No-22: The Eagles’ New-School Triple Option

Earlier this week, we looked at how the Eagles packaged the zone read with the bubble screen on several occasions against the Panthers.

The basic premise was simple: If the quarterback saw favorable numbers in the box, he went with the zone read. If he thought he had an advantage on the perimeter, he threw the screen. It was an either/or proposition.

But Chip Kelly and the Eagles ran a different play that actually combines the two. In other words, it’s a zone read and a bubble screen. Or essentially, a new-school triple option.

Take a look at this play from the Eagles’ first drive last week. It looks like a normal zone read. The Eagles leave the right defensive end unblocked. If he stays at home, Nick Foles hands the ball off. If the DE crashes inside, Foles takes off and runs.

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But as you can see, there’s a little more to it. On the back side, the Eagles have a bubble screen set up to Jason Avant. Foles has two decisions to make on this play. First, he has to choose whether to hand the ball off or keep it. On this particular play, the DE crashes, so Foles keeps it.

Decision two comes after he takes off. Foles can go ahead and run. But he can also sling it to Avant if the slot corner comes up to tackle him.

“Each play is something different,” said QB Dennis Dixon, who is very familiar with the options available in Kelly’s offense. “We’re reading somebody totally different each play. I can’t tell you the specifics of it, but we’re reading somebody in particular, yeah.”

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The slot corner comes up, and the outside corner is 10 yards away from Avant. So Foles passes the ball to the perimeter, creating an advantage for the offense.

The more common triple option allows the QB to hand the ball off, run it himself or pitch it to a second back. The first two options in this version are similar. But instead of a normal pitch, it’s a bubble screen to the perimeter for the third option.

There’s only one defender outside the numbers, and Riley Cooper’s blocking him.

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How hard is it for a defense to defend against so many options on one play?

“Hopefully it’s hard. It’s even harder on Riley trying to hold that block that long,” Avant said with a laugh. “The MVP of that play is Riley Cooper. Otherwise my head is rolled off somewhere. That’s what we’re trying to do, put as much pressure on the defense as we can.”

The truth is, if Cooper had been able to sustain a better block on the cornerback, and if the ball had gone to say DeSean Jackson instead of Avant, the Eagles would have had a chance to score on this play. Instead, it was a 6-yard gain.

Another factor to consider is where the QB is when he releases the ball. Is it meant to be a forward pass or a lateral?

“It can be both,” Foles said, not willing to offer up any more details.

Isn’t it a dangerous play if it’s a lateral? An off-target pass or a drop could result in a costly turnover.

“It’s something you’ve got to really work on in practice,” he added.

Dixon insinuated that the pass-option should only be taken if the outside cornerback’s playing far off the line of scrimmage.

“The quarterback has to be smart when he gets to that point,” Dixon said.

“It depends on how the defense is playing us. The quarterback has a lot of options. At the end of the day, we have to be able to have ball security. We just want to put it in our playmakers’ hands.”

Translation: If there’s any doubt, just keep the ball and run.

That’s what happened later in the quarter on the exact same play.

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Again, the right defensive end is left unblocked. He crashes inside, so Foles keeps it. He’s got Damaris Johnson setting up for the bubble screen with Cooper as the blocker.

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But this time, the slot corner sticks with the receiver. Foles makes the right call and keeps the ball, picking up 6 yards with his legs.

“If the quarterback chooses not to run the ball if somebody takes him, just to be an option for the quarterback,” Johnson said of his role on the play. “That’s it.”

And of course, the third option is to just hand the ball off. On Michael Vick’s first drive, the Eagles had three inside runs in a row, and each play had the three options built in.

The first one:

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The unblocked DE gravitates towards Vick. He hands the ball off to McCoy. And the Eagles also have the screen set up.

Play No. 2:

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Look familiar? Unblocked DE upfield towards Vick. He hands the ball off to McCoy. And they’ve got the screen set up on the perimeter.

And play No. 3:

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This time, Chris Polk comes in for McCoy. The unblocked DE isn’t upfield, but he froze for a second until he was sure Vick handed it off. And once again, the screen is set up to the bottom of the screen (TV angle cut off the blocker on the outside).

The Eagles had five run plays on Vick’s first possession. All five had the screen element built in.

This concept exemplifies some of the key aspects of Kelly’s offense. Because the Eagles were essentially using the same play over and over again, they could move at a fast pace. Option one is to run the ball if it’s there. But if it’s not, there are options. And the field is spread, forcing the defense to account for every square inch, sideline to sideline.

The play also shows the advantage of having a mobile quarterback. Defenders are forced to make decisions that could potentially lead to disastrous results.

As Evan Mathis put it: “There’s just a lot of opportunities for the quarterback to show their athleticism in this kind of offense. There’s a lot of choices for the quarterback. There’s some plays we run that are options, and if you have a quarterback with the speed that Michael Vick has, then some of those plays can end up being pretty dangerous.”

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