Through four games, Jason Kelce had established himself as one of the Eagles’ most reliable offensive linemen.
He showed no ill effects from the knee injury that sidelined him for the final 14 weeks of 2012. He did a good job of setting protections, held his own against interior pass-rushers and excelled in the run game, often showing off his athleticism at the second and third levels.
So it might come as a bit of a surprise to learn that Kelce's play was the biggest factor in the run-game struggles Sunday vs. the Giants.
"The biggest flaw in the second half was myself and the nose guard," Kelce said. "I really don’t think it correlated to [Michael] Vick or [Nick] Foles being in the game."
LeSean McCoy entered the game averaging 6.0 YPC. But on Sunday, he gained just 46 yards on 20 carries (2.3 YPC). With Vick in the game, the Eagles gained 81 yards on 20 run plays (4.1 YPC). With Foles, they gained just 14 yards on 13 attempts (1.1 YPC).
So what happened to the run game that looked unstoppable through the first four games of the season? The Giants kept Kelce off-balance and took away one of the Eagles' most productive plays.
Before Sunday, the Eagles were averaging north of 6.0 YPC on the inside zone read. At Oregon, Chip Kelly called this his team's "go to work play." And that has been the case so far in the NFL as well.
The Giants were well aware of that and went into the Week 5 matchup with the focus on stopping the play.
"Their whole game-plan was really to stop that play, or at least that’s what it felt like out there," Kelce said. "When there’s a 1-technique to the side of the play, that singles up me a little bit as the center."
Here's an example of what he's talking about during a first-quarter play.
Justin Tuck is set up as the 1-technique (in between the center and guard). Vick reads the backside defensive end, which in this case is Jason Pierre-Paul (No. 90). He's going to hand the ball off to McCoy, who runs to the right and looks for a crease.
"Generally speaking, what my goal is on that play is to get my head front-side so that they have to have that gap integrity," Kelce said. "They have to stay in that A-Gap [between the guard and center]. Otherwise they get yelled at by the coaches."
Here's what he means.
Kelce was called for a penalty here, but he got to where he wanted to be.
For much of the game, though, the Giants' defensive tackles were not as cooperative.
"When he was first lined up as the 1-technique, he would jet up the field," Kelce said. "So now, what I have to do is get over a little bit more to stop him. And then once I started doing that, that’s when you see the slanting and angling across my face."
Kelce was talking about Mike Patterson specifically, but the overall conversation was about all of the Giants' defensive tackles. On this second-quarter play, Shaun Rogers did not move laterally at all. Instead, he fired upfield through the A-Gap as soon as the ball was snapped.
Rogers disrupted the play in the backfield and stuffed McCoy for no gain.
And once the Giants got Kelce worrying about that, they started slanting behind him. That's the move that really hurt the Eagles, as Patterson disrupted plays all game long.
Here, you'll see Kelce wants to protect himself against Patterson shooting into the backfield in the A-Gap between him and Herremans.
But instead, Patterson is going to cross Kelce's face, use a swim move and penetrate the backfield through the backside A-Gap between the center and Evan Mathis. Kelce said the Eagles refer to this technique as a "nut stunt."
"What they were doing is either they were jetting upfield, which in turn made me commit more front side because I didn’t want to allow penetration," Kelce said. "Then what they were doing, once they started doing that is slanting the nose behind me where I don’t have any help on the play. So part of it is I’ve obviously gotta do a much better job of redirecting and adjusting as the game goes on to what they’re giving me. And it was a good scheme by them. I’ve gotta be able to adjust better throughout the game."
Patterson, who timed the snap count brilliantly and showed he's got some quickness, dropped McCoy for a 6-yard loss.
"I can’t take such a big second step when teams are doing that," Kelce said. "I really have to have quicker feet and I have to have a vertical approach, rather than lateral."
Asked if he expects other teams to do the same thing, Kelce said: "Absolutely. I mean, I know if I was a defensive coordinator and I saw what happened on film against the Giants, I would definitely try to replicate it. So it’s good that it happened that early in the season and we got a victory out of it because now we can correct it, and moving forward if some team is trying to do it in a game, I’ll have answers for it."
The Redskins and Chargers both tried to do the same thing at times against the Eagles. But the technique requires a quick defensive lineman, or one who is timing the snap count well. It also leaves the defense vulnerable if the lineman doesn't get to the ball-carrier.
"It’s a huge hole," Kelce said. "They’re kind of going for broke on it. That was, I think, their play that they wanted to stop. They knew we had tremendous success running that play up until that point. And they really wanted to stop that play in particular."
The Eagles only ran the ball 13 out of 40 times with Foles in the game
While the Eagles will likely have to make run-game adjustments (more on that in a later post) if Foles starts Sunday, Kelce was adamant that the problems vs. the Giants had nothing to do with the quarterback and everything to do with him having a tough day at the office.
"I think that was the correlation," he said. "I don’t think that there’s anything else. ...The biggest flaw in the second half was myself and the nose guard."