As fundamentally different as the Chip Kelly and Andy Reid offenses are, it will be the mother of all ironies if the solution to both ends up being the same.
The Eagles’ offense had a lot of success the first two weeks of the preseason against teams that didn’t seem to have game-planned for them. New England and Carolina mostly kept two safeties back, giving the Eagles good matchups in the run game and plenty of breathing room for the short- and mid-range passing game.
That all changed against Jacksonville, with new head coach Gus Bradley somewhat unsportingly choosing to attack the Eagles’ offense as if the game actually mattered, stuffing the box with an extra safety and slanting/stunting his front four to disrupt the Eagles’ blocking assignments.
The result was dismaying for those who bought stock in the New Mike Vick narrative, as the quarterback seemed out of sync in a way reminiscent of the struggles he’s had the past two seasons.
It’s true the offensive line had a bad night. On the other hand, Vick made things worse by hanging onto the ball forever and inexplicably breaking the offense.
Consider this play in the middle of the first quarter. After a Reid-esque, pass-happy first series, Kelly came back with a LeSean McCoy run up the middle, an inside zone read, and then this wide receiver screen to DeSean Jackson:
This is a bread-and-butter play in the Kelly offense. Two outside receivers are set up to block, with DeSean just needing to make one guy miss to break a big play. That makes it surpassingly strange that Vick pulled the ball down and started scanning the field for another receiver, which might have worked, had the other nine guys not already been busy blocking. Vick ended up throwing the ball away, but not before taking perhaps the most unnecessary hit of his career.
During the regular season, we’ll have the benefit of the coaches' film for these breakdowns, which will show the whole field and let us know for sure if, say, the receivers weren’t open or the quarterback just wasn’t seeing them. During the preseason, the NFL only makes the broadcast angles available, so on the plays where Vick was running for his life, we don’t have any idea what was happening downfield.
We’ll have to look at a couple plays where we did see the ball downfield for clues:
Vick starts this play by looking to his left, where the wide receiver screen action causes the cornerback to overplay the swing route and release Riley Cooper well before the safety is in position to cover him (1). Vick has an opportunity to drop the ball into the “just over the cornerback and in front of the safety” hole that is the weakness of cover-two, but he skips that for some reason and turns back to the other side of the field, where DeSean is also blowing past his defender (2). As he makes his break, he’s wide open in a vacant area of the field, but Vick still hasn’t thrown the ball even though he seems to be looking right at him (3). Finally, as DeSean stands there waiting, Vick hitches one more time and fires a laser into his gut (4).
The result of the play was a success, because the line protected him so well, but the lack of anticipation might have been a problem on all the other plays the pressure was breaking through.
We saw a similar play in the second quarter. At the snap, Jacksonville is showing a single-high safety, with Brent Celek set to run a flag route to the outside (1). Vick would likely expect to see either the safety in the box or the corner running to cover that back outside third. Five yards into the play, however, there’s a clear coverage breakdown, as the safety and cornerback are both in the flat (2) and the middle linebacker is letting Celek run past him. Vick seems to be looking right at him, but for some reason turns back to the underneath receivers and double-clutches in their direction, before turning back and floating a duck out to his wide open tight end (4).
Again, the play was a success, but you don’t get that many easy chances during the regular season.
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On the defensive side of the ball, the Eagles are a unit in transition. Many of these changes have been well documented – such as the shift up front from a one-gap even front to a two-gap odd one – but others haven’t received quite as much notice.
Since the beginning of OTAs, defensive coordinator Billy Davis has said he’d rather not have a unit with players switching sides based on the alignment of the offense. Many teams do this sort of flip-flopping, including Jacksonville under Bradley and Davis’ own defenses in Arizona. For now, though, the Eagles’ defenders are mostly staying put, with only Kendricks and Ryans switching sides (and not consistently at that).
One of the areas we’ll see a change with this philosophy is when the offense breaks the huddle in one formation and then motions to something else before the snap. Rather than defenders crisscrossing the field, the whole defense rotates. There’s nothing inherently negative about the approach, but as a new defense is being implemented, this can lead to confusion, as in this play from Saturday night:
The Jaguars lined up in a trips bunch right formation, before motioning former Nittany Lion Brett Brackett back to the left (1). This motion necessitates a shift in the Eagles’ alignment, which Brandon Boykin and Nate Allen are attempting to communicate to Patrick Chung, who despite the best advice of his teammates is slow to exchange deep responsibilities with Allen (2). At the snap, he’s too far off Brackett (3), who runs a little out route under the outside receiver (4). Chung flies up to make the tackle and limit him to a short gain, but unfortunately a short gain was all Jacksonville needed to convert this third down.
Of all the players making difficult transitions, none has a harder job than Trent Cole, who is converting from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker. The optimists say this won’t be too difficult, as they expect him to be crashing into the backfield almost every play once the regular season starts.
So far, however, this isn’t the way Davis is using him. And even the plays where his responsibilities don’t look that different call for different techniques than he’s used to playing. Consider this run play from the Jaguars’ game:
At the snap, DeMeco Ryans (lined up on the weak side) will shoot the gap between Cox and Sopoaga, as Trent Cole drops off the line (1). When the left guard pulls to the strong side (2), Ryans reads that action, breaks off his penetration and slides down the line to help Kendricks at the point of attack. As he vacates his old gap, Cole needs to step in behind him, but because he’s not used to playing as a linebacker, he instead retreats another couple steps before running to where the play seems to be headed (3). This allows the center #63 to seal him inside and opens up a large cutback lane.
Cole is also having some issues in coverage:
At the snap, Cole and Barwin back off the line and settle into zones, while Ryans blitzes inside. The running back initially stays in to protect the quarterback (1), but releases into the flat when he sees it’s 5-on-4 up front (2). Cole is so focused on the tight end in the middle of the field that he never sees this new responsibility, which ends up not mattering as Cam Newton fires a strike to his wide open receiver up top.
Cole has had a number of these misses so far, but fortunately (?) there have been so many other open receivers that he hasn’t really been picked on yet. If the coverage gets better outside and he doesn’t improve, the breakdowns will start to become more noticeable.
(Derek can be reached on Twitter at @Igglesblog. His work can also be seen at Igglesblog.com.)