2013 Eagles Offense: Hurry-Up and Wait
One of the many surprising nuggets from the 2013 season was Chip Kelly’s up-tempo Eagles finishing just 13th in offensive snaps. They didn’t even run a full play per game more than the NFL average. This inconvenient fact, along with a tendency to spread the wealth among multiple offensive weapons, has dampened 2014 projections that would otherwise be more ambitious.
How can an offense tally the fourth most drives (203) and gain the sixth most yards per drive (32.4) while going no-huddle at the league’s highest rate (66.5%) and barely run more plays than the NFL average?
Two things jump right out. The Eagles had the shortest average time per drive (2:04), and they kept play clocks ticking by running the ball at the league’s sixth highest rate.
Can it be that simple?
No such luck. Quick drives seem like more of an effect than a cause. It also doesn’t jibe with the Eagles leading the league by a good margin (0.2 yards) in average yards per rushing attempt (5.1) and tallying the fifth most first downs. Additionally, Philadelphia had the sixth smallest percentage of drives that ended with a turnover, only three percent of drives ended on downs (11th fewest), and they were 12th best on third down conversions.
As we’ll discuss below, the Eagles offense underwent three seasons worth of changes in 16 games. They clearly got their act together, and hiccups like the shortest average time per drive were at least mitigated. A more troubling detail, however, warned of deeper issues.
At 26 minutes and 19 seconds per game, they were dead last in time of possession.
That’s more than a minute behind the 31st place Jacksonville Jaguars, and nearly four minutes less than the league median (30:05; the average of 17th place Seattle’s 29:57 and 16th place Atlanta’s 30:12). The last offense that possessed the ball for less time was the 2011 post-Peyton, pre-Luck Colts (26:13), and they unsurprisingly ranked 32nd in snaps.
If the Eagles were mostly a fast-paced pillar of productivity, what in the name of Rich Kotite went wrong? As is often the case the answers are staring us in the face, and they’re dog tired because they can’t get off of the damn field.
Philadelphia’s defense contrasted starkly with their offense. Instead of averaging the shortest time per drive, they allowed the longest (2:42). They gave up the most plays per drive in the league (5.9). They surrendered the eighth most yards per drive (31). Their defense took the eighth most penalties, and allowed the 24th “best” third down conversion rate (40.3%). They forced punts at the seventh lowest rate in the NFL.
Much of this ugliness was masked by causing the third most turnovers, which contributed mightily to the Eagles placing 16th in points surrendered. In an odd way, although the defense was pretty rough, it wasn’t awful enough to permit their offense to produce at a rate commensurate with their level of efficiency.
Tale of Three Seasons
It wasn’t all bad, all year long for Philadelphia’s defense. They performed well against both the run and pass at various points, and that had an interesting effect on their offense.
There were two natural breaks in the Eagles’ season. The first one came after the Week 5 game in which starting quarterback Michael Vick was injured. The next six games until their Week 12 bye were marked by a hobbled Vick, rookie Matt Barkley’s injury-prompted appearances, and Nick Foles grabbing the starting role. The final five games offer the best snapshot to work off as we head into 2014.
|Eagles||Wk 1 thru Wk 5||Wk 6 thru Wk 11||Wk 13 thru Wk 17|
|Avg Offense Snaps||68.8||62.5||67.0|
|Avg Defense Snaps||73.6||75.8||65.4|
- – penalty plays removed
The first five games were mostly disastrous for Philly’s defense. They averaged a -10.3 combined defensive PFF grade per game (run defense + pass coverage + pass rush), and regularly took part in shootouts that spawned a whopping 58.8 points per contest during that timeframe.
The Eagles averaged a +5.1 combined defensive grade during the middle six weeks as the unit picked up the pace, especially in the passing game. Their offensive snaps tumbled and the average total score in those games also tumbled to 31.8 points, although their own quarterback shuffling contributed to that.
Over the final five games of the regular season the Eagles’ offensive snaps picked back up, the average contest saw 57.6 points scored, and their defense (+5.0 combined grade) held onto the gains it made during the middle portion of the season. Yet the manner in which they accomplished this was different, and it contributed to them cutting more than 10 defensive snaps per game off of their average.
Stop the Run, Start your Offense
The theory that a team’s run defense correlates highly to their offensive snap count has been bandied about on Twitter recently, and the case of the 2013 Eagles appears to support it. The graph below shows an apparent positive correlation between their run defense grades and offensive snaps, especially after the initial Vick-led contests that typically descended into defenseless shootouts. Week 17 on the chart represents their playoff game.
But is it only run defense that affects snap counts? The chart below shows each “third” of the Eagles’ season, with the average PFF grades for Run Defense, Pass Coverage, and Pass Rush. Listed at the bottom are the offensive snaps per game during each portion of the season.
|Eagles||Wk 1 thru Wk 5||Wk 6 thru Wk 11||Wk 13 thru Wk 17|
|Avg Run D Grade||-0.46||3.85||6.16|
|Avg Pass Cov. Grd||-5.5||0.23||-0.8|
|Avg Pass Rush Grd||-4.36||1.03||-0.32|
Philly’s run defense grade rose during the second portion of the schedule and their snaps per game dropped. This appears to run counter to the theory stated above. However if we look at run defense in relation to their pass defense it makes more sense.
