The Eagles didn't have as much success on the ground as most of us expected heading into the season opener last week. That said, it seems the majority of the narrative has been that they simply didn't try to establish a running game, or that the Falcons didn't do anything special to slow down the Eagles running attack. In fact, one of my game film idols and film guru Greg Cosell even said that the Falcons didn't do anything to specifically take away the Eagles' inside zone game on the Eye in the Sky Podcast (the best podcast around might I add) this week. I beg to differ as you'll see in a few moments.
But first, Derek Sarley (@igglesblog on Twitter) formerly of Iggles Blog wrote a short piece on this earlier in the week. Check it out here. From that article:
Football offenses don't get more complex at each level because that's more fun for the coaches. All those X's-and-O's are there because when NFL defenses know what's coming, they are pretty good at stopping it. And "taking what the defense gives you" is the football equivalent of letting your power forward shoot three-pointers all day because no one bothers to guard him all the way out there.
and perhaps more notably this:
The core tenets of Kelly's run game are starting to look a little more limited, at least with the offensive line they actually have and not the one fans wish they had drafted. A little more complexity in blocking assignments might give those struggling guards some better angles every once in a while.
Chip Kelly has been called an innovator by more than a few journalists given his approach to sports science, his ultra-fast tempo and his non-traditional practice methods. However, the real truth is that Kelly's most accurate football supporters have continually applauded his offensive philosophy based on the relative simplicity of it all. The Eagles really do only run about 12-15 concepts in total on offense, but when you combine that with the tempo and disguise with different formations and personnel packages, that's really what makes this offense tick.
But as Sarley suggests, while simplicity is good, Kelly isn't coaching against a bunch of amateurs. Opposing coaching staffs and defensive coordinators work hard too and you can bet they've pored over the Kelly film to look for different ways to attack Kelly's offense.
Let's go back to the foundation of the offense. It's no secret that Chip's entire offense is built around the inside zone running game. They practice it to death and they run it anywhere from 12-25 times a game. Oftentimes, this is not disguised and the opposition knows it's coming but just can't stop it. We've written a ton about the inside zone over the last few years, if you are interested in getting really deep into it, just click on the Inside Zone category on the right and enjoy. In a nutshell, when the defense does what you expect it to do, the inside zone is a beautiful thing to watch. Here's a nice example from Monday:
That's precisely how you want it to look. But of course after watching tons of film and knowing the Eagles are going to run this play, defenses are going to scheme different ways to attack it. We did a piece in the summer about the different ways teams can beat the inside zone. One of the methods we discussed was the "nut stunt" that the Giants employed to slow down the Eagles running attack in the first matchup in 2013. The inside zone is designed to primarily attack the playside A gap, which is the side of the center opposite of where the running back is aligned in the formation:
Not surprisingly you'll note that that A gap is exactly where one of the Falcons defensive tackles is aligned pre-snap. So Kelce's assignment is to block to the playside where you are covered. So naturally, he will fly off the ball to the right and take on that defender, Gardner will go right, and Johnson will go right. But that's not exactly what happens on this play:
Instead, off the snap the defensive tackle will cross Kelce's face and attack the backside A gap instead. This completely disrupts Kelce's blocking assignment. Note the outside linebacker steers Johnson out wide, and Gardner actually does a terrific job of pinning his man inside creating an initially huge hole for Mathews to run through. However, the key player on this play is the MIKE linebacker #55. As the nose crosses Kelce's face, #55 will immediately hit the vacated hole and is there to meet Mathews in the hole for a big hit. Fortunately for the Eagles Allen Barbre makes a terrific heads up play and pushes Mathews into the end zone for the TD.
Fast forward to the next series. Prior to Cody Parker's FG attempt, the Eagles faced a huge 3rd and 1. If they convert, they get a fresh set of downs, can bleed more clock and potentially score a TD or at the very least get Cody Parker a bit closer on the field goal attempt. On the biggest play of the game, Chip Kelly goes to the bread and butter, go-to-work play. You guessed it, the inside zone. Likely knowing what is coming, check out what the Falcons do:
You guessed it. They defend it exactly how they did on the goalline only this time with better success. Check out the defensive tackle and defensive end on the playside kick step to their right. Specifically the nose tackle once again crosses Kelce's face and the defensive end crosses Gardner's face. They react and neither is able to take on the stunting MIKE who fills the hole and makes the eventual game-altering tackle.
This is a great example where Derek Sarley's criticism is warranted. And he wasn't the only one:
@fduffy3 when is Chip going to run stretch again? I kind of miss outside zone in his O. Seems to have been entirely replaced by sweep...— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) September 17, 2015
@lawlornfl guards looked awful, and why does Chip Kelly only have two run plays now (IZ and sweep)? IZ is base but where's OZ, power, etc?— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) September 15, 2015
While I can appreciate that when the Eagles need one yard Chip elects to go for his bread and butter play that the Eagles have practiced all offseason long. But you dodged a major bullet on the goalline as the Falcons had the perfect defense to it. On the very next drive when you need that yard you call the same play?
To be fair, as we've highlighted before, Chip has made a number of adjustments, added some tendency breakers and wrinkles to throw defenses off the chase. Things like the pistol, motioning the running back to the other side of the QB just before the snap, and as we saw on Monday night, a nice sweep toss misdirection play to the "backside" that lead to several nice gains from Murray and Sproles. But one thing that was painfully apparent on Monday night was how Chip stuck to a very simple plan when it came to the running game. He ran inside zone and sweep. That's it. With plays like power and outside zone in his arsenal, it was surprising to not see him break out more variety on Monday night. Let's hope we see more of that because to this writer, with complete hindsight acknowledged, this play sure would have been the better call on that 3rd and 1:
Hat tip to reader/commenter JL who had me take a deeper look at the goalline and 3rd and 1 play.