I’ve been looking forward to getting to this post as I think it really brings us full circle in this series when talking about the philosophy and evolution of the Eagles run game. We started this series by talking about why the Eagles run so much out of the shotgun formation. The reason is arithmetic by nature. By running from Shotgun, the offensive line can leave a backside edge defender unblocked thus gaining a blocker on the playside. Furthermore, because the QB is in shotgun he can “read” that unblocked defender and make a decision that always makes the defender wrong. If he collapses down on running back, the QB keeps and runs through the spot the edge defender vacates. If he stays put to protect the backside he hands off and the Eagles getting a blocking advantage on the playside. Of course this advantage and philosophy only goes so far when you have a QB who isn’t really a major threat to run.
The updated thinking goes that if Sam Bradford (or Mark Sanchez) is running the show, the defense will not respect him on the keeper and will happily give him 3-5 yards. In principle, this is absolutely correct but in reality, defenses rarely did that. Watch the Eagles film and 90% of the time you’ll see the defense respecting both Foles and Sanchez on the keeper. Looking ahead, I think the notion that defenses will simply give free yards to Bradford or Sanchez in Chip’s scheme is one of the biggest misconceptions around. NFL defensive coordinators are generally not in favor of giving up free yards. That said, while defenses will respect Foles or Sanchez, they absolutely will not overreact to the QB keeper and this has consequences on the overall scheme. We’ve already talked about how the lack of a true running threat at QB impacts our ability to run bubble screens successfully. Every inch matters, and if defenses don’t respect Bradford on the backside and devote extra force defenders, they can defend the bubble screens fully manned much easier.
The other aspect is that the inside zone creates natural cutback lanes for the running back. If that edge defender truly respects the QB as a running threat on the backside, this potentially opens up huge cutback lanes for the running back. See exhibit A here:
The problem is, with guys like Foles, Sanchez and now Bradford; you don’t generally get those lanes. You see something more like this. The Jags unblocked force defender squeezes down on the cutback lane:
And there is basically no lane for McCoy to cutback into:
Here, you see absolutely no respect given to Foles on the keeper.
The difference between those two plays above is absolutely crucial. In the first one, Vick’s threat as a runner has opened up a massive cutback lane for McCoy. In the second one, Foles as a non-threat leaves nowhere for McCoy to go. As a result, this has lead to Chip Kelly having to build “compromises” into his scheme to account for the fact that he doesn’t have a running threat at QB.
The split zone we covered in part 10 is an example of one of those compromises. While the Eagles essentially gain an extra blocker on the playside, they’ve been forced to devote an H-back to block that backside defender to open up the cutback lane. It’s a nice play and it works well and I certainly don’t expect it to disappear even if Chip eventually finds a mobile QB. It will always be a part of the toolbox, but with a mobile QB, the Eagles would likely not need to rely on that play so much. So what makes this a compromise? Basically, the consequence of employing an H-back to execute the wham block in the split zone means taking a receiver away from running a route downfield. What does this mean? Well it means, the Eagles have to devote an extra blocker to the running game and it thus takes a weapon from the passing game. Put another way, almost every Eagles fan was frustrated that Zach Ertz didn’t get more snaps last year. Well one of the consequences of having to employ an H-back to account for that backside defender is that a guy like James Casey gets snaps that Zach Ertz would otherwise. We started to use Ertz more at H-back on the split zone as to execute the wham block and he improved, but if he is doing this, he’s not running a route downfield. With the way the Eagles like to run packaged plays this impedes the offense over time.
Let’s move on to another built-in compromise the Eagles have used successfully to keep the backside defenders honest on the inside zone. One of the more common ones we used in 2013 and 2014 was using orbit backside motion to create a triple option, which we’ve covered extensively before but is worth another look at in the context of this post. On this play, the Eagles are blocking with a 6 man line and you see the Panthers stacking the line in their goalline package. Note Jeremy Maclin coming across the formation in orbit motion. This is a packaged play where the OL will block inside zone to the playside:
After the snap you can see Sanchez reading the backside unblocked edge defender. At the mesh point this is really a triple option. Sanchez reads the defender and can hand off to McCoy, keep himself, or dump a quick pass out to Maclin on the outside. Note the Panthers defender chasing Maclin in man coverage across the field, which draws additional defenders from defending the run:
The result is a huge running lane for McCoy and an easy TD with the edge defender taking himself completely out of the play. Was his hesitation a result of Sanchez potentially keeping or Jeremy Maclin’s orbit motion? Impossible to say, but I suspect it was a bit of both:
Chip's usage of the orbit motion is interesting. There are generally 2 well known reasons for using orbit motion:
1) The pre-snap motion can signal to the QB whether the defense is in man or zone coverage. If a DB follows the motioning receiver, it means the defense is in man coverage. If they don't, it is zone coverage.
