Sorry I haven't been posting much through the first few weeks of preseason. I am in the middle of changing jobs and things have been pretty hectic. I'd been working on this post bit by bit over the last few weeks but didn't get around to posting it so it's basically a hodgepodge of thoughts through 2 games. Many of these plays have already been covered elsewhere (if you somehow haven't seen Fran Duffy's piece on PE.com yet, check it out here).
It's difficult to pull anything thematic out of the preseason since it really is about player evaluation rather than scheme. It's also difficult to get too high or low based on what you see in the preseason because after all, it's preseason. That said, here are some of the things that have stood out for me thus far:
Inside Zone Execution:
If you are a regular reader, you will know that we took a pretty deep dive into the Eagles running game this past offseason. If you missed it, spin back through the archives over the last couple of months to get some insight on the Eagles bread and butter play. Thanks to injuries along the OL last season, the line just never really settled and the execution of the inside zone was very spotty. So far this preseason, the execution from both starters and backups has been the most promising sign for me. Last weeks game against the Ravens was an absolute clinic as the Eagles ran inside zone almost exclusively the whole game. Let's have a look at a few.
On this play, the Eagles will leave the strong side edge defender unblocked and Brent Celek will release to the second level to block the DB 7 yards off the ball:
At the mesh you will see Sanchez reading said unblocked defender. Look at the position of his feet. His stance is open meaning that he is playing cautious through the playfake. Sanchez makes the right decision and hands off:
Check out how the left side of the line absolutely collapses the Colts DL:
Thanks to the playfake and a great block by Celek downfield, Ryan Mathews has a ton of room to run:
If you haven't picked up the 2015 Eagles Almanac, now is the time to do it. You can order/download it here. It's got a ton of great content, and full disclosure I contributed a piece where I talked about the changes at the running back position. In that piece I talked about how the running styles of Demarco Murray and Ryan Mathews might indeed be better suited for Chip's schemes than Lesean McCoy. This next place is a great example of Murray's decisiveness. It's also another great example of outstanding OL execution on the inside zone. The play starts with terrific combo/peel blocks from Jason Peters and Andrew Gardner to effectively get to the second level on the Ravens LBs:
It's great to see the decisiveness from DeMarco Murray on his first carry as an Eagle as he gets great block and aggressively hits the hole. It's also interesting to note the space Murray also had to run if he chose to cut it back to the outside. This is the beauty of the zone running scheme, when executed well there are a lot of options. Turns out thanks to great blocking from Celek and Peters on the outside, Murray may have broken off a bigger run if he went that way. Dare I say he left some meat on the bone? That said, coaches love to see when a player sticks to the design on tape.
This one has been shown everywhere by now, but it's worth repeating on here just to highlight Jason Peters in true All-Pro form. He gets a terrific stab block off the line on the edge defender to improve Celek's leverage as a blocker and quickly gets downfield opening a huge hole for Ryan Mathews' TD run:
However it is worth noting that perhaps not everyone is in midseason form. On the controversial zone read play everyone is talking about Brent Celek has a rare lapse in his blocking. He blows the block which could have been a TD for Darren Sproles. Celek initially executes but can't sustain the block:
BTW, if you are interested in my take on the controversy, here it is:
We've said it many times on here but the Eagles do not zone read as much as you think they do. That said, they do it more than Chip is willing to admit. I don't buy his comment that Tim Tebow is the only QB who has run the zone read so far this preseason. I don't doubt that Sam Bradford was not to keep under any circumstances against the Ravens, but as far as I am concerned, the above play was essentially a zone read. Look at the shot above. It's clear that Bradford is reading Suggs. Now this was likely a called run in the huddle, but Suggs doesn't know that and it's the beauty of the concept. Quite frankly, I am shocked that defensive coordinators have not employed this tactic more to combat the zone read. If you think the QB might have it, take him out. The league did nothing to discourage DCs to do more of this based on their discussion about the Suggs play this week. That said, the problem with the Suggs play was that he so obviously went for Sam's knee. That a scumbag move and he deserved the flag for that.
