Analysis Notebook: TNF, Week 3
The story heading into Thursday Night Football was the creativity of Chip Kelly’s offense. The Philadelphia Eagles had racked up yards and points in their opening two games using a variety of different methods, looks, fronts, tricks, and plays. Andy Reid was given some column ink heading into the game merely as the returning side story — longtime Head Coach of the Eagles returning home for the first time after his move to Kansas City. Nobody joined those stories together and few gave Reid credit for being a pretty creative coach in his own right.
While we certainly saw more new and interesting things from Kelly’s Eagles, including one of the weirder two-point conversion attempts (and failures) you will ever see, we also saw some slick plays from Reid’s Chiefs — and one in particular had repeated success early in the game and is worthy of highlighting in the Analysis Notebook.
Kansas City @ Philadelphia | 1st Q, 4:27 (also run 2nd Q, 5:08)
The Chiefs convert 3rd-and-15 using a crossing-route screen play with all other eligible receivers blocking down field to provide the necessary space for YAC.
The Eagles had just scored a touchdown (and failed with their creative two-point attempt) to cut the lead to 10-6, and the Chiefs responded by digging themselves a hole to start their next drive. After an illegal formation penalty on first down and two incomplete passes, they were staring 3rd-and-15 in the face. I know many people don’t believe that there is any such thing, statistically speaking, as momentum, but had the Chiefs been forced to punt from here, backed up in their own half, handing the Eagles the ball with good field position and a chance to take the lead, the game could well have ended very differently.
The Eagles knew they had 15 yards to defend, and with the Chiefs spreading the field with four receivers (and a running back flanking QB Alex Smith in the backfield), they played conservatively on defense, setting up in zone and essentially just dropping everybody to the first-down marker. This isn’t necessarily an unsound strategy, but they would have been aware that they needed to defend the deep passes first and then be ready to prevent YAC from any short passes or dump-offs.
This is exactly what the Chiefs wanted to see, because they planned to use four of the five receivers releasing into pass patterns as screen blockers downfield for the fifth, Donnie Avery running a shallow drag or crossing route underneath. As soon as the ball was snapped the underneath coverage defenders from Philadelphia dropped into their umbrella coverage just underneath the first-down markers while the spread formation of the Chiefs sprinted out to meet them. At this point the Eagles’ defenders haven’t been able to identify anything unusual and key on what is about to happen. On 3rd-and-15 most routes run will be deeper ones and there will naturally be a longer stem on most releases. It is only when they see Avery crossing underneath that they can begin to anticipate him getting the ball and look to close down on that route and prevent him making the first down. This, again, isn’t an unusual play, but what identifies it as unusual is that the other four players out in the pattern for the Chiefs aren’t running routes, but rather are getting in position to screen block.
This is an extremely close cousin of a play many teams in the league have, but instead of using the other four players routes to manufacture space underneath for the crossing route, the Chiefs are using those players to block defenders and open an alley underneath for it. The concentration of receivers to the right of the formation gives the Chiefs blocking strength to the side Avery is running to, and cuts off the angles of pursuit the Eagles’ coverage defenders had.
Avery catches the ball on the 19-yard line with 11 yards still to gain after the catch, but the depth the Eagles dropped to specifically protect the first-down markers is exactly what opens up the underneath space and gives him the room to work past his screen blockers and extend for the first down before he is taken to the ground by Connor Barwin, who had been delayed just long enough by the screen.
We usually think of screens as involving linemen, or, when they are played to receivers, being confined to the perimeter of the field as bubble or tunnel screens, but this is an example of the Chiefs breaking out a wide-receiver screen that had the offensive line in a regular pass protection set, and then used four of the five eligible receivers sprinting downfield to block for the fifth.
Chip Kelly may be bringing a whole host of creativity to Philadelphia this season, but the coach they just said goodbye to has a few tricks left up his sleeve, and he was able to deploy this play to pick up crucial first downs when most teams would have just mailed it in with a draw play or aimed to pick up a few yards safely.
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