Back in May, amid a throbbing bass, fly swatters and the frenetic pace of his first NFL practice open to reporters, Chip Kelly sneaked in a few plays during installation periods that used an unbalanced offensive line with the right tackle lined up inside the left tackle, and more radically, both tackles split wide.
They weren't new formations for Kelly, who gave all sorts of unorthodox looks at Oregon. And NFL teams have been using unbalanced lines for years. But the new Eagles coach tucked the plays back in his toolbox and didn't unveil them during open practices during training camp, or against the Patriots in two scrimmages, or in four preseason games.
But all it took was nine plays into Monday night's season opener for Kelly to throw a little trickery against a reeling Redskins defense that was taxed by the Eagles' up-tempo offense. Kelly would run several plays out of the formation during the the course of the game and each time the Eagles had success on the ground.
“We did a lot of things at Oregon. Give some credit to those players at Oregon because they allowed us to,” Kelly said after the game. “But our guys here really grasped some of the things we’re doing. We got a real smart group up front. It creates some problems at times and some adjustments that people have to make to try and defend all that stuff. I really don’t know how far we’ll take it, but I think it helped us tonight.”
Which is to say, now you saw it, maybe you won't see it again. Kelly has so many different formations, with so many different plays in which the quarterback has so many different options, that it is conceivable he may shelve the unbalanced look for weeks or months.
The Eagles were able to pick up large chunks of yardage running out of the formation, so it's possibly Kelly brings it back Sunday against the Chargers. But the plays could look completely different because there are both run and pass options for quarterback Michael Vick in the zone read plays.
Here's a closer look at several plays with odd o-line formations:
PLAY 1: FIRST QUARTER, SECOND DOWN AND 10 AT THE REDSKINS 17
With the Eagles in 11 personnel (three wide receivers, one tight end and one running back), right tackle Lane Johnson lined up inside left tackle Jason Peters. The Redskins were in their nickel defense. Washington had six defenders in the box, good pre-snap numbers for Vick to either hand off or run himself in the read option. Tight end Zach Ertz was responsible for the right flank and blocking defensive end Ryan Kerrigan.
You can see how the Redskins' down linemen were slanted to the left even though the unbalanced line would suggest a run play to their right. The alignment is really no different than having a tight end line up on either side of a balanced line, but because of the different personnel, it gives defenses something else to think about.
“It changes the leverage of the running play and I think defenses have to respect that and, in turn, open up some other things that they’re not ready for," Eagles center Jason Kelce said. "It’s a good thing to change it up."
When Vick got the snap he had three initial options on this particular play: 1. Hand off to running back LeSean McCoy. 2. Keep the ball and run himself. 3. Throw a quick hitting bubble screen to Jason Avant. The slot corner was the unblocked defender that Vick should read. The corner stayed on Avant, so Vick had one of two options now: 1. Hand off to McCoy. 2. Run. He handed off to McCoy, who made his initial move to his right behind five blockers that were blocking in that direction. Both Redskins linebackers, as indicated by the yellow arrows, bit on the movement of the line.
Ertz, meanwhile, won his one-on-one with Kerrigan. If the rookie, who had trouble blocking early in the preseason, couldn't hold his block, then the play might have turned out differently.
When the Eagles linemen started to create space with their zone blocking, McCoy had a lane in between Johnson and Peters. Redskins linebacker London Fletcher reacted back to McCoy, but when he did, left guard Evan Mathis had gotten to the second level and took him out. McCoy picked up an easy initial five yards provided by the play and the blocking, but the next eight were all his. He skipped over two diving cornerbacks and ran down to the 3-yard line.
PLAY 2: FIRST QUARTER, SECOND DOWN AND 9 AT THE REDSKINS 43
A series later, Bryce Brown was in for McCoy. The Eagles had the same personnel and the Redskins were in the same defense, except the slot corner was pinching toward Vick and now in the box. You can't get a great view from this angle of how the unbalanced line had the Redskins unbalanced themselves, but their alignment was off.
“I think the first couple of times we did it they were confused for a second," Kelce said. "Tackle overplay has become prevalent in the NFL. We knew they were going to know how to game plan it.”
Even if the Redskins had spent weeks practicing against the formation, the Eagles' execution was flawless. Vick did a fine job of riding Brown long enough to draw the slot corner -- the unblocked defender he read -- away from Avant. Vick could have thrown to Avant, but he handed off to Brown, who immediately had a large running lane in between Johnson and Peters.
The o-line, meanwhile, was again angling its blocks to the right. Mathis didn't get to Fletcher (it was unclear if he was his responsibility) but it didn't matter much because Brown had ten yards of space between him and the linebacker.
By the time Brown hit the hole, he had already run five yards. The 38-year-old Fletcher, meanwhile, looked like he was in quicksand. Maybe he was just trying to contain Brown with all that space, but the Redskins had been on the field for almost the entire first five minutes of the quarter and had little time to catch a breath.
"This whole thing about the tempo is putting the defense on their heels," Kelce said, "And when you’re moving things around, doing things like that, then they’re thinking about where they’re supposed to line up, rather than thinking about what formation it is or what situation it is. It puts a lot more things going on in their head.”
PLAY 3: THIRD QUARTER, SECOND DOWN AND 14 AT THE REDSKINS 34
Here's a better view of the formation from the end zone. The Redskins go heavy in the box on their left with four defenders even though the unbalanced line would suggest a run to the Eagles' left (not to mention the previous plays).
Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur was asked what the unbalanced line does for the offense. “Well, let’s talk about the obvious. You put three aside with two tackles over there, so that’s No. 1,” he said. “It forces the defense to adjust, and then we have a package of plays that we like to run based on how they respond, how they line up and so forth."
With the Redskins showing essentially the same pre-snap look, it was a safe bet Vick would once again hand off.
And he did. Most of the o-line and tight end Brent Celek were once again angling their blocks right. And the linebackers once again ran to their left as McCoy started out to his right. But look at the two lanes up the middle that he had to choose from. There weren't linebackers at the second level and nary a safety within sight.
And Mr. Cutonadime, of course, had no problem changing course and cutting up the middle in between the hole created by Johnson and Mathis. Vick, meanwhile, sold the fake and the slot corner, as indicated by the yellow arrow, was out of the play. When McCoy hit the gap he hurdled the safety and then jetted through the secondary for a 34-yard TD that gave the Eagles a 33-7 lead.
PLAY 4: SECOND QUARTER, FIRST DOWN AND 10 AT THE REDSKINS 24
The formation above, in which Johnson and Peters were flanked to each side, has been dissected to death online. While the unbalanced line has been in the NFL for years, it's safe to assume this formation has rarely been run at this level, and especially not in an up-tempo offense.
Look at the pre-snap confusion on defense. The Eagles were lined up, a half second from the snap, and the Redskins weren't close to being set. Cornerback DeAngelo Hall, circled at the bottom of the screen, threw his arms up in bewilderment.
McCoy got the carry and zoomed an easy ten yards on the play. Vick had bubble screen options to receivers on each side, so it's likely we may see this look again, with a different result. But as Kelly said, who knows how far he'll take it. For now, it was effective, innovative and, well, amusing.