Yesterday, I kicked off this series with a detailed explanation of why Chip Kelly uses Shotgun as the formation of choice for his running game. In that post we highlighted how the shotgun gives the offense an arithmetic advantage against the defense and also touched on the importance associated with the QB being able to keep his eyes on the defense the whole time. Of course one of the major things the shotgun formation opens up for the running game is the ability for a QB to read and essentially block a defender with his eyes. This gives the offense the numbers advantage we talked about yesterday. Certainly we have covered the read-option exhaustively on this blog over the years, but it's worth discussing a bit more here for the context of this series.
First, one of the things that makes the inside zone such a successful play for the Eagles, is the fact that we run it from Shotgun and the QB is facing the defense and thus can read an unblocked defender. Personally, I think people put too much emphasis on the NEED for a QB to be super athletic and mobile for the play to work. It's simply not true. I want to point this out just to emphasize that the extreme argument that we NEED a fast mobile QB for the scheme to work at all, is not true. We've been plenty productive on the ground with Foles and Sanchez at QB. Bottom line, the edge defender has to respect the QB run option, no matter who he is (unless he knows he has a scrape or force defender behind assigned to the QB). We've seen several examples the last season where both Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez have converted key downs or scored TDs by keeping the ball on the read-option. Therefore, the fact that defenses NEED to respect this, does open up the inside zone running game. For example, check out this red zone play against the Titans. First, the OLB is in the wide 9 alignment. He will be the unblocked edge defender that Sanchez will read through the mesh point:
Following the exchange you can see how slowed the OLB was by Sanchez's read:
The Eagles gain that additional blocker, and the OLB can't make the play from the backside:
However, while there are examples like this, there is no question that a more athletic/mobile QB will open up those running lanes even more. The problem we have with this scheme is that not only are our QBs not super athletic, they are also not used to running. This puts the scheme at a bit of a disadvantage because Sanchez and Foles simply do not keep a lot, and when they do, they aren't exactly breaking off explosive plays. This enables an opposing defense to gamble a bit more than they would if the QB were Russell Wilson or Michael Vick. Case in point. Here, Jacksonville has assigned a safety to be the force defender against the run. The Eagles have Celek blocking on the edge, so Foles will read the blitzing safety:
However, the safety almost completely disrespects Foles' read and goes after McCoy following the mesh:
The Eagles get good downblocks right providing a natural cutback lane for McCoy. However, because of the safety crashing on McCoy, that lane will close quickly:
If the safety showed even a little respect for Foles on the keeper, perhaps it provides enough room for McCoy to squeeze through the lane:
Same idea here. The Panthers DL is crowding the line of scrimmage to try and take away the inside zone. Kuechly is going to rotate outside and handle the edge:
Again, the Eagles get a nice series of downblocks which should open up the cutback lane:
But Kuechly shows no love for Sanchez and closes the lane quickly and tackles McCoy:
Again, even a half-step of hesitation towards the QB and McCoy has room to run. To illustrate this point further, check out the impact Michael Vick had on the same inside zone play last season against the Giants:
So clearly, having a legitimate running threat at QB would open up more running lanes for McCoy. However, the other issue is that the QBs are leaving plays on the field on the backside either because they are not used to keeping and running, or making the wrong reads. This also sets the offense back a bit. Here's a nice example. The Eagles have a 3 x 1 set with trips on the bottom of the screen. Brent Celek is lined up on top and will actually slip by the edge defender to go on a route and occupy the second-level LB. Note the Cowboys safety shading to the trips side of the field:
Looking through the mesh point, Sanchez has the unblocked edge defender as the only man between him and the end zone:
Sanchez is clearly not the fastest QB in the league, but clearly he has this DE at a disadvantage as he would need to completely turn his hips and chase Sanchez down the sideline. Instead, Sanchez hands off to McCoy for a minimal gain leaving 19 yards and a TD on the field:
Finally, even if our QB does not want to run, or is not explosive, there are keys built into this offense to provide the QB with other options if he chooses to keep the football. Remember this play from last season?
That went for a big play against the Raiders last season.
Check this out. Sanchez has a 3 x 2 advantage on the bottom of the screen with a called inside zone read:
He'll read the unblocked edge defender. Note the safety blitzes instead of protecting against the bubble:
And Sanchez had some really nice options on the outside. Instead he handed off to McCoy for a loss.
I'll finish on this note. Is there truth to the statement that Chip Kelly needs a mobile/fast QB to run his scheme? No. However, there is no question that having someone more athletic back there would improve the productivity of the running game. That much is clear as I highlighted above. But if it comes with a trade-off that you aren't going to get a competent passer, your offense is likely to bog down for other reasons.
While Mariota would be a dream, you'd really need to think twice about wishing for a Brett Hundley, Colin Kaepernick, Jake Locker, or even Mike Vick to replace someone like Nick Foles. Any decision on moving on from Nick Foles has to come with a careful evaluation of how he stacks up against other candidates as a PASSER.
Next up will talk about the use of bubble screens as a constraint play and then move on to how teams have defended the Eagles inside zone and some of the ways Chip adjusted in 2014. Stay tuned.