seen in Philadelphia since, oh, 2010:
At the snap, Connor Barwin and DeMeco Ryan both blitz. With four eligible receivers on the right side of the formation facing only three remaining defenders, Trent Cole will have to quickly come across the formation to pick up the tight end, while Nate Allen and Goode rotate onto the slot receiver and running back, respectively:
The problem is Goode missed his read, so he ends up double-covering the tight end with Cole while running back Eddie Lacy stands all alone in the flat:
Nate Allen just barely makes the ankle tackle on Lacy after the completion, but in retrospect it was a nice play given the blown coverage by Goode and the ground he had to make up.