How the Eagles Package the Zone Read And Bubble Screen

Back in early June, Chip Kelly sat at the head of a conference table in the NovaCare Complex and spent a full hour answering reporters’ questions about his program, his offensive scheme and his philosophies.

Not surprisingly, the topic of tempo was brought up. And the first-year Eagles’ head coach tried to explain that he didn’t always want to go at a super-fast speed.

“If they didn’t line up right and they have nine guys standing over there and you have a play called that’s going to run into those nine guys, then maybe playing fast wasn’t the smartest thing to do,” Kelly said. “Sometimes you need to let things get settled down and get an opportunity to make sure that you’ve got the right look.

“A lot of things we’re doing, we’re trying to throw it versus the best-located safety. Well, we better make sure we locate the safeties before we snap the football. Do we want to run it at one guy or run away from another guy? You’ve got to make sure some of those things you can see before you start it. It’s just not all driven on let’s see how many plays we can get run.”

While the truth is the Eagles are going to move quickly, Kelly’s response serves as the foundation for much of what he wants to do offensively: spread the field out, look for a numbers advantage and count on the quarterback to make the right decisions.

After the first preseason game, we showed how the Eagles scored two touchdowns on what was essentially the same play, a run-pass option out of a double-stack formation.

Against Carolina, we saw a similar idea executed over and over and over again. It combined the zone read with a bubble screen out of a 3×1 formation (three receivers to one side, one to the other).

The first time we saw this play was on 2nd-and-14 during the Eagles’ first offensive possession. Let’s start with the look:

avant1a

The Eagles have Chris Polk in the backfield. Jason Avant, Brent Celek and DeSean Jackson are set up to the right. Riley Cooper is the lone receiver to the left.

Pre-snap, you can see the Eagles have a numbers advantage: three receivers against two defensive backs. The safety to that side of the field is deep, 15 yards off the line of scrimmage.

avant1b

You can see the Eagles have the zone read option. If this were a straight running play, Nick Foles would read the unblocked defensive end and either hand the ball off to Polk or keep it himself.

But it’s not a straight running play. It’s a run/pass option. And because he noticed the numbers advantage to the perimeter, he pulls the ball and targets Avant, who has a couple blockers set up in front of him.

avant1c

“You’re looking for numbers,” Foles explained. “Anybody can look and say, ‘OK, you’ve got five guys blocking, there’s five guys in the box. It’s a good box.’ If they try and bring something, you’ve gotta do something else because we can’t block everyone, so it just gives you other options away from running the ball right into the extra defenders.”

On the perimeter, it’s essentially three receivers against two defenders. The only unblocked player to that side of the field is the deep safety, and he’s coming from a depth of 16 yards off the line of scrimmage. The truth is Avant is probably the Eagles’ slowest wide receiver. And Jackson gave good effort here, but he is not a great blocker. Still, the play picked up 10 yards, and the offense went from 2nd-and-14 to a manageable 3rd-and-4.

One reason the Eagles are able to play fast and carry out their fakes so well is because the decision is solely in the hands of the quarterback. Polk, who was in the backfield on the above play, didn’t know he wasn’t getting the ball until the last second when Foles pulled it.

“We never know,” Polk said. “There’s just some times where they pull it, we’re still running through the hole because we’re expecting to get it, but you never really know when he’s gonna pull it. You’ve just gotta react and carry out the fake.”

The Eagles ran the same play with Matt Barkley in the third quarter. Here’s the pre-snap look. The key is the Panthers sneak a seventh defender, a defensive back, into the box. The TV camera had a great up-close shot of Barkley looking at the DB right before the ball was snapped.

johnson1a

That gives the Eagles a 3-on-2 advantage with the bubble screen.

johnson1b

And this time, they have Damaris Johnson running behind blocks from Clay Harbor and Zach Ertz, essentially two tight ends (even though Harbor is technically practicing at receiver).

johnson1c

Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein actually makes a nice play here, eventually chasing Johnson down, but not until he’s already picked up 15 yards.

“It’s just an extension of the run game to where we’re getting 10 yards, 15 yards on those bubbles and the defense can’t cover both,” Barkley said. “So it puts them in a bind.”

Again, Johnson just does what he’s supposed to, regardless of Barkley’s decision. Sometimes the quarterback is going to throw it his way. Other times, it’s going to be a run. The offensive line simply blocks for the run. Because it’s going to be a quick throw, failing to hold their blocks and giving up a sack is a non-issue.

“Whatever the quarterback thinks,” Johnson said. “I’m just going out and running the routes. I’m not reading the defense. I’m just trying to be out there. If he throws me the ball, I have to catch it and make a big play.”

Wide receiver Jeff Maehl, whom the Eagles acquired from the Texans last week, ran variations of this play hundreds of times while he was playing for Kelly at Oregon.

“If we’ve got more numbers than them, that’s a no-brainer,” Maehl said. “It’s based on what Coach Kelly wants to do and based on what the quarterback’s seeing.

“We try and put the defense in a situation where they really can’t win. That’s kind of what this offense is all about, just giving us the advantage wherever it may be and taking what the defense gives us.”

The non-screen option is to run the zone-read. In these instances, the quarterback is making two decisions. First, he’s deciding whether to throw the screen. If he’s not going that route, he’s deciding whether to hand the ball off or keep it himself, depending on how the unblocked defender reacts.

Here’s what we saw from Barkley later in the third quarter.

jones1a

You can see the Panthers have three defensive backs on the Eagles’ three receivers, so there’s no numbers advantage with the bubble screen.

The Eagles have five offensive linemen against six defenders in the box. But since this is a zone read, they leave the right defensive end unblocked. The threat of Barkley running is meant to occupy or “block” him.

jones1b

The play only picked up 3 yards because the linebacker got past right guard Matt Tennant, but you can see how the design works.

“It’s all based upon how the defensive player that we’re reading is playing,” said Jason Kelce. “If the defensive player that we’re reading stays inside the box or goes with the run play, now we’re gonna be minus hats on the run. He’s gonna do something on the perimeter or something else at a different spot. If we have numbers on the run play, we’re gonna take advantage of that.”

Todd Herremans made an interesting comment when asked about what’s impressed him about Kelly so far.

“I think the flow and the way that he calls the game is really good,” Herremans said. “It seems like you’re always setting up the next play, which I think is smart.”

That brings us to one final variation, which we saw in the fourth quarter of last week’s game. Here, the Eagles again have trips to the right side.

harbor1a

At first glance, it seems like they’re running the same play.

harbor1b

But there are differences. This is a straight pass play off a fake handoff, not an option play. The offensive linemen are pass-blocking, and there is no unblocked defender for the zone read. However, it still appears to be a bubble screen, something the Panthers’ defense had been seeing all night.

While Harbor and Greg Salas initially set up for the blocks, and Barkley looks at Johnson, this is just a fake. Harbor and Salas sidestep the defenders and take off on vertical routes.

Wish we had the All-22 here, but as you can see, suddenly the Panthers only have one safety against two Eagles receivers going deep.

harbor1c

Barkley’s pass goes right through Harbor’s hands. Otherwise it’s a big play.

Even though it’s an incompletion, it’s a play on film that other teams will see, making defensive backs think twice before charging the line of scrimmage and attacking the bubble screen.

***

Pat Shurmur has coached in the NFL for 14 years. But the Eagles’ offensive coordinator is now getting an up-close view of how offenses are changing, and he appreciates what the Eagles are trying to accomplish.

“You know, in the old days, the audible systems used to be to get you out of a bad play, not necessarily get you into the best play,” Shurmur explained. “And then there are offenses where you’ve got run/pass options.  You’re just trying to do what’s best. I think all offenses have certain percentage where you want it, or if it presents itself, you throw it. We just package it up a little different, that’s all.”

As we noted last week, there’s a growing buzz among Eagles’ offensive players, who seem to be buying into Kelly’s methods, specifically the run/pass option plays and the tempo.

“It’s a lot of pressure [on a defense] because we feel like no matter what you guys do, we’re gonna make you wrong,” Polk said. “You put too many in the box, we’re gonna throw it out. You stack the outside, the box is always gonna work. So it’s gonna be real interesting to see how people play us, but as of right now, we’ve just gotta make them wrong no matter what they do.”

Added Harbor: “It puts a ton of pressure on them. It really comes down to numbers. If they have too many guys inside, we’re gonna throw it. If they have too many guys outside, we’re gonna run it. Whatever they do, we win.”

***

For more on the “packaged play” concept, be sure to check out Chris Brown’s terrific piece on Grantland.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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  • nicksaenz1

    It will be interesting to see how this all unfolds when the defenses are running more blitzes and disguised packages. No negative tone to be implied, just noting that if a good DC generates the necessary confusion against the QB, watching the adjustments that Chip makes will be interesting, especially considering there haven’t been many in-game adjustments over the last 14 years.

    • http://abigbuttandasmile.com/ A Big Butt and a Smile

      Pushing tempo is part of preventing that. Also there were a couple blitzes in the preseason thus far and they handled them well. Everyone is giving vanilla I know…but I’m encouraged. Kelly is a smart dude…I’m sure he has a plan in place for blitzing that they’ve been working on in camp. And let’s be real if Vick is the Qb…you know they have a plan in place. lol

      • Anon

        Agree, it’s not like Kelly hasn’t see exotic blitz packages before, they have them in college as well. But the tempo and spread are used to cut down on the options a defense has. It may not be successful all the time. But if the defense goes nickel, we’ll use tempo to keep the DBs in the game while we run the ball. The beauty is that our ability to put up points puts a lot of pressure on the offense of the other team. They can’t get into their game plan (or deveop a run game) if they are constantly playing catch up.

      • nicksaenz1

        As I said above to a couple other ppl, I know what the offense is designed to do. There’s going to be a good DC or two that we face along the way that figures out a way to give some fits in a game. That’s really all I’m saying. I can’t wait to watch the kinds of adjustments made to keep the machine putting up points.

        • conor

          I’m excited to watch the Eagles play the Cowboys. I went to all of the USC home games for the last 2 years and watched Kelly embarrass Monty Kiffin every time. The thing that pissed me off the most was that they ran the above play repeatedly. Three receivers to one side against two defenders. Got more than 10 yards almost every time.

    • Jim Blizzard

      I would think this would work better with Desean as the lone WR on the other side as it wouldn’t allow the safety to cheat.

      • nicksaenz1

        I’m sure Kelly has a package for just that. Hopefully used sparingly just to keep the safety honest a couple times a game.

    • Kevin

      Nick, agree with your point and it will be interesting to see how this plays out during the season, but I will offer this… Will tempo affect the ability to blitz and disguise? I have a feeling multiple packages without subs and tempo will make it difficult to run a lot of exotic defense based on personnel to counter certain plays the offense is doing. It also seems that since the field is spread out, that disguising the corner blitz (otherwise known as the Hit Vick Blitz) would be tough. Finally, opposing teams have 5 days to install the defense, given all the looks we have seen in the preseason and that the look themselves contains both the run and the pass option, it seems that defenses are going to be thinking a lot, which slows reaction time. This should be a fun season to see how this all works.

      • nicksaenz1

        I agree. I think ultimately we’ll all be fans of the results of his system. But, this is NFL and there will be a DC or two who figures out how to affect what we’re doing, esp a good 3-4 defense which offers more in terms of disguise and blitz packages, IMO.

        • Anon

          We play 3 teams with 3-4 defenses this year, Packers, Redskins, Cardinals (after the bye week).

          • nicksaenz1

            5 teams. 6 games, 3 of which are in the first 3 weeks. KC and SD are 3-4 teams.

        • Kevin

          I think there are two parts to this Nick. I agree that I think there will be a DC or two that can figure out good plans. The other part is, will they have the players to execute the plan? Since the NFL is such a matchup driven league, can a team’s defense be equipped to stop both a traditional offense and the new spread/pistol/package offenses that are taking a foothold now. It will definitely be fun to watch. Either way, I am glad the Chipper is our coach, just for the change in energy and vibe he is bringing.

    • Daniel Norman Richwine

      Alabama runs a complicated defense designed to confuse systems just like this. The tempo is a huge weapon against them since it prevents Saban from substituting. you get the right personnel in there for one play, but you can’t sub out for the next, creating a disadvantage. This forces DCs to play more vanilla than they want. Saban can slow it down a bit, but can’t really stop it. We will see if the NFL can.

      • nicksaenz1

        Your last sentence was the point I was driving at. I understand that the tempo is used to negate it, and if we have points on the board it changes the opponent’s game plan, but, again, this is the NFL. Obv we all watched Belichik install some of these concepts in NE, but that’s with Brady at the helm. Certainly a different ballgame without Brady running it.

      • EaglesTrolltheWorld

        Didn’t we gameplan against the no huddle at times last year where we would have subs ready to bolt in on the next play?

        • http://abigbuttandasmile.com/ A Big Butt and a Smile

          I’ve seen teams try that…and then I watch QBS run a play and get them for having too many men on the field.

  • B-West

    Seems like at some point, the defense is going to have to cheat the safeties up and leave Desean in a one on one. I think we already saw some of this on the Vick – Desean connection against New England. Desean is shooting up my fantasy draft board.

  • Brent E. Sulecki

    damn that’s cool.

  • http://abigbuttandasmile.com/ A Big Butt and a Smile

    Math. Good Ol’ simple math. I hated math in school, but I like it here. Funny thing is it makes it 10x easier for me to understand football defenses AND offenses. My football IQ has gone up 10 points since Kelly got here. lol

    • Derrick

      An IQ from 0 to 10.. good job – dope

      • Jeff

        R u 7? Why on earth would u respond like that?

  • Birdbrain77

    Sheil, once again, great write up. I don’t even bother reading the papers anymore because the football knowledge isn’t there. I can tell you and Tim really study up on the game.

  • Daniel Norman Richwine

    Wow that’s beautiful. I keep thinking the same thing with Chip: simple but brilliant.

  • ohitsdom

    Excellent play breakdown on the Harbor drop. Looking forward to the chess matches this year, love these kinds of wrinkles.

  • B-West

    Sheil, to paraphrase Andy Dufresne, you’ve come this far, maybe you’re willing to go a little bit farther. I would love to see how Stanford and LSU slowed this offense down. I guess it might be a matter of whether that game tape is available.

    • Dutch

      Superior athletes. Teams with individual players with range and speed to cover and make up ground, and as always those who can dominate the LOS

    • cliff henny

      the d-lines killed oregon’s o-line. remember, kelly pretty much was recruiting big TEs willing to become OL, he wasnt getting any 4+ star OL. that’s what makes the SEC the SEC, the d-line. if kelly got at least neutral in trnches, he threw up high 30′s. why he put so much emphasis on our line. let the defenses blitz, they have to get thru a good line. they dont, it’s 6 quick cause they’ll be spread wide open outside.

      • B-West

        5 on 5 in the box was the correct read, but a dominant D-line shuts that down? Makes sense.

        So, like any other year in any other offense, we need the offensive line to stay healthy and play well? The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    • eagle fan dwn south

      Its great dline play check out the auburn game as well but we will be OK if kelce don’t get push in the backfield because I believe in Todd and Evan just not Jason with strong dt

      • JofreyRice

        oh man, there was that one play where Kelce got moved about 5 yards backwards in 2 seconds by the NT–I think maybe Lotulelei? He had a tough time with those kind of guys as a rookie. I was hoping he’d add some more functional strength.

        It wasn’t all bad though, when he can get out on the move, he looks very good. he just isn’t going to be able to anchor against 320-340 pound guys. They have to figure out a way around that.

        • eagle fan dwn south

          I was hoping he could add strength as well but witha leg injury he was limited to the workouts to the lower body

        • Adam

          In the ZBS, the center rarely goes 1 on 1 with the NT and almost always has help from a guard. I’m not sure when Kelce would have had the time to find more functional strength coming off a major knee injury. More likely would have lost some.

          • JofreyRice

            I was really hoping he had added strength in his second season, the one where he got injured. Maybe whatever he added was lost while he was recovering, or maybe it was just one play. We’ll see.

    • AZ_Eaglesfan

      Turnovers. That is the only way that teams slowed that offense down in college. Stanford also stuffed the run extremely well, and if you can’t run the ball in this offense you are dead.

    • Anon

      Looking at the LSU game from 2011. They really didn’t slow it down, Oregon had 4 turnovers (1 for LSU). Offensively, Oregon had more total yards, first downs, etc. but lost the turnover battle.

  • Dutch

    As always good work Sheil. Your days in Philly are numbered. You know Fox is looking for talent to staff their new network 24 hour sports programming. If you’re not careful in six months you could be paired with McNabb

  • NickyPizzas

    This is NEXT LEVEL knowledge. LOVE this intricate breakdown with the screen caps. I am a visual learner and this is just fantastic.

  • Andy

    Huge contrast here between taking the advantage the defense gives you on each and every play and allowing players to make decisions on the field vs, for example, scripting out the first 15 plays of the game and running them regardless of what the defense does. Just a night and day difference.

