I was absolutely delighted to be invited to do a piece for the 2014 Eagles Almanac which is now available here. Obviously I am biased but before I had any involvement I felt it was the best Eagles preview piece around (Big thanks to @Brian_Solomon). It is extremely comprehensive with excellent contributions from the best Eagle writers/bloggers around. Be sure to check it out, I promise you will not be disappointed.
My piece in the Almanac is on packaged plays and how it (not the read-option) is one of the revolutionary aspects of option football that have been sweeping college football for a few years and will likely emerge as a major theme in the NFL in 2014.
So let's take a look at some of those packaged plays built-off the read-option we saw in the last few weeks against the Patriots and Steelers.
One of the misunderstandings and oversimplifications of the read-option that I've tried to take down over the past year is surrounding the defender that the QB reads. Too many people who considered the read-option a fad were focused on the very basic version where the QB reads the edge defender and decides to keep or hand-off. As we've shown several times on the blog, the QB may read a number of different defenders. It could be the edge defender, could be an interior lineman, but often times in a passing concept it can be a second or even 3rd level defender. Let's have a look at a few examples from the past 2 weeks.
You'll note on the 2nd play of the game as the Eagles line up Nick glances down to his 2 receivers:
What he's noting pre-snap is based on the Eagles double stack formation he has a 2 on 1 match-up on the bottom of the screen. The Steelers are playing a one deep safety look with 8 in the box.
After the snap, ILB Lawerence Timmons is the read. Polamalu is coming on a blitz. Based purely on the pre-snap alignment and the numbers game Nick has probably already decided to go to the bottom of the screen to Cooper but still as you see here is reading Timmons at the mesh point. The general idea here would be that if Timmons stays to defend the run Foles throws it the outside. If Timmons rushes out to cover the outside man, he has one less second-level defender to defend the run.
As you see the play develop Timmons does react to the pass, but he's in a terrible position for it and doesn't have the make-up speed to make any kind of play on the ball. Riley Cooper runs a short route to the flat and Foles gets the ball out quickly:
The Steelers lined up very poorly against this formation but you can see the basic concept of the packaged play that the Eagles called which has Foles reading a second-level defender. Note, this is one of the advantage of running an up tempo offense. You force the defense to line up quickly (and incorrectly) giving the QB an easy read.
Here's another nice example that we have seen before. This is a packaged inside zone read with a pop pass to Brent Celek down the seam. Many college teams run a version of this which has the tight end or slot receiver running a stick route behind the LBs but Chip seems to prefer the seam route which really exploits teams playing zone in the area between the LBs and safeties. Teams are often playing one deep safety against the Eagles so this area is especially attractive for our tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz.
At the mesh point, Nick Foles is once again reading a second-level defender. The same idea applies, if that defender plays the run Foles throws it over his head to the tight end. If he drops in coverage, he will hand it to Sproles in the run game:
On this play, the read defender plays the run and Nick has an easy throw to a wide open Brent Celek down the seam:
This is the same play we saw against the Redskins on the opening drive in week 1 last year.
The next one is a really interesting one as it illustrates Foles doing a good job looking off LBs and progressing through his reads. This is a packaged outside run with a bubble screen on the bottom to Jordan Matthews. At the mesh point Foles is reading the outside LB who will either play the run, or cover Matthews on the bubble out of the slot.
As you can see the defender is going to play Matthews, so Foles looks down to Momah on the bottom of the screen but what is notable on the top of the screen is Brent Celek releasing on a route and the second-level Patriot defenders reacting to the run action:
#54 knows he's been burned and tries to reach but is far too late. Another big play to a wide open Brent Celek down the seam.
A lot of people felt the 2013 Eagles were all about forcing defenses to stack the box to stop McCoy and to throw deep to Jackson and Cooper over the top in single coverage. That certainly happened, but what you are likely to see more and more in 2014 is increased production from the tight ends who exploit these holes down the seam against zone coverages where second-level defenders overreact to the run game.
Here's another great example of Nick Foles putting the nickel CB in a bind in the slot. Does he help out in run support or guard the receiver on the outside? Based on the initial reaction of Gay to help in run support the Eagles have a 2-on-1 matchup on the top of the screen:
Nick quickly goes to the top of the screen to Riley Cooper who gets a nice lead block by Jordan Matthews. Gay is way too late on the play and Cooper is able to run for a first down after the catch:
It's a great example of the benefits of the spread offense that stretches the field horizontally and puts defenders in a bind.
Moving along a few posts back I highlighted on the Eagles staple red zone calls (the wheel route and mesh concept combination). Here's another one we've covered before here and here. We saw it a few times against the Steelers last week. Pre-snap Jeremy Maclin is going to go in orbit motion to the opposite side of the field. #28 has man coverage responsibility on Maclin as he follows him through the motion.
At the mesh point Foles has 3 options with an edge defender bearing down on him. He can hand to Sproles (yellow), keep (blue), or toss it out to Maclin (pink) who has a WR blocking for him:
Jarvis Jones jumped offside on the play and as a result was right in Foles' lap at the mesh point, but Foles quickly dumps it out to Maclin on the outside:
I personally felt Maclin scored on this play but we didn't get a good replay view. The line judge was in excellent position on the play so perhaps Maclin's toes were on the chalk:
Finally what is this weekly feature without a nice running play? Here's the inside zone with a packaged bubble screen to the slot. At the mesh point Foles is reading the edge defender. Note he also has Troy Polamalu in the slot who will choose to drop in coverage or attack the run. Pre-snap the Steelers have Polamalu lined up on Jordan Matthews. However, after the snap it's a called safety blitz:
This is quite simply a great illustration of how Chip Kelly can run the basic read-option without a mobile QB. Nick will always have the option to keep here if the defense crashes down, but the general school of thought is that defenses will surrender a 5 yard gain by the slow Nick Foles. Chip adds to that the bubble screen which should force that edge defender to hesitate on whether to take the slot defender or the running back. This stretches the defense horizontally in much the same way the read-option did with a running threat like Vick by adding a passing option on the bubble screen. On this play however, both the edge defender and Polamalu react to Foles at the mesh point which creates indecision. This forces Polamalu specifically to hesitate on his blitz. He actually slows down on his rush to wait to see where the ball is going. An excellent way to neutralize a great blitzer like Polamalu. Turns out both Polamalu and the edge defender hesitate and protect against th QB keep which opens up a gaping hole for Darren Sproles for a big run up the middle. You'll also note that Jordan Matthews is wide open with 2 blockers in front of him: