For the second straight year, the Philadelphia Eagles playoff hopes rest on the shoulders of Mark Sanchez. While it is unclear how many games Sam Bradford is going to miss, at 4-5, the Eagles have left themselves with such a low margin for error that the game this weekend against Tampa Bay has to be considered a must-win. With Sam Bradford at the helm, the Eagles offense has been inconsistent and uneven all season long. However, while Bradford was showing some improvement, he just wasn't get the job done. As much as I've seen my fill of Sanchez as the Eagles starting QB I must admit, this offense desperately needs a spark from somewhere. Can it be from Mark Sanchez? Based on the predictable back-breaking INT he threw vs. the Dolphins last weekend in relief duty it doesn't look likely. During much of the offseason, it seems the basement most people set for Bradford, "if healthy" was that he could be Mark Sanchez without the turnovers. Whoops. In 9 starts this season Sam Bradford has 10 INTs and 6 fumbles. In 8 starts last year, Sanchez had 11 INTs and 7 fumbles. I could sit here and right a post about how Mark Sanchez is a poor decision maker and a turnover machine but everyone knows it and everyone has covered that.
Bradford's performance this season begged the very good question from Jimmy Kempski, "What Does Sam Bradford Do Well?" Truth is, while Bradford has had some bright spots this year, there's absolutely nothing that you can hang your hat on that he has done consistently well. We thought we were getting an excellent decision maker. We haven't seen it. We thought we were getting an accurate passer. We haven't seen it. We thought we were getting a guy who would thrive in the fast pace no-huddle offense. Haven't seen that either.
The one immediately noticeable thing we all saw when Sanchez took over was a dramatic difference in the pace that this offense moved. It appeared Bradford was running this offense at a snails pace compared to everyone else who has run this offense. Pace and tempo is one of the competitive advantages of Chip's Kelly's offense. Bradford hasn't been able to run it that way for whatever reason.
But unfortunately, tempo alone doesn't win football games. If you are looking for perhaps a glimmer of hope on what Sanchez might offer that could jump start this offense, I might have something for you.
An interesting quote from Demarco Murray on a Mark Sanchez led offense from Matt Lombardo at NJ.com:
"It just gives us a different variable in the run game and has the defense having to respect the pull," Murray said. "I think that's going to help us out in the run game. We'll see how it goes."
Now before we get carried away, Mark Sanchez is not Mike Vick. He's not going to be giving us 50-60 yards rushing per game. However, one of the several reasons the Eagles run out of Shotgun is to try and get a numbers advantage and to add a read element. Bottom line, Sam Bradford, either because of his unwillingness to pull or the conservative nature of the coaching staff, negates some of this advantage. Sam hasn't pulled and run even once on the zone read this year. As a result, defenses can pin their ears back and go after our running backs. It looks like this:
That's Greg Hardy crashing down on Sproles and making the play from the backside. With no consideration or concern for Sam Bradford keeping the football. What makes matters worse are the 2 DBs, one being the force defender on this play, also completely selling out on the run. Now I don't expect Mark Sanchez to be ripping off explosive TDs like Marcus Mariota did last night, but defenses have to at least respect the threat:
It's certainly not pretty, but you at least have to respect it. Here Sanchez takes advantage of the aggressive edge defender and is able to rush for a TD against the Cowboys. Here's another:
This one's a good example because Sanchez also has the option to pass off the roll-out if a DB abandons his receiver on the outside. In this case, he stayed put so Sanchez made the right read and gained the easy yards. Again, Mark Sanchez's legs aren't going to scare anyone, but the simple fact that he's willing to take the easy 5-6 yards forces defenses to respect it. And once they do, this can happen:
This is a great example where Sanchez absolutely freezes the edge defender. What he's looking at are his shoulders. In this case, the unblocked defender's shoulders are parallel to the line of scrimmage. That's when you know he is overplaying the keeper. Contrast that to the clips above where the unblocked defender's shoulders are almost perpendicular to the line of scrimmage meaning he's crashing hard on the running back. Because of Sanchez's read, he's able to block the edge defender and he's a complete non-factor in the run defense. This frees up the Eagles OL to double down and get some nice combination and peel blocks for a nice run.
As much as I would love to say that this difference, and this difference alone will jumpstart the offense, I don't think it's true. It should help make more room for Murray, Mathews and Sproles but the offense needs more than this from the QB position. The other thing Mark Sanchez brings to the table is some functional mobility. Sam Bradford is more of a pure pocket passer. He's done well of late as Chip has implemented more designed rollouts for Bradford, but outside of that when he is asked to drop back in the pocket he's generally a statue who likes to stay on his spot. That's a very good thing when you have a great pass protection, but when it breaks down, as it often does against good defenses, you need to be able to improvise and move the pocket. This is something Sam Bradford has not demonstrated well in 2015. As a result, this is where we might see a bit more from Mark Sanchez. Looking back on his 2014 tape wasn't exactly a "fun" experience, but the one thing that really stood out with Sanchez was his ability to move in and out of the pocket to extend plays. He's actually quite good at that and does a nice job feeling the rush and keeping his eyes downfield. Let me show you a few examples of that.
On the above play, Matt Tobin gets beat cleanly on the inside just as Sanchez settles in his drop. Some QBs will hang in there and take the hit and many will put their eyes down and try to run. Sanchez does a really nice job of stepping up into the pocket to avoid the rush and he keeps his eyes downfield. Despite getting his facemask pulled, Sanchez is able to make a nice tight window throw to Brent Celek. Here is another:
On this play, All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly breaks free up the middle on a blitz. Sanchez doesn't panic and again I want to highlight how he slides in the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield. After the movement he does a nice job resetting his feet and throws a beautiful ball to Brent Celek.
On this play, Lane Johnson gets pushed back into the pocket on a bull rush. Here I want you to see how Sanchez naturally slides away from the pressure again with his eyes downfield. Pay particular attention to how reads right, middle, left and then back to the middle while moving. He buys that time with his movement and makes a nice throw to Zach Ertz.
Last play, same idea. The Eagles pass protection breaks down as Sanchez plants his foot. he quickly steps up into the pocket, eyes downfield and fires a strike over the middle to Jeremy Maclin.
I know what you're thinking, yeah, yeah, this is all great but in the end Sanchez always blows it with a back-breaking turnover. I'm afraid I can't make a solid argument that Sanchez's decision making has magically improved since last year and the game on Sunday certainly won't help those that are trying to be optimistic. However, this offense simply hasn't settled down into a consistent rhythm all season long with Sam Bradford at the helm. That's not all on Sam, but it certainly seems that this is an offense that needed to have something shaken up. Hopefully Sanchez's movement will have an impact on this offense moving forward by opening the running game ever so slightly and maybe, just maybe some of that time Sanchez buy with his legs will give the Eagles skill position players some extra time to create separation. One thing to note, while Sanchez was a major issue by the end of last season the Eagles defense was pretty terrible down the stretch. It seems Sanchez should have a little more support on the defensive side of the ball this time around.