    • cliff henny

      you mean 14…cause everyone in the world knew he was calling play action roll left deep to d-jax on 1st play.

  • djack10

    Never heard so many players talk so positively about a scheme in my life. I mean even the best ones, like the Bears 46 defense or the Niners west coast. The confidence the players have is electric. I also like hearing things like “we need to continue working”. No more of this dream team/gold standard garbage. It has Kelly’s fingerprints all over it.

  • AZ_Eaglesfan

    Basic football concepts all over the place in Kelly’s offense, that is why it is so refreshing. People have been calling Kelly revolutionary, when in actuality that guy is just a throw back. He has taken the exact same schemes that teams ran in the 90′s and simply modified it to more of a spread look, with an emphases on an up-tempo style.

    I LOVED his offense at Oregon. I studied the hell out of it because it fascinated me, but once you study it, the offense is about as vanilla as can be. The other team will know EXACTLY where the ball is going, but they won’t be able to stop it because this offense forces teams to play honest. It is a beautiful thing when done correctly, and I have a feeling it is going to stick in Philly.

    • Myke Lowery

      its a pick your poison or death by a thousand cuts type of deal. IMO only stopped by turnovers (or poor QB decisions), strong redzone defense (must be sound in their assignments), and creating long yardage situations.

  • Engwrite

    Great stuff

  • zbone95

    Brilliant. Thank you very much Sheil. What do all these plays have in common? No slow developing deep routes over and over again which puts qbs at risk and tough strain on the o-line to sustain blocks. Chip is our savior and the fact that everyone is buying in to this makes me believe we will succeed. But gotta work hard and the players know that.

  • cliff henny

    if tennent makes any block, there isnt a panther safety in pic , and only 1 guy somewhere way back there at least 15 yds. wouldnt suggest that defense with our A line, shady and vick playing

  • aub32

    No offense to Avant, but does anyone else think he should be blocking rather than receiving these screen passes. I hope more often than not we are throwing these screens to DJ1 and DJ2.

    • nicksaenz1

      More often than not, yes. But certainly won’t be upset at throwing to the guy with the surest hands on the team, especially in a 3rd down situation.

      • aub32

        Throw to, yes, just not necessarily on screen passes. Short patterns on 3rd and short, I’m all for hitting Avant, but I’d rather see someone a bit more dynamic in the screen game.

    • #7

      I’ve got no problem with Avant catching the passes. As long as he continues to get 1st downs I’m good

      • aub32

        I’m strictly referring to the screen game.

    • poetx99

      kinda. but then, you have desean run a stutter-go out of the same look, and he’s gone.

      as sheil mentioned, a lot of this is getting some stuff on tape for opponents to look at.

      before the season is over, you’ll see the TE angle out wide toward the block on the CB, and then head back inside on a quick slant while the bubble screen fake occupies his defender and it will be the easiest 12 yard pitch and catch.

      with desean, teams will have to permanently play 3 over 2 from the stack alignment, and that leaves the TE out there one on one with an LB and no safety over the top.

    • Adam

      A lot of this offense is about showing the same looks but not running the same plays. If you were to line up DJ1 or DJ2 in the slot instead of their usual spot outside it would become pretty obvious what they were doing. But if you leave Avant in slot it leaves you a lot less predictable because it’s business as usual. As a variation, Chip could have easily had DJax come in towards the QB and have Avant and Celek be the lead blockers.

  • http://abigbuttandasmile.com/ A Big Butt and a Smile

    I also see why Kelly puts such GREAT emphasis on versatility – wanting everyone to know how to block…even the little guys…makes perfect sense now looking at this breakdown.

  • Joel

    All this sleight of hand and misdirection is going to make defenses tentative. Avantage: Eagles.

  • Broadcasting Wisdom

    I love all the optimism, such a breath of fresh air. Doesn’t the offense look so pretty against pre-season vanilla defenses where the players aren’t shifting before or immediately after the snap? The cat and mouse game will be fascinating, as D-Coordinators set up with 6 in the box, baiting QB to throw the bubble screen, with one LB bailing for his life after the snap to go cover the anticipated slot receiver; or 5 in the box with the inside OLB lined up against the slot TE run blitzing unblocked to plug a gap. I only hope that Vick/Foles can make the split second decisions that will be required once the disguises come.