All last week, Chip Kelly and his staff made one thing clear: The offense would not undergo a complete makeover with Nick Foles at quarterback instead of Michael Vick.
His argument didn’t seem all that convincing. After all, the two quarterbacks have different skill sets. Why not mold the offense to whichever guy was going to be on the field?
On Sunday, against the Bucs, we got a better idea of what Kelly meant. And for the most part, he was speaking the truth.
“We’d have played the game exactly the same way,” said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. “We would have had all the same plays in the gameplan, and we would have called it exactly the same way with Mike.”
Several players backed up Shurmur’s words. The Eagles piled up 425 yards and scored 31 points in their victory over the Bucs. Foles completed 71 percent of his passes and averaged 9.5 yards per attempt, accounting for four touchdowns.
Without a quarterback who poses a true running threat and facing a defense that liked to employ a lot of zone, the Eagles still found ways to play option football and had success with packaged plays all day long at Raymond James Stadium.
As a teenage athlete at Paradise High School in California, Jeff Maehl played in an offense that employed the Wing-T, a system he said generally offered four options: run, run, run and run.
Maehl was recruited to Oregon as a safety, but eventually switched over to wide receiver. He’s only played 52 snaps on offense through six games, but has a unique perspective on Kelly’s scheme. The key to Sunday’s gameplan was that the Bucs played a lot of zone coverage, and the Eagles were able to put defenders in conflicting situations. It was Foles’ job to read key defenders and give his teammates opportunities to take advantage.
“For a defensive player, you look at it and you’re like, ‘Holy crap. There’s a lot of stuff going on.’ ” Maehl explained. “When really it’s our base stuff that we’re running. It’s kind of cool to be on the offensive side of the ball and to know that they think that it’s a super-complex deal when really we’re just running our stuff.”
What exactly is Maehl talking about? Let’s take a look at one sequence in the second quarter.
The offense has a 1st-and-10 at the Tampa 31. Foles lines up under center with two receivers to the left and one to the right. Zach Ertz is the H-Back.
Foles has three options on this play. He can throw the screen to DeSean Jackson. He can throw the screen to Maehl. Or he can hand the ball off to Bryce Brown.
The key is going to be the safety inching up. He becomes the seventh man in the box. That leaves Jackson one-on-one with Darrelle Revis, who is playing 9 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Foles takes the snap, turns to his right and fires to Jackson. That sets up a one-on-one in space for one of the offense’s best playmakers. On this particular play, Jackson picked up 4. But that didn’t deter Kelly from coming back to the exact same play call on the very next snap.
Jackson was shoved out of bounds, tossed the ball to the official, looked to the sideline for the play and lined up in the exact same spot, as did everyone else.
This time, there’s a deep safety who can help on Jackson. On the left side, though, the defensive back inches up and will attack the line of scrimmage. That gives the Eagles a 2-on-2 matchup, and both defenders are playing 8+ yards off the receivers.
This time, Foles tosses it to Maehl, and he picks up 5 yards. The exact same play run twice in a row gave the Eagles a 3rd-and-1.
“It makes it tough, especially with a team like Tampa that likes to play a lot of zone,” Maehl said. “It’s a good thing for us on the perimeter when we can get numbers out there. If they have a guy that comes in on the quarterback, then we can throw it out there. So we’re constantly just looking out there at the numbers game. If we can get an easy throw and get a quick 5, 6 yards, then it’s as good as a run play. So the coaches do a good job of putting us in the right situations when defenses give us that.”
There are a couple other key elements at work. One is tempo. From the time the whistle blew on the first play to the time the Eagles were snapping the ball on the second play, about 20 seconds (real time) elapsed.
“You’re compounding the fact that guys are seeing all these different reads, they don’t know where the ball’s going, they’re trying to get the play, and all of a sudden, they feel that rush to get lined up,” Jason Kelce said, speaking of defenses in general, not the Bucs specifically. “That’s when you can kind of sense it. It’s kind of like a sense of panic on that side.”
Take note that the offensive line blocks run all the way on these plays. The quarterback can choose to throw the quick screen, but his decision has no effect on the blocking scheme.
“A lot of the times when we get the play call, we have no idea whether the quarterback’s gonna be able to throw it or not,” Kelce said.
The Eagles actually ran the same play a third time, and Brown carried for 2 yards. Overall, on the eight-play scoring drive, the Eagles ran the same play on three different occasions. None was a huge gainer, but you can see the way they used the concept.
“I think all play-callers will run the same play if they have success,” Shurmur said. “Sometimes developing a tendency is a good thing. That means you’re good at stuff. I’ve heard that said once before, you know, but then of course you’ve got to be able to make it look like one thing and do another, as well.”
Added Maehl: “We have three, four options of when we can throw it out there, give it, keep it. So this offense as a whole, having all those options, we really don’t have to run a bunch of different plays. A lot of it’s gonna look the same, and we’re just gonna take what the defense gives us.”
For a split-second on one play during the Eagles’ first drive, Kelce thought McCoy was about to run past him for a big gain. The next moment, he was lamenting giving up a hit on the quarterback.
This is a play we’ve seen the Eagles run several times through six games. It combines an outside zone run with a screen to the other side and a pop pass to the tight end down the seam. The defender Foles is reading is the inside linebacker.
If he creeps up to the line of scrimmage, the pop pass to Ertz should be there.
Foles was a little hesitant on this play. It looked like he had an opening to fire the ball to Ertz, but he instead waited for the rookie to clear the linebacker, who recovered and dropped back into coverage after initially inching up.
At this point in the play (image below), Kelce thinks the Eagles have it blocked up pretty nicely for a McCoy run.
“Right when the D-Linemen went to the left, I was like, ‘Oh, yes!’ because I thought the running back was gonna run wide-open outside,” Kelce said. “And then I saw Foles throw the ball, and I was like, ‘This is gonna be bad.’ ”
Not bad because the play wasn’t going to work. Bad because the guy Kelce was blocking saw the play develop, switched directions and ended up hitting Foles.
Watching live, this might have looked like a breakdown in protection – both from Kelce and Jason Peters. But really, the linemen all completed their assignments on this play.
“There are some plays where we’re blocking for the run, and then he’ll pull it and we won’t know that it’s gonna be thrown,” Kelce said.
The point once again: The power is in the hands of the quarterback on every run-pass option play. The receivers and running backs are left in the dark until the play develops.
“You just gotta be alert,” Brown said. “You could get the ball, he could pass it. You’ve just gotta be alert of what he decides to do. You try to get a pre-snap read sometimes, but sometimes it don’t work that way.”
Added Ertz: “Just being decisive by the quarterback, making those fast decisions is the big thing. The receivers, we always have to expect to get the ball. The running back always has to expect to get the ball. And then Nick and Mike just do a great job of making the right decisions.”
With 10:23 left in the game, the Eagles clung to a one-point lead. That’s when Kelly called on a play the offense had used in the second quarter: a run-pass option that combines an outside run with two receivers running hitches.
On this occasion in the second, Foles hands the ball off to McCoy who picks up 2 yards.
In the fourth, the Eagles went back to the same concept.
This time, Foles catches the Bucs blitzing the safety to Cooper’s side. Many of the Eagles’ plays are set up to give their skill-position players one-on-one matchups. That’s exactly what happens here.
“It was a run play, and I had a hitch on the back side,” Cooper said. “And Foles just threw it to me, and he kind of led me inside so I kind of took it that way. I saw the defender kind of screaming down hard inside so I just brought it back out.”
Cooper broke a pair of tackles en route to a 44-yard gain. The Eagles scored on a 36-yard TD to Jackson on the next play.
“I think Nick did a tremendous job,” said guard Evan Mathis. “If you look at some of the plays that were the run-pass option, they might have been bringing a blitz right into the run or had one more than we could block. Nick recognized that immediately and got it out to the receiver for some good plays. He made some tremendous decisions in this game.”
Against teams that are playing zone, the packaged plays present conflicts to defenders. Those issues don’t exist when a team is playing man coverage, which is why we didn’t see many of these same concepts in previous weeks.
The calls would have been the same with Vick in the game, but with so much power in the hands of the quarterbacks, the actual plays might have looked different.
“I still think it’s the same plays,” Kelce said. “But I think that there’s different things… maybe a couple of those since Mike likes to run the ball, he runs it. Or Nick likes to throw it, so he gets it outside. It’s all about taking advantage of numbers, and I think it’s still pretty much the same play-calls.
“On a lot of our runs, the quarterback has the option, and no two guys are gonna be the same. And obviously Vick has a different skill set than Nick does.”
All signs point towards Foles starting Sunday against the Cowboys, while Vick’s hamstring continues to heal. After that, Kelly will likely have a decision to make.
And while defenses will continue to present new wrinkles, the overall offensive scheme is unlikely to change drastically regardless of who the quarterback is.
“That’s the beauty of our offense,” Brown said. “You’ve got a lot of opportunities, a lot of choices you can make. And it’s just about us doing our thing and making the right ones.”