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Back in 2009, Chip Kelly was speaking at a coaches clinic about Oregon’s zone-read game, and he said something that applies to this weekend’s matchup with the Bucs.
“This may sound like a contradiction, but we do not read anything,” Kelly said. “When you read, you become uncertain. We want the ball in the running back’s hands. We do not want the quarterback carrying the ball. The option can put the ball in his hands, but the defense can force it out of his hands. We want the quarterback to give the ball unless he cannot.
"If the running back is continually getting tackled by the defensive end, the quarterback should be pulling the ball."
Through four-and-a-half games, Michael Vick kept the ball on read-option plays eight times. But he made defenses pay when they didn't account for him, picking up 122 yards (15.3 YPC).
Keeping that in mind, the big question this week is: How will the run game change if Nick Foles is the quarterback?
The company line at the NovaCare Complex this week has been that it won't. Coaches and players maintain that the run plays will remain the same and say that Foles is capable of taking advantage if defenses don't honor the threat of him running the ball. We already broke down the main issue with the Eagles' running game last week in an earlier post. It had more to do with Jason Kelce and the Giants' interior linemen than anything else.
But let's look at how things work with Vick, compared to Foles.
One of the major principles of the Eagles' run game is that the quarterback often accounts for an unblocked defender. This isn't something they run occasionally. It is their bread and butter and a concept they've had success with all season long.
Here, they leave Jason Pierre-Paul unblocked.
Pierre-Paul stays outside, Jason Peters gets up on the linebacker, and McCoy has a nice lane for a 7-yard gain.
Vick carries out his fake, and Pierre-Paul is completely out of the play.
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The issue arises when the defense says to the QB: Go ahead and keep the ball. We're stopping McCoy.
"Some teams would want the quarterback to run the ball," Jason Kelce said. "It depends on what you’re trying to get to. A lot of teams, what they’ll do is they’ll crash the end because they want the quarterback to keep the ball every single time."
For example, here Mathias Kiwanuka is left unblocked. But he's just going to tackle McCoy and pay no mind to who has the ball.
The linebacker "scrapes" down behind Kiwanuka. If Vick hands it off, McCoy is tackled for a loss. If Vick keeps it, the linebacker is waiting for him.
On this particular play, because of Vick's athleticism and Peters' ability to adjust, the offense still picked up 4 yards. The Giants geared up to stop the run and had the right call on, but the Eagles were still able to gain positive yards.
"I think it’s definitely a different threat when Mike’s at quarterback from the ability to run the ball," McCoy said. "I mean, that’s obvious. And Nick is still a good quarterback for sure, but I think there’s a difference. As a defense, if I had to pick a guy to stop as a running threat, obviously it would be Mike. In that sense, yeah, I think it changes, but we still run the same plays."
In the preseason and against the Giants, the Eagles did use the same run plays, or at least what appeared to be the same run plays when Foles was in the game.
Here's a read play from Sunday when the Eagles were in the red zone. The Giants use the same scrape technique we showed in the previous play.
Pierre-Paul is left unblocked. He'll crash in on McCoy, while the linebacker fills in behind him.
Pierre-Paul runs right past Foles, who still has the ball. My favorite part of this play was that the camera person seemed to believe there was no way Foles was keeping the ball.
Where's the ball? Where's Foles? Hello? You awake up there?
And finally, the camera person catches up. Foles made the right read. He's not going to average 15+ yards per carry. But he got 3 on this play.
"I don’t think it really changes much," Todd Herremans said. "We’re still running the same plays in practice. We still have the option to read with Nick. He’s not a big stiff board in the backfield or anything like that. You just need enough to keep the defense honest so that they can’t just crash everybody off the back side."
But what if they do crash the end down on McCoy consistently, forcing Foles to keep it?
"If he does and we're able to get 5 yards a pop, then that’d be fine. Two runs, we’ll have a first down."
I asked McCoy the same question.
"A lot of the zone reads are not all just reads," he said. "They're not all just the quarterback can keep it. Just how a defense can draw up things to get certain matchups where they want to have Nick try and get the ball and keep it out of my hands, as an offense, we have the same thing. We can draw up things. It’s just a chess match. They make a play, they make a stunt. We do the same thing. We’ve got our ways of adjusting to that."
And that really is the key this week. At Oregon, Kelly built a reputation for being able to adjust his offensive scheme on the fly. He saw the Giants keep Kelce off-balance and limit the Eagles' run game last week. And he knows Foles does not pose the same threat as Vick as a runner.
This week, he'll have to show he's prepared with a Plan B if the Bucs do the same thing as the Giants. The guess here is we'll still see some zone reads, especially early in the game, but more than likely, Kelly will add some new wrinkles.
"I think Nick can still be effective running those plays," Evan Mathis said. "There’s obviously multiple options for us on plays. If they’re taking one away and leaving one open, then that’s what you have to go with."