2) It introduces the possibility for a hand-off/keep/pitch triple option. We've seen all 3 of these options used on this play over the last 2 seasons.
I have a theory on a 3rd reason. Much of this series has centered around the spread offense and the desire to spread the field horizontally. We've talked in this post about the compromises Chip must build in to make defenses respect the backside in the absence of a mobile QB. Another popular concept/motion that teams in both college and the NFL (Vikings, Rams, Seahawks) use is the jet or fly sweeps. Chip used this some in Oregon, I believe, and it's somewhat surprising he hasn't used it in Philadelphia yet simply because it seems to mesh well with the concepts he currently employs.
One potential explanation for his preference of orbit over jet or fly motion could be the angling of the ball carrier. NFL defenses tend to be faster and it is difficult to beat NFL linebackers to the edge. It requires a really speedy, explosive player with a decisive running style. By introducing orbit motion, the player is already turning the corner when he gets the ball, so he might have a better angle to turn that corner. Furthermore, if the QB makes the right read, he's only going to get the ball if the corner is there to be had.
Another explanation could be that the Eagles haven't had the personnel to run the jet or fly sweeps the last two seasons. The closest player would be Desean Jackson who meets the speed requirements, but when you watch a player run a successful fly sweep you generally see a particular running style. In general, I think you are looking for the qualities you look for in a good kick returner. You don't want a guy who hesitates or dances in traffic. You want a guy who will be shot out of a cannon, be physical, one cut and go. That's not Desean.
Josh Huff has the running style, but I'm not sure he has enough speed to run it at the NFL level. I thought Percy Harvin would have been an ideal signing if it wasn't for the locker room issues that likely scared the Eagles off. They had rumored interest in Brandin Cooks last year. Perhaps the Eagles will target a speedster in the 2015 draft. The point is, if we are going to continue to run this offensive scheme with a QB who isn't a threat to run, more and more of these compromises are required. Let's finish by taking a quick look at how the jet and fly sweeps has been employed at the NFL level and how well they mesh with the concepts discussed in this post.
Here are a couple of examples of how the Rams effectively use Tavon Austin on Fly and Jet Sweep motion. The concept here is that the Rams will gain a blocker on the playside by leaving the edge defender highlighted in red unblocked. Note the tight end will release downfield as a blocker. Austin will sweep across the formation:
This play isn't a read option and looks like a jet sweep call. Hill is not reading that unblocked edge defender but the concept is there. Watch the unblocked edge defender highlighted in red freeze in the backfield. Against speed like Tavon Austin, he's dead in the water:
For the purpose of the points made in this post it's worth noting the playside blocking had Hill handed off to the running back instead. In true zone blocking fashion the Rams gain an extra blocker on the playside and essentially account for every box defender in that direction. As it turns out, Austin has the ball and the result is a big gain to the outside.
Let's take an end zone look on a different play with Hill lined up under center for a jet sweep play. Again, the focus is on Redskins defender Ryan Kerrigan highlighted in red:
After the snap, Kerrigan is left unblocked. Once again he is frozen in the backfield, and essentially toast as a result of Austin's speed. But also note the playside blocking. All DL are accounted for and the Redskins second-level LBs are over-reacting to the zone blocking left.
As mentioned, Kerrigan's hesitation kills him and he has no chance of impacting this play. Austin easily glides to the outside with a blocker in front of him:
Finally, let's look at a fly sweep with the read-option component that clearly illustrates how the Eagles could use this concept if they have the right personnel. This is an inside zone play with a fly sweep motion from Percy Harvin. The play is designed to leave Packers edge defender Julius Peppers unblocked:
Following the snap and at the mesh point you can see Wilson is reading Julius Peppers. If Peppers chases Harvin on the fly motion Wilson can run through the vacated space or handoff to Lynch. As it stands the Seahawks have a numbers advantage on the playside:
Peppers freezes, Wilson hands the ball to Harvin and he's off to the races. The Packers have no chance on this play.
In the end, the point should be clear. If Chip Kelly elects to continue to move forward with a non-mobile QB he is going to have to continue to build these types of compromises into his scheme. This is why a guy like Mariota is such an attractive option. Having him does not mean you abandon the types of plays we've highlighted here and in the previous post, it just means you to have to heavily rely on them to ensure your scheme remains effective. Mobility at the QB position only improves the dynamics of the scheme. However one point is obvious. Based on Chip's QB acquisition decisions thus far in his NFL tenure, he places a pretty high emphasis on the passing qualities of an NFL QB. He simply isn't going to settle for a runner who plays QB. Nor should he, but damn would it be fun to watch this offense with a mobile QB.