All-22: Diagnosing Passing Game Issues

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Chip Kelly thinks the Eagles are close – on offense, that is.

He sees minor tweaks, not dramatic changes – a penalty here, a drop there, a couple missed blocking assignments. Kelly calls them SIWs, or self-inflicted wounds. And they are holding the offense back from being one of the most explosive units in the league, he says.

The numbers, to a large degree, back up Kelly’s argument. The Eagles rank second in yards per game (458.8), and Football Outsiders has their offense ranked fifth (first in rushing, 15th in passing). The problem? The Eagles are 12th in scoring at 24.8 points per game.

The running game has been prolific. The Eagles are averaging 198.2 yards per game and 6.1 yards-per-carry. Both are tops in the NFL.

But the passing game has lacked consistency. Below is a look at what’s happening when Michael Vick drops back, along with some thoughts on what’s correctable and what’s not.

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The biggest question right now offensively is: Are guys getting open?

Against Denver, Vick dropped back to pass 36 times. He took off and ran seven times and was sacked on another three occasions. That means on 27.8 percent of his drop-backs, the ball never left his hand. On those occasions, generally one of three things happened:

1. Vick had nowhere to go with the football.
2. The offensive line had a breakdown in protection.
3. Vick failed to pull the trigger.

Let’s start with the first one. Here, in the first quarter, the Broncos were playing man coverage with a single high safety.

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But they only rushed four, meaning they had seven defenders in coverage against five Eagles receivers. Here, you can see the second safety, Duke Ihenacho, was a help defender. He was stationed close to DeSean Jackson and Brent Celek, looking to read Vick and make a play on the ball.

Jackson created separation, but Ihenacho was close by. Celek, Riley Cooper and Zach Ertz were all covered. LeSean McCoy was accounted for out of the backfield.

“Guys gotta take the pressure off DeSean,” Vick said. “We can’t rely on DeSean to make every play. We can’t rely on DeSean every game to catch a deep ball. This league is tough, and you’ve got smart defensive coordinators who game-plan for him. Other guys gotta step up and do their jobs and get open, and they will. I’m not worried about the man coverage and I’m not worried about the aspect of us not being able to be effective throughout the game versus the man coverage. That’s gonna happen. We’ve got ways to beat that.”

As always, what’s happening in coverage is connected to what’s happening up front. And it didn’t help that Todd Herremans had trouble in pass protection.

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Vick could have stepped up and waited to see if a receiver got open, but Kelly has no problem with him taking off in these situations. Here, Vick picked up 8 yards.

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There has been a lot of talk about Cooper’s role in this offense. He had two catches for 25 yards against Denver. For the most part, he has trouble getting open. That really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Cooper got significant playing time last year and wasn’t very productive. The team brought in Arrelious Benn this offseason to essentially compete for his job.

Right now, opponents are putting their No. 2 corner on Cooper and calling it a day.

“They’re not doing anything special,” Cooper said. “Single-high man, throwing in some two every now and then.”

Having said all that, there were a few instances last week where Cooper was open, and Vick didn’t find him. In the first quarter here, Cooper ran a dig route. He had man coverage, and the Broncos deployed one deep safety.

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You can see Cooper created some separation, and the cornerback slips. The safety was deep and not in position to break on the ball.

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Vick hung in the pocket (unofficially for 4.7 seconds). Protection was excellent. But he never saw Cooper and instead took off.

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There’s obviously a bit of a guessing game here. We don’t know what Vick’s progressions were on the play, and he was still able to pick up a first down with his legs, but it sure looked like he missed an open Cooper.

To be clear, this wasn’t happening consistently. I counted three times throughout the course of the game where it looked like Vick either ran or took a sack when it appeared he had Cooper open.

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As for Jackson, he has just five catches for 96 yards in the last two games. At times, defenses are using a help defender (as shown in the first play) or a safety over the top. At other times, opposing cornerbacks are doing a good job on him. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, for example, played really well against Jackson last week.

“I honestly don’t feel there’s no one man that can really stop me in this league,” Jackson said. “Teams are rolling safeties over and doing things like that so there’s just things we have to work on in our inner circle and figure it out. But I’m confident that Chip will do a great job and Pat [Shurmur] will put me in great positions to still be out there and be successful.”

One thing the Eagles are doing with Jackson is moving him around more. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s in the slot 29.5 percent of the time this year, as opposed to 17.3 percent in 2012.