I wanted to quickly revisit a concept we discussed a few months back. Like he did in Oregon, Chip has constantly been throwing in small wrinkles to counteract the inherent predicability of their inside zone play based on formation. Looking at the formation below, the defense should be expecting inside zone. Every once in a while Chip will throw in a tendency breaker. In fact, as you see below we actually run the pin and pull sweep left with Kelce and Gardner pulling to the outside and Celek executing the pin block:
The Eagles run this every now and again and I am not sure I recall it ever working. It usually results exactly the way it did for Murray here. A negative loss in the backfield. Gardner took the blame on this play but really as you see from this play below it is almost an impossible play to make if the edge defender reads it quickly. That's Elvis Dumervil who is essentially left unblocked initially. He's explosive and he reads it well and Gardner has no chance to get out in time and make that block:
If it doesn't work, why does Chip keep calling it? As I said it's a tendency breaker and without a mobile QB he's always looking for ways to keep that backside defender honest. If he has to guard against that pitch play, it might make him a quarter of a step late on the inside zone run.
Finally, let's take a look at some good inside zone execution from some of the backups. I've never been a huge Julian Vandervelde fan, his pass blocking has always left something to be desired. But we saw glimpses the other night of why this coaching staff really seems to like him. On this play you are going to see excellent combo/peel blocks into the second level by both Dennis Kelly and Vandervelde:
That's how it's done folks. And here's another excellent job from Vandervelde:
Great combo block with Molk with his eyes on that second level:
And a terrific second level block freeing up the runner:
Through the first 2 weeks of the preseason we are seeing terrific execution of the inside zone from 1st, 2nd and even 3rd string OL. This is a very good sign. Many of these guys are entering year 2 or 3 of the system and that certainly helps. It's encouraging to see Barbre and Gardner settling into their starting roles nicely but there's also a very good chance the Eagles are going to have to rely on that depth. Obviously this is a run first offense and I'd go as far as to say this is an inside zone first offense. This why they've practiced this play religiously for 3 years. Perhaps it is finally paying off for a number of individuals.
As we've said before on the blog the offensive concept and philosophies Chip uses in his offense are nothing new and he keeps things at a pretty basic level. They have 4 running plays and maybe 8-9 different passing concepts. What Kelly is a master at is dressing up these concepts in different ways, throwing in some tendency breakers, and running the offense at a breakneck speed. In other words, if you are looking for some dramatic shifts in the scheme entering year 3, I wouldn't expect it. While preseason play is known to be pretty vanilla scheme-wise, where the wrinkles are kept to a minimum, pretty much everything we have seen in the preseason so far are things we've seen before and will likely continue to see once the regular season starts. I wanted to re-visit some of those concepts based on the preseason film. One thing to note is that we all know since Chip's first year in the league that he's pretty obsessed about beating man coverage. Since coming to the NFL one of the biggest differences he's noted in the pro game is that defenses tend to use more more man coverage than in college. As a result, Chip has certainly embarked on making dramatic headline moves from a personnel standpoint at the WR position, but we're going to talk about his schematic approach.
Let's start with perhaps one of Chip and Pat's favorite passing concepts. The snag or triangle concept. It's been around for ages with many different variations. Chris Brown from Smart Football has not surprisingly done an excellent piece on this talking about the history and evolution of this play. Check it out here. Anyway, if I were to bet what the first playcall of the regular season is going to be, I'd bet on something involving the snag concept. We must have started 5-6 games last season with it. We've covered it before and assuming you are a regular reader or have read Chris' explanation I don't need to go too much into the specifics. It's essentially a 3 man read for the QB that effectively stretches the field both horizontally and vertically. Let's look at a couple of variations from the preseason.
On this play, you'll want to pay close attention to the bottom of the screen. You've got Celek at TE, Matthews in the slot and Agholor on the outside. Per Brown:
The basic concept involves one receiver in the deep third on a corner route (good by itself against man-to-man), one receiver in the flat, often a runningback or inside receiver (which can also be good against man from a bunch-set), and a third receiver on the “snag” route, sometimes also known as a “slant-settle” or a “mini-curl.”
So on this play. You have Celek in the flat, Matthews on the corner route and Agholor running the snag:
The Colts are playing with 2 deep safeties so this almost tells the QB to forget his first read which is the deep corner route. This pre snap read allows the QB to make a quick decision and you can see Barkley does just that and gets the ball out to Agholor. You can already see the stress this route concept puts on the underneath defenders.
Barkley makes a nice throw in a tight-ish window on the money. Here you can also see the triangle concept that Chris is speaking about. One thing I like to see from the rookie is him extending his arms to the ball. Because there are defenders close by, you don't want to wait this ball in. Agholor extends his arms and catches the ball with his hands. Nice to see from a rookie.
