Applying ‘Smart Football’ Concepts To the Eagles

While on vacation, I was able to comb back over The Essential Smart Football by Chris B. Brown.

Many of you are familiar with Brown from his Web site and his work on Grantland. If you haven’t checked out the book yet, I highly recommend doing so in the next couple months leading up to the season.

Brown has written extensively on Chip Kelly in the past, so it should come as no surprise that many of the concepts he tackles in his book apply to the 2013 Eagles. Below are some thoughts on four specific concepts that stood out to me.

1. Dick LeBeau, Dom Capers and the zone blitz

When asked this spring which NFL coaches have influenced him the most, Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis recalled his first job in the league.

“I would say that Cowher/Capers, and Lebeau was there with us,” he answered.

Davis was a 26-year-old defensive quality control coach on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ staff back in 1992. He was answering to guys like Dick LeBeau, Dom Capers and Bill Cowher, who were bringing the zone blitz to the NFL as a way to combat quick, efficient passing offenses.

The basic idea was to line up in a 3-4, rush five and drop six, with the key being disguising where the pressure came from.

Writes Brown:

To LeBeau, this was the perfect remedy: depending on the coverage you put behind the blitz, you actually were playing a very conservative defense, but the offense thought you were being aggressive, and, depending on how intelligently you deployed your five rushers, you were being aggressive, albeit in a very controlled sense. Controlled chaos, indeed.

The fire zone blitz, which employs three-deep coverage, is in the Eagles’ playbook, although it will be up to Davis to add his own wrinkles to it.

2. Option routes for wide receivers

During teach periods in the spring, wide receivers coach Bob Bicknell would yell out different coverages, and players would be asked to respond with the route they would run.

“Depending on the defense, if the defender’s way back, if we can beat ‘em on the go, then that’s the point,” said DeSean Jackson. “But if not, we’re able to still within the route have the option to stop if the cornerback is bailing for his life to not get beat deep. So it’s really a win for the receiver. Going out there, it’s like you have a double route. So if he’s playing on this route, then I can go to something else.”

In his book, Brown explains how run-and-shoot concepts still are employed by NFL offenses, using Victor Cruz and others as examples:

Drew Brees’s best pass play is four verticals, where the receivers can adjust on the fly – a ‘shoot’ staple; the Patriots use a plethora of option routes, where receivers are given freedom to get open and break in any direction they want; and even Peyton Manning’s great Colts offenses frequently asked receivers to read routes on the fly.

Arrelious Benn explained that pretty much every team has option routes built in. But when I asked him how prevalent they are under Kelly, he said, “The majority of plays. I mean, basically it’s built into our offense and it’s just what we do.”

3. The one-word no-huddle

This one should come as no surprise. As has been reported, Kelly met with Bill Belichick multiple times before the Patriots incorporated this concept.

“We have some plays that are just one word, and certain letters in the word kind of tells you what you have,” said LeSean McCoy last month. “I don’t think it’s that hard. I picked it up pretty fast.”

Jeremy Maclin agreed.

“It’s a lot easier than people think it is,” Maclin said. “It’s just different. Guys haven’t seen it before. It’s just like learning a regular playbook. It’s just different terminology, the way they communicate is different. So it’s not really that it’s that difficult, it’s just foreign to a lot of people.”

Brown devotes one chapter to Tom Brady and the Patriots’ no-huddle:

Modern defenses want to match offenses in terms of strength and speed via personnel substitutions. They also want to confuse offenses with movement and disguise. The up-tempo no-huddle stymies those defensive options. The defense doesn’t have time to substitute, and it’s also forced to show its hand: it can’t disguise or shift because the quarterback can snap the ball and take advantage of obvious, structural weaknesses. And when the defense is forced to reveal itself, Tom Brady can change into a better play.

The Eagles of course don’t have Brady running the show, but whoever ends up winning the quarterback competition will be expected to make good, quick decisions and take advantage of the vulnerabilities of the defense.

4. The hybrid offensive weapon

Kelly has made it clear that this is what he’s looking for. He’s a big fan of tight ends because of their versatility and the matchup problems they can present to the defense. The Eagles signed James Casey early in free agency and spent a second-round pick on Stanford’s Zach Ertz.

Brown writes about hybrid offensive weapons and the Patriots’ past use of two tight ends:

And this is just one example of what has become a necessity for NFL offenses as defenses have gotten, well, weirder; you must have players who can dictate terms back to the defense by presenting odd matchup problems.

Unpredictability is the key. Is a play a run or a pass? Which direction is it going? How will it work? These hybrid weapons give offenses options in ways that even great players with more specific skills and roles cannot. They simplify defenses by making them uncertain.

Of course, it’s easy to say a guy can line up all over the formation. But the key is how effective he is in those different roles. That’s what Kelly and his staff will have to determine this summer and during the first part of the season.

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  • G_WallyHunter

    number 3 scares me when I think of Vick trying to make quick no-huddle decisions on the fly based on structural weaknesses in the D…… talking about how Brady rips apart the D when they reveal themselves, not exactly Vick’s strongpoint… If Vick miraculously gets smarter and is able to run this system and sufficiently make the reads needed without throwing 2 picks a game, jeeze imagine the threat he will have…. I get butterflies thinking about it…

    • BirdGang

      Vick seemed to handle to 2 minute drill fine in games. In fact, I think that is where he played his best ball. I am way more concerned about the TO opposed to Vick reading the D. If he or whoever the starting QB is keeps the TO to a minimum we should be fine.

    • Guest

      It’d be interesting to know (although I doubt we ever will) how much of our 2 minute drill was scripted or how much Mike came up with on his own. While Vick was great in the 2 minute drill, it does not necessarily translate to being able to run a no huddle attack and making adjustments based on what the defense is showing you for an entire game.

  • theycallmerob

    Great article, and fantastic book! Welcome back Sheil.

    Besides the LeBeau/Capers section, I really enjoyed the 3-3-5 chapter. I would imagine our perceived weakness at SS/cover OLB would prohibit this against better TE teams, but the increased used of WRs is really making the nickel back a starting position. Plus, Boykin’s end of season was very encouraging going into TC.

    I would imagine both situations still create difficulties trying to get Barwin, Graham, and Cole onto the field at once while maintaining coverage up the seam and in the flat. If Allen can somehow play well this year, he may be the key to the success of these zone blitz schemes.

  • Bird of Prey

    Good article. I have been waiting for training camp and the pre-season before I reserve judgement on this team and staff. I still think it will take a couple of years before we know how good they’ll be. But that’s not a problem for me.