Trailing 16-6 midway through the third quarter, the Eagles were threatening to score when they advanced inside the Chiefs' red zone.
The Birds had Kansas City's stout defense on its heels after an illegal contact penalty gave them first down and ten at the 18-yard line. But rather than maintain the quick pace that had gotten the offense to that point, Eagles coach Chip Kelly slowed things down.
Michael Vick and the offense didn't huddle, but when they got to the line and read the Chiefs' defense -- or more important, Kelly and his coaches read the pre-snap defense -- a new play was relayed in based on the look.
“Sometimes we run some check‑with‑me’s in the red zone," Kelly said after the Eagles' 26-16 loss, "and trying to see what we were getting from the look and trying to put us in the right situation."
The timing seemed curious. Kelly's offense had steamrolled over defenses in the first two games by often being the aggressor and imposing its will via the up-tempo. But the Chiefs had kept the Eagles in check up until that point with man coverage underneath and a single high safety over top.
While slowing the pace down may seem contrary to Kelly's offensive philosophy, it is not. In June, he explained that sometimes it is necessary to hit the brakes.
“A lot of times, we need to make sure we see the defense," Kelly said. "We’re going to run the right play based on what the defense is in. And I think sometimes you can confuse yourself more than you can confuse them. If they didn’t line up right and they have nine guys standing over there and you have a play called that’s going to run into those nine guys, then maybe playing fast wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Sometimes you need to let things get settled down and get an opportunity to make sure that you’ve got the right look."
The results were mixed, but ultimately the Eagles failed to get in the end zone on that series. It's difficult to draw any definitive conclusions. There were likely many reasons why the Eagles settled for a field goal. But when Kelly slowed things down and opted to throw on second- and third-down and short, the offense sputtered.
PLAY 1: THIRD QUARTER, FIRST DOWN AND TEN AT THE KANSAS CITY 18
The Eagles were in "12" personnel with one running back (LeSean McCoy), two tight ends (Brent Celek, Zach Ertz) and two wide receivers (DeSean Jackson, Riley Cooper). The Chiefs were playing straight up as they had been for most of the night. Kendrick Lewis was the Cover 1 safety. With McCoy in the backfield and Celek on the line, the Chiefs had seven defenders in the box.
There had been a stoppage because of the penalty, so there probably wasn't as much urgency to play hurry-up, but the Eagles got to the line and Vick was ready to call for the snap 13 seconds into the play clock.
Reading the defense is part of Vick's pre-snap responsibilities, but only in how it relates to his decision-making after the snap. Quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Phillip Rivers, as we saw last week, have the luxury to audible at the line based on a defensive look.
Kelly audibled here. He had until 15 seconds left on the play clock to send a play to Vick via the quarterback headset. But rather than have Vick call out the new play, each player looked to the sideline for the signal (indicated by the green arrows). McCoy was the only player to change his pre-snap position and moved from the left of Vick to his right.
The Chiefs stayed as is, except for cornerback Brandon Flowers, who moved ten yards off Jackson. Lewis is over the football and thus shaded more to Cooper's side away from Jackson.
The play clock, meanwhile, ran an additional 18 seconds and Vick called for the snap with 11 seconds left.
It was a read option play, but there weren't any pass options. Celek and the three receivers blocked as Vick handed off to McCoy. The Eagles offensive line had a brutal night in pass protection, but they were solid as run blockers. Here was a perfect example. The unit got hat for hat blocking along with Celek. Vick sold the fake, essentially blocking the 7th defender (red arrow).
McCoy had a clear lane in between center Jason Kelce and right guard Todd Herremans and picked up seven yards before linebacker Derrick Johnson (5) shed Lane Johnson's block and made the stop. Kelly and Vick appeared to have made the right call, although the success of a similar play run later in the game suggested that perhaps McCoy could have gotten more yards or that the Eagles should have stuck with the call a play later.
PLAY 2: THIRD QUARTER, SECOND DOWN AND 3 AT THE KANSAS CITY 11
The Eagles had the same personnel and showed the same formation pre-snap a play later. The Chiefs were in essentially the same defense, although they had an additional man on the line. Vick and the offense once again got set quickly and were ready to run the play after only 12 seconds elapsed from the play clock. I'll spare you another panel with every player looking to the sidelines, but Kelly changed the play again.
McCoy hopped to the other side and brought the linebacker over, and Cooper slid inside the numbers. Flowers pressed Jackson this time. The play clock ticked down to 11 seconds again when Vick called for the snap.
Vick faked the handoff to McCoy, but the play was a straight pass. All five Eagles skill position players ran routes. Cooper ran a post to the middle of the field. Jackson ran a slant to the middle. Ertz dropped into the flat. McCoy ran into the other flat. And Celek ran a crossing pattern. Each player was manned up. Chiefs safety Eric Berry had Celek off the line.
The Chiefs, as they did for much of the night, rushed only four. The Eagles offensive line, as they didn't do for much of the night, contained the rush and gave Vick plenty of time and space. But the Chiefs coverage was nearly perfect. Flowers stuck to Jackson like glue. Cooper had no separation and there was a safety over top. And Celek, who ran past the sticks, was shadowed by Berry.
Of the three receivers that ran downfield, Vick targeted the right guy away from the high safety.
“A lot of things we’re doing, we’re trying to throw it versus the best-located safety," Kelly said in June. "Well, we better make sure we locate the safeties before we snap the football. Do we want to run it at one guy or run away from another guy?"
But Celek couldn't get separation and Berry, one of the better young safeties in the league, came up and batted the pass down. Vick had enough time to check down to either McCoy or Ertz, and another down in case they were stopped short.
A play later, Kelly didn't change the play at the line, but the Eagles milked the clock down to nine seconds as Jason Avant came in for Ertz. Kelly once again called for Vick to drop, but he had little time when the Chiefs dialed up one of their few blitzes and the offensive line broke down. Vick hurried a throw to a covered Avant and the pass was broken up just shy of goal line.
There's absolutely no way to determine if the additional time taken to change the play aided the Chiefs. But here's an example of Kelly's up-tempo offense run to perfection:
PLAY 3: FOURTH QUARTER, FIRST DOWN AND TEN AT THE KANSAS CITY 39
Down 23-9 early in the fourth, Avant made a circus 20-yard catch that advanced the Eagles to the Chiefs 39. He jumped up handed the ball to the official (as Kelly wants) and hurried back to the line for the Eagles' sixth play of the drive. Vick got the offense set in 14 seconds and while the picture here doesn't show it, Johnson (No. 51) and linebacker Tamba Hali (No. 91) were barely set when Vick called for the snap.
You can't see Berry on the line to the left, but the Chiefs, in their nickel defense, once again had seven in the box. and they were once again playing man underneath with a single high safety. The Eagles ran essentially the same play as Play 1, although there was a bubble screen option to Jackson.
The Eagles o-line did its job, as did Celek. Vick sold the fake to Berry and McCoy ran through a Roosevelt Blvd.-wide lane again in between Kelce and Herremans, who poked the late-reacting Johnson.
McCoy had nothing but daylight and beat Lewis to the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown.
It's difficult to say for certain if the Chiefs were affected by the tempo on that run, but it's a fair assumption. Two defenders had left earlier because of cramping.
McCoy, who gained a total of 158 yards on the ground, tallied 92 yards on nine carries in the second half. If the Eagles hadn't turned the ball over four times in the first half and fallen behind, Kelly would have surely given his running back more touches.
But the argument could be made that Kelly missed an opportunity in the red zone in the third quarter and that he didn't need to see Kansas City's defense to make the call.