Like the unbalanced line, moving Jackson around adds another element that defenses have to account for when the Eagles are going up-tempo. A cornerback may look up, not see Jackson where he usually is on the outside and be forced to adjust.

For example, in the first quarter, Jackson lined up in the slot against Rodgers-Cromartie, who as you might recall, had trouble playing inside when he was with the Eagles. Jackson ran a shallow crosser about 5 yards downfield.

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Once again, Denver was in man coverage.

Going forward, Vick will have to balance taking shots and trusting his receivers with avoiding mistakes and costly turnovers. Guys are not always going to be wide open, but there are times when he has to pull the trigger, rely on his arm and give them chances to make plays.

That’s what he did here. As you can see, Rodgers-Cromartie was all over Jackson. But Vick stepped up in the pocket and delivered a strike where only his receiver could catch it.

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Good concentration by Jackson as he made the grab, picked up yards after the catch and ended up with a 14-yard gain.

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And finally, there are missed opportunities because of issues up front. Here, Jackson ran a dig and was wide open.

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The cornerback slipped, and this should have been an easy pitch and catch. Jackson didn’t have this kind of space all day.

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But you might notice back at the line of scrimmage, Vick wasn’t exactly in position to throw the ball. That’s because of a mishap up front between Lane Johnson and Herremans.

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Defensive lineman Malik Jackson was one of four pass-rushers on the play.

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Things started out OK. Herremans had a hand on him, but was passing Jackson off to Johnson to account for the QB spy/delayed blitzer. The problem? Johnson thought he still had help from Herremans on the inside.

That, however, was not the case.

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Jason Kelce ended up picking the delayed blitzer. All of a sudden, the Eagles had two guys – Herremans and Johnson – blocking nobody. The Broncos were only rushing four, but got their defensive lineman unblocked with a clear path to the quarterback.

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Vick actually escaped the sack, eventually throwing incomplete to Jackson near the sideline.

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The good news for the Eagles after watching the film is that there are plays to be made to Jackson. Really, the way teams are defending him should be a good thing.

“The past five years, that’s what I’ve been praying for – people to play me man,” Jackson said. “In the past, everybody’s been playing zone and doing different things, two high safeties. So now that we have this offense that it is now and we’re getting more man coverage, that’s what I love.

“I don’t feel like teams are taking me out. I don’t feel like I’m being shut down or none of that. …At times it does get frustrating going through games and not really having the production or not being able to bring to the table what I’m able to bring to the table, but I still have to keep working and do what I need to do. And any opportunity presents itself, I just have to be ready for it.”

Jackson is averaging 18.7 yards per catch. Often, the difference between a sub-par game and a good came is a couple plays. Last week, he had a 19-yarder called back because of an Evan Mathis holding penalty. And there were a couple plays like the one shown above where protection broke down, and Vick couldn’t unload to Jackson when he was open.

“It’s obviously up to me to get the ball to him and find him in moments when I need him most,” Vick said. “So we’ll figure that out. We were just on the practice field talking about ways to get him the ball. But the one thing we don’t want to do, we don’t want to try to force it. We want to let it happen naturally. And it’ll happen.”

So, what’s fixable and what’s not? It’s unlikely that Cooper will suddenly start to get open more. And the Eagles are suffering from a lack of athleticism at the tight end and slot receiver spots. Jeremy Maclin’s absence has really been glaring the past two weeks.

There’s room for growth in the other two areas though. Vick was as accurate with the football as he’s been all season during the first half of the Broncos game. If he can sustain that level of play and trust his receivers a little more against man coverage, there are plays to be made.

And many of the offensive line woes are fixable too. Guys are going to get beat one-on-one. But the miscue above between Johnson and Herremans should be correctable, especially as the rookie gains more experience.

Once again, it’s all connected. And with a pair of 0-4 teams on the schedule in the next two weeks, now is the time to get everything to click.

“There’s maybe one play where, yeah, he [Vick] should have let it rip,” Kelly said. “But there’s other plays where we have to do a better job of getting open and other plays where we have to do a better job of protecting him. It’s a combination of the whole thing. There’s not one answer where you can come back and just say, ‘Hey, Mike, trust your receivers.’ [He’ll say] ‘But the three-technique is in my face.’ You know what I mean? There’s a lot of different things.

“I don’t think we are far away offensively. I look at what we have done consistently in four games. I think we know as a group we can move the football, but sometimes the enemy that we play isn’t the other team. It’s ourselves.”

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