Why the Eagles are failing on offense
Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers playbook from 1966 essentially had seven basic run plays in it. There were a couple more specialist goal-line things, and passing plays built off each one, but that’s about it. The NFL at that time was about execution — become really, really good at running just a few things and you will punish the opposition over the long-term who won’t execute as well.
Chip Kelly right now seems to be going out of his way to prove that it doesn’t work that way in today’s NFL. Renowned as a creative coach and schematic mastermind, Kelly’s offense is unraveling before our eyes, and there was no better demonstration of that than against the Cowboys on Sunday.
Dallas destroyed the Eagles’ run game – a strength of the team over the past couple of seasons – creating some completely farcical statistics. Sam Bradford was the team’s leading rusher … with nine rushing yards, all of which came on one scramble. DeMarco Murray had 13 carries … for two yards.
At this point, after two games, Murray is on pace for 88 rushing yards on the season, and he would carry the ball 168 times to get them. At the same point a year ago, Murray was on pace for 2,280 rushing yards and 408 carries.
People are mocking his acquisition as a disastrous signing by the Eagles, but when your running back has 11 rushing yards on 21 carries, gaining half a yard per carry, the problems clearly run deeper than that player – unless that player is carrying a small elephant on his back while playing, and I suspect we would have noticed that.
The switch from LeSean McCoy to Murray and Ryan Matthews made headlines, but the Eagles also moved things around on the interior of their offensive line. Longtime starter Todd Herremans was let go and Evan Mathis was eventually cut after some contract wrangling, causing the Eagles to replace two-fifths of their line. It would be easy to look at that and identify it as the problem, and while moving on from an All-Pro-caliber player like Mathis will cause problems, Herremans hasn’t been a top quality player for a while, and the drop-off in the trenches shouldn’t be as large as it looks.
Andrew Gardner, starting at right guard, actually has a positive PFF grade through two weeks. Tackles Lane Johnson and Jason Peters are both grading either well or perfectly acceptable, and even the two players that have negative grades – C Jason Kelce and LG Allen Barbre – do not have horrendous grades, the kind of grades you would expect from a team that can’t seem to gain yardage on a run play.
TE Brent Celek had a really ugly game against the Cowboys, as plays like this show, but Philadelphia didn’t gain seven net rushing yards because Celek had a bad day.
You can point to individuals on a given play and identify where the blocking broke down or a poor job by a particular player led to a bad outcome, but when the struggle is so complete, the bigger picture looks a little different. Personnel may be a small factor in the struggles, but we need to look elsewhere for the real problem.
Reports emerged after the Dallas game that the Cowboys sideline was calling out the Eagles plays before the snap. That’s obviously not good, nor is it some conspiracy or victory for incredibly sophisticated prep work or subterfuge. They were doing that because the Eagles are basically running the same couple of things all game long, and seem surprised when they’re still not working, in a kind of logic General Melchett would be proud of. “Doing precisely what we have done eighteen times before is exactly the last thing they’ll expect us to do this time!”
Take a look at this tweet from Smart Football’s Chris Brown from during the game:
Now, Chris is a smart guy (hence the name), but if Chris can work this out in real time, there’s a pretty good chance that the Cowboys, a team that faces the Eagles twice a season and has plenty of time and resources to work over the tape in the week leading up to the game, could get it down pretty good, too.
In the NFL today, you simply can’t play the way Lombardi’s Packers did back in the 1960s. The Seahawks get lauded for the way they line up on defense with the same scheme — a Cover 3-type shell — and just dare you to beat it, but while that might be true overall, it isn’t applicable play-to-play. You know they will be running their variants of Cover 3, but this season alone they have also run variants of Cover 1, Cover 2, Cover 4, Cover 6 and Two-Man, not counting red zone and goal line-specific schemes. On a play-by-play level, the Seahawks still execute some disguise and illusion so that you can’t simply target the holes in exactly what they are running pre-snap.
The Eagles aren’t doing that. They are lining up with a run everybody knows is coming and allowing teams to just shoot specific gaps, blowing the run up in the backfield and giving their running backs nowhere to go.
This game is littered with plays where the Cowboys are just completely prepared for what’s coming, and know exactly how to destroy it, usually by shooting the right gap, or at least overloading the area the Eagles are trying to attack.
Take this play as an example. It is a simple inside zone play that the Eagles run regularly. It is in theory designed to open up a gap on the interior of the formation, but ends up forcing Murray all the way to the backside where he gets stuffed for a loss by an unblocked Sean Lee. Often inside zone plays end up with this type of backside cutback because of how things get blocked inside and the way the blocks can convert to straight pushes depending on the leverage and shades involved, but the point here is that the Eagles are outmanned on the side of the ball they are looking to attack.
What really kills this play before the ball has even been snapped is linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who walks down into the A-gap, suddenly changing the numbers at the line of scrimmage. The Cowboys now have every gap immediately threatened, forcing every blocker to try just to drive his man inside, spilling Murray to the backside where he is cleaned up by Lee.
At the point Hitchens walks down to the line, this play is dead. If the Eagles had simply flipped the direction they were running inside zone, they had a chance – this was only a seven-man box by Dallas – but instead they just ran what was being called, right into the teeth of the beast. This was the story all night long. As Ben Stockwell – PFF’s Lead Analyst – said to me when looking at this tape, “There’s no way Peyton Manning would have run that play. He would have gotten them out of it”.
There were other plays where the Dallas defenders just aggressively attacked what they knew was coming. Here is another play that was designed to open up a gap to the right of the right guard. With the line zoning to the right, the center and guard have two options to deal with the player lined up at nose tackle. They can either chip him with Gardner to allow Kelce to get around that block and continue with the zone play as normal, or they can “pin and pull,” getting Gardner to down block on the nose and have Kelce pull around to take over his responsibility at the second level.
Terrell McClain, the Dallas defensive lineman playing nose on the play, attacks the gap so hard and blows up the play so completely that it’s tough to tell which option they elected to go with. He shoots the gap, forcing Gardner and Kelce to try to sandwich him just to halt his momentum before driving Kelce five yards into the backfield and opening up a hole for Sean Lee to fill and tackle Murray for yet another loss on the play.
If you go through the tape of this game you will find run plays failing in pretty much every way it’s possible for them to fail. The Eagles were blown off the field by the Cowboys on that side of the ball, and at times seemed far more likely to lose yardage than gain any. Defensive linemen in particular are far too good in today’s NFL to block if they know exactly what is coming, and the Eagles aren’t doing nearly enough to disguise what they intend to do.
Kelly’s offense has, if anything, become less sophisticated during his time in the NFL, and at the moment is simply too predictable. He is putting his players in a position to fail, and at the moment they are responding by doing exactly that.