All-22: Eagles Add Zone-Read Wrinkle

sift2b_all22_400Asked after the bye whether LeSean McCoy had been encountering too much traffic in the backfield, Chip Kelly offered a brief response.

“I don’t think any running back likes to deal with defenders in the backfield too much, but I don’t see that occurring at a high rate,” he said.

The Eagles’ head coach prefers sometimes to not show his hand. The previous week, McCoy had been dropped for a loss five times against the Redskins. He had to deal with a defender in the backfield on 12 of 20 occasions, oftentimes spinning out of trouble and picking up positive yardage.

But that model didn’t seem sustainable. Part of the problem had to do with the Eagles’ zone read. Teams were using their unblocked defenders to crash down on McCoy. If Nick Foles kept the ball, so be it. They would live with the 5- or 6-yard gain and an opportunity to hit the QB.

The bye week provides an opportunity for self-scouting. And against the Cardinals, the Eagles showed some wrinkles in the running game that better fit the offense with Foles as the signal-caller. By my count, they only used the true zone read seven times. And they employed some different tactics like using a tight end to account for the unblocked defender.

“We adjust to things that give us problems,” said guard Evan Mathis. “And we also adjust to the opponent we’re gonna see. Some teams were putting an extra guy in the box. And some teams were putting an extra guy in the box and crashing that end down. That might have been the reason for the play where the tight end kicks that end out. It takes care of that.”

For example, here’s a fourth-quarter run play to McCoy. The Eagles are going to leave edge defender John Abraham momentarily unblocked. But Brent Celek comes across the formation to ensure Abraham can’t just crash down on McCoy.


“Sometimes when that defensive end is curling around the edge from the backside, it’s nice to come back and take care of him,” Celek said. “And that’s just what we were doing on that play. As defensive ends, it’s tough when you’ve got a guy coming back either hitting you high or cutting you. So it’s a hard play for them to defend.”


You can see as Foles is handing the ball off that Abraham now has something new to worry about. He’s no longer free to just zero in on McCoy.

“It depends on how certain teams play the zone, play the read-option and things like that,” Mathis said. “If you see a team that crashes that end a lot, then that end can create a problem. So to keep them from being a problem, you can kick ‘em out with a tight end like that.

“It’s still one of our standard zone plays where you just change one man in the blocking scheme.”


Celek, who had an outstanding game as a blocker, takes Abraham out. The Eagles don’t call it a “wham” block, but rather a “wind” block or a “sift” block, according to James Casey.

Lane Johnson and Mathis get out in front. And the Eagles pick up 7 yards.


“That’s just something you do when the backside edge is coming like that,” Celek said. “Instead of reading him, sometimes you do that.”

Added Jason Kelce: “I think that’s one of the ways we’ve been using to neutralize that [ends crashing on McCoy] because that really seemed to be through the last three or four games what teams had been moving to.”

By my count, the Eagles used the sift block on run plays six times Sunday. It was far from a resounding success (21 yards total), but it’s another wrinkle that could discourage opponents from simply going after McCoy on the zone-read runs.

“That’s something new we’ve started doing recently,” Casey said. “As the season progresses, you can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over and over. You want to get really good at your base plays, but then you’ve gotta have a little bit of different looks off of the same thing. And that’s just one more thing we can do that gives them another look that they’ve gotta prepare for throughout the week. And hopefully it’ll create some lanes for us down the road. We had a couple plays during the game that I think were pretty close to breaking out.”

The other factor is that the tight end motioning can create indecision for the edge defender or a linebacker if the defense is in man coverage. The Eagles showed a similar look as the one shown above on several occasions, but instead of a run play, they went with play-action.

Foles starts under center on this second-quarter play.


Once again, Abraham is initially the unblocked defender. This time, though, Celek is going to cross the formation and stay in for pass protection.


Normally, you wouldn’t want your tight end blocking the opposing team’s leading sack guy one-on-one. But the play-fake creates some hesitancy on Abraham’s part, and Celek is able to keep him away from Foles long enough for the quarterback to connect with Jason Avant on a 20-yard gain.