The Eagles’ run stopping was well ahead of its pass defense all season. The chart below simply shows the difference between Philly’s run defense grades and their pass defense marks during each “third” of their season. Note how the gap narrowed during the middle six games. That same sample saw Philadelphia’s offense produce noticeably fewer snaps.
|Diff b/t RunD grade and:||Wk 1 thru Wk 5||Wk 6 thru Wk 11||Wk 13 thru Wk 17|
|Avg Pass Cov Grd||5.04||3.62||6.96|
|Avg Pass Rush Grade||3.9||2.82||6.48|
Opposing offenses called a greater percentage of rushing plays during that time than either of the other two segments of the Eagles’ season. Those games represented a high point for Philadelphia’s defense in terms of drives allowed per game (12.5), plays per drive (6.4), and average time per drive (2:53). Actually we should probably call it a low point.
Opponents may have skewed more run-heavy during that segment of games because the Eagles were playing better pass defense, or perhaps it just happened to better fit their offensive strengths. Most likely it was both at various points, but for now the ‘why’ isn’t the main point. The takeaway here is when opponents deemed it advantageous to run more often, Philadelphia’s offensive snaps were reduced as a result.
That was a long-winded way of saying something that’s fairly intuitive. If a run defense is vulnerable, an opposing offense will attack it because it’s a low risk strategy. Drives last longer in terms of snaps and on the play clock, which leaves less opportunity for the offense. Attacking a vulnerable pass defense involves the clock stoppages, chunk plays, turnovers, and quick scores that lend themselves to shootouts. At least the opposing offense gets more chances to match.
In Philadelphia’s case, it can be illustrated in simplest terms like this:
During the eleven games that the Eagles received a positive PFF grade for run defense, their offense averaged 66.5 snaps. During the other five games they ran 64.6 plays per game.
During their eight games with positive pass coverage grades they averaged 64.6 offensive plays, and 67.1 when they were given negative marks.
During the six positively graded pass rush games they averaged 63.8 offensive snaps, and 67.1 per contest when handed negative PFF marks.
Two or three snaps per game may not seem like much, but just 40 more snaps would have lifted the Eagles close to the top five instead of 13th, and based on their yard and point per play rates would have added about 250 yards and 17 points. We have ample of reason to think that 2014 will resemble the final portion of their 2013 season, as well as hope that they can surpass it.
What This Means for You
As we started to examine at the bottom of this piece, there are a handful of offenses that were held back by their own porous run defenses. The yards per play rates of Minnesota, Chicago, and Dallas all topped the league average, but each finished low on the total snaps list. The Vikings and especially the Bears have addressed their run stopping weaknesses during the offseason, and it might be a good idea to break ties in favor of fantasy players on those teams. The Cowboys’ offense, on the other hand, might again be the NFL’s biggest tragedy if they can’t find a way to slap together a decent front seven.
The good news in Philadelphia, if not for the Eagles than for fantasy owners, is the secondary is as big a question now as it was last year when they graded in the bottom third of the league in both pass rush and coverage. Their big free agent signing was former Saints’ safety Malcolm Jenkins, whose -3.0 coverage grade tied for 58th at his position. They also brought in former Dolphin Nolan Carroll, and his -4.4 coverage mark tied him for 66th among fellow cornerbacks. Nate Allen (-1.3), Earl Wolff (-4.0), Cary Williams (-7.9), and Bradley Fletcher (-2.1) will still be in the mix to varying degrees.
More positive news for Philadelphia’s prospects of increasing their offensive snap count is their run defense is on the upswing. We already saw how it improved steadily as the 2013 season progressed. Their defensive line of Fletcher Cox (+9.5 run defense grade), Cedric Thornton (+31.0), and Bennie Logan (+1.7) are all young and ascending. They’ll be reinforced by two rookies, in defensive end Taylor Hart and mountainous nose tackle Beau Allen. The Eagles’ pass rush should also improve, and that will help the undermanned secondary, but the strength of the defense is clearly run stopping.
At first glance the Eagles’ slightly above average play count is underwhelming when their up-tempo reputation is considered. Yet a team that possessed the ball for less time than any other offense and still ran the 13th most plays is closer to remarkable than disappointing.
While this doesn’t address the issue of equal touch distribution for individual weapons in Philadelphia’s offense, it should allay fears that they will not be a high-volume unit. The surest way to play that would be to keep Nick Foles high on the quarterbacks list, since whatever assumed regression he suffers in the turnover department should be mitigated by an underestimated uptick in raw snaps.
Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference, ESPN, TeamRankings.com, and Pro Football Focus Premium.
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman