Nick Foles saw five defenders in the box, and so his decision was simple: hand the ball off to Bryce Brown.
Matt Barkley got a 2 vs. 2 matchup he liked on the perimeter, and so he threw the screen outside to Greg Salas.
The play-calls were exactly the same. Yet the quarterbacks made two different decisions, both which resulted in touchdowns.
We talked about run-pass options in this space over the weekend. And Grantland’s Chris Brown explained them further in his terrific piece about Chip Kelly’s offense. After Monday’s practice, we caught up with several players to gain a better understanding of the “packaged play” concept.
Let’s start with the touchdown run to Brown. The Eagles had a first-and-goal from the Patriots’ 8. When Foles got to the line of scrimmage, his eyes focused on how many defenders were in the box to guard against the run.
“It was a two-safety look, and the inside backers were out,” Foles explained. “So you get a five-man box, you’ve got five guys to block five, you really want to take it. You want to take your O-Linemen on any five any day.”
Foles’ other option on the play was to throw the quick screen to either side. But with two safeties back, the Eagles would have been faced with a 3-on-2 disadvantage on the perimeter.
Clearly, Foles made the right call, and Brown scampered into the end zone.
But how does the QB communicate his decision to the rest of the players? The answer I got from several Eagles was simple: He doesn’t.
“No matter what, we’re blocking whatever zone play or man scheme, whatever the scheme is for the run blocking, that’s what we’re blocking,” said center Jason Kelce. “Most of the time, I get the running play, and I don’t really know what the quarterback’s doing.
“All the reads for the most part are designed to take advantage of what the defense is giving us, and you never really truly know until after the ball’s snapped. And then guys expose themselves on what gaps they have, what responsibilities they have, and that’s what it’s designed to take advantage of.”
Five blockers against five defenders. That’s a win for the offense.
Left tackle Allen Barbre has the edge defender. Evan Mathis and Jason Kelce start out with a double-team. Todd Herremans and Lane Johnson get one-on-one blocks.
Mathis then does an excellent job of switching off his double-team, on to the linebacker. Kelce and Herremans open up a gaping hole for Brown.
Let’s move on to the next play, the Barkley 12-yard screen to Salas.
The running back is flipped. Otherwise, it’s the exact same look as the first play. But this time, the Patriots have six defenders in the box against five offensive linemen.
Meanwhile, to the top of the screen, the Eagles have two receivers against two Patriots defensive backs.
That’s just the look Barkley wants to throw the screen to the perimeter.
“It was just a double-screen look with a handoff option,” Salas explained. “So if we have the look that we want on the outside, we can throw it. If it’s light in the box, then they can run it. We had the look for the throw on the outside. He threw it to me, I made a guy miss and scored a touchdown.”
The safety to that side of the field was 8 yards off the line of scrimmage. Executed correctly, Emil Igwenagu blocks the outside shoulder of the cornerback, allowing Salas to get to the sideline where it’s even harder for the safety to get to him. Of course, plays on the field don’t always go according to plan. And in this case, Salas didn’t get much of a block from Igwenagu. But he was able to make three defenders miss on his way to the end zone.
“That’s the preference, two-on-two,” Salas said. “Three, you’re outnumbered. So if you have three out there, the box’ll be light for the run. That’s the way the play’s designed, and it worked well.”
Salas backed what Kelce said above: that the players are never sure what the quarterback’s going to do.
“You just do it, and it’s the quarterback’s decision,” Salas said. “He’s gotta pick the side he wants to throw to or hand off the ball. I just knew I had an opportunity, so you know when to be a little bit more prepared than other times.”
It’s clear why Kelly places an emphasis on all players understanding concepts in his offense. While the quarterback is ultimately the one making the decision, plays are run more smoothly if everyone on the field identifies the numbers and has a good idea of what’s going to happen.
The other factor is tempo. The Salas touchdown was the first play of the fourth quarter, but the Brown score happened just 21 seconds (real time) after the whistle blew ending the previous play. While at its foundation, these plays are based on simple math, the opposition can shift defenders around and try to disguise its look – if given the opportunity.
“Sometimes guys move,” Foles explained. “Guys move at the snap of the ball. There’s blitzers coming in. So you really have to be able to react quickly when the happens. It’s just one of those things where you’re out here in practice, you’re rep’n, you’re rep’n, you’re seeing it. And then when you get in a game, you’ve repped it and you can just react.”
Added Kelce: “It’s particularly hard once you’re doing the tempo when you’re really getting on ’em and then they don’t have time to get set, notice the situation, the personnel of the offense. It doesn’t give them time to figure all that stuff out. So now all they can do is just get their defensive play and line up where they’re supposed to line up at just before we snap the ball. And doing that repetitively really wears on a defensive player, especially a defensive lineman.”
While the quarterback makes the call, he can have (headset) communication with the coach or offensive coordinator for the first 25 seconds of the play clock. But the onus is placed on the guys on the field.
“When we call a play, we’ve rep’d them numerous times and we trust that everybody on the field makes good decisions,” said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. “So when the play goes in, typically when I was calling them, you could give maybe a hint or two to what’s going on. But for the most part, the guys are out there making decisions and running the plays we call.”
Barkley said he’s been running this specific inside run/perimeter screen option play for years.
“You’re looking for numbers,” he explained. “They can’t win because if they put enough guys on the perimeter, then you’re gonna have an advantage if you run the ball. And they had one extra guy in the box so, I mean, that’s a play I’ve run since high school. So you kind of learn to see that and just get the ball out there.
“There should be an answer on every play, and so it’s just your job of making sure that you make the right decision of putting the team in that right play, whether it’s the read on that play or whether it’s an audible where you change into the right play. But there should be a favorable answer on every play.”
Kelce agreed that making the right decisions based on the numbers should make these packaged plays difficult to defend.
“That’s all blocking is, period,” he said. “And that’s all football is really. That’s the whole point of the spread offense, the read offense. It’s all about taking advantage of where the offense has positive numbers. That’s the whole reason pretty much this has come about.”