A lot of times you'll see this same concept but out of a different formation or alignment. Here it is a 3 WR set on the top. The inside slot receiver will run to the flat and you can see the corner and snag routes underneath. We all know the Eagles like to run he bubble screen off an inside zone read look from here as well:
Again, Sanchez gets the ball out quickly to Agholor, you see the triangle concept, he is wide open with room for RAC:
Another man-concept we've covered extensively is the wheel route and mesh concept. See more here, here, here and here. The Eagles ran this play repeatedly against the Ravens. Jordan Matthews scored a TD on it, but it was called back due to a penalty. The idea on this play is to have the running back run a wheel route to the outside hoping to create a RB vs. LB mismatch. Guys like Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles pose as a huge mismatch if they get a linebacker on that route. This route is complemented with a man-beating concept underneath where the Eagles often run a combination of shallow drags from each end of the field. This often will create traffic underneath where the receivers "rub" against each other in an effort to create a natural pick. It works well against both zone and man coverage. Here's a classic example.
Sproles will run the wheel route, Matthews, Huff, and Celek are all lined up tight to the formation. Celek will release down the seam and Matthews and Huff will run shallow crossing routes:
In the next two shots you can see the chaos this creates for the underneath defenders:
Huff will pop out wide open with lots of room to run. Unfortunately, Bradford throws the ball a little behind and keeps Huff from catching the ball in stride:
The one signal Chip has tipped his hand on that should come as no surprise this preseason is using Darren Sproles as a slot receiver in 2 RB sets. Depending on the defensive personnel, this sometimes leads to Sproles getting matched up on a LB. A matchup he is likely to win every time. For example, here Sproles is lined up in the slot and has a LB matched up on him in man coverage:
He'll run a shallow drag route and completely run away from #50 on the crossing pattern. You can see he has tons of open field to work with, unfortunately Sanchez's ball sails a bit behind and high and Sproles can't reel it in. A catch he should have made, but if the Eagles get that look on a regular basis during the season, expect Sproles to deliver some explosive gains in the passing game:
One other example has the Eagles motioning Sproles to the outside in a stack formation lined up next to Jordan Matthews:
The Ravens are in man coverage and have the matchup they want with a DB lined up against Darren Sproles.
The DB over Matthews is playing press man and the DB covering Sproles needs to guard against the sidelines as the Eagles love to run a switch concept out of this formation which will have Sproles run a wheel route down the sideline. In this case, Matthews engages with his man in press coverage and drives him back. You can see the DB covering Sproles is playing with inside leverage to protect the sideline against the wheel route. This plays perfectly into the Eagles hands as Sproles runs a "rub" behind Matthews and his DB gets caught out of position.
Sproles cuts to the inside of the field and is wide open for an easy throw and 1st down for Bradford:
Speaking of Jordan Matthews, one of 2014 go-to plays was a deep crossing route off of sweep run action. Essentially, this can be viewed as a packaged play where the Eagles run their patented sweep play to the top of the screen. The hope is that the second-level LBs will bite hard on the run action and Matthews can sneak behind them on a deeper crossing route. That is exactly what happens on this play:
Matthews gets wide open but unfortunately Sanchez misses him.
Last one. The Eagles lived off the screen game in Chip's first year. They really struggled to get things going in 2014 due to OL injuries and opposing DCs having more film on tape. With all the crossing routes the Eagles have been running so far this preseason, I loved the design of this screen. First Agholor is going to motion tight to the formation and will running a shallow crossing route to the other side of the field.
After the snap the other 3 WRs will run vertical routes downfield. These, as you will see, are essentially clear out routes
The OL release downfield and check out the huge space they have to work with in the screen game. Unfortunately Barner got tangled up in the lines and wasn't able to get out into the flat quick enough. Otherwise the Eagles were set up for an explosive play on the screen game. Let's hope we can get that element back in 2015.
Overall I must say I am very pleased with the execution and depth I have seen throughout the preseason. For me, the biggest question mark remains the QB position. All preseason long we've seen how Chip's schemes and play design are getting players open all over the field. We've seen inconsistent QB play and guys have left a lot of plays on the field. As much as the Eagles have dominated the preseason through 2 weeks, it could have been much, much uglier for the other teams had the QBs executed at a higher level. In the end, that's what Chip wants at the QB position. Someone with repetitive accuracy who is consistent and makes smart decisions with the football. If we can finally get that, I wouldn't rule out another eye-popping stat year for Bradford much like we saw with Foles in his first year as the starter. Fingers crossed.