Another option here is for the tight end to go out into a pass route. In fact, that’s what the Eagles did on their first offensive play of the game.


The Eagles leave outside linebacker Matt Shaughnessy unblocked. Celek takes off behind the offensive linemen, runs right past Shaughnessy and leaks into the flat.


Foles rolls out to his left and creates space with which to locate his receivers. Shaughnessy is left unblocked the entire time, but he bites on the play-fake and doesn’t immediately go after Foles.


The Cardinals had good coverage on this play, and Foles checked it down to Celek for a 3-yard gain. But again, something defenses will have to account for.

“A lot of times when teams are playing man coverage and you send a guy across the formation like that, it makes the linebackers kind of hold for a second because you have the threat or you might run into the flat,” Casey said. “And it might be a bootleg pass play. And also if you have a man-coverage guy running with you, he can kind of run across so it bumps a linebacker out of the box and then you can run it the other way.”

One final option that the Eagles didn’t show Sunday is for the QB to keep the ball as he would on a normal zone-read play. But the presence of the tight end can add a lead blocker.

“When that backside guy that usually the quarterback holds, when he’s doing the read-option stuff, if you send a guy back across, you don’t have to worry about the quarterback holding that guy,” Casey said.

“And if he crashes down too hard, you can always bend it back around him. So you’ve got multiple options. You can bend it back around the guy backside, or you can just seal him off and just keep the play front side. And it’s one more thing they’ve gotta worry about. And it’s one more thing that outside edge player, he’s gonna come unblocked. But then there could be a guy coming back and cracking him. Or he could just be coming free and he’s gotta read the quarterback. So he’s got a lot to think about.”

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  • mtn_green

    2011 shady’s big TD year the TE would seal the backside and shady would follow Jason Peters into endzone. Think AR called it a “wham” block.

    • pjcostello

      Yes… the ‘wham’ block is a widely-used play. :-)

  • Pennguino

    Maybe they will break out the fake bubble screen against Dallas. Have the receivers setup as a screen to the outside and then just have both blocking receivers initially setup to block and then release after the pump fake. Would love to have Desean as a blocker so his speed would kill. Might have to run a few true WR screens to set it up.

  • JofreyRice

    So, I didn’t want to focus on the negative by talking about the botched Wildcat play, but I’m not sure I understand what the point of it is.

    Mike Vick is surely a better thrower, and probably at least as good a runner, as Brad Smith (or whatever, is that his name?). If you’re want to give the opposing defense a real dual-threat down there to worry about, I’m not sure why you’d opt to have Smith out on the field over Vick, with Foles split wide, rather than just having a package for Vick, and replacing Foles with a better athlete, split wide.

    • Beav

      Because they probably didn’t want Vick to get hurt.

    • djack10

      I think we’ll see it this season. they don’t want to mess with vick’s leg yet.

    • Spooonius

      I read somewhere that CK said Smith was able to practice more during the bye week. Honestly though, I’d rather not see it at all. Play in the red zone seems to be improving, and I don’t think changing personnel helps. Just my 2 cents.

      • anon

        Thats what he said. I think it was BS. I think it’s worth trying — didn’t cost us anything. Wouldn’t be surprised if we saw it again. I think Kelly likes to use manipulation / trickery in the red zone.

    • GEAGLE

      .Barkley wasn’t active, it was better to go with Brad then risk one of your two QBs…

    • Token

      Just flat out never do it again. You leave the football in your QBs hands. I hate those plays. Especially there, they were rolling. Totally killed the momentum.

      • Adam

        Agreed. I have faith that Chip will learn from that, unlike Andy and Marty would would try it 8 more times before the game was out.

    • OldDocRoss

      Apologies for the massively late reply, but I suspect they went with Smith over Vick because it was part of the packaged plays concept. If it fails you can stick Smith wide bring Foles back to QB and not give the D a chance to get subs in.

      Use Vick and on the next play you’re stuck with 2 QBs on the park, or you give Arizona a chance to sub.

    • Clamdigger

      Obviously they want Vick healthy to be a lead blocker down the stretch. He was killing it in the first Washington game.

  • anon

    Mariota staying in Oregon

    • GEAGLE

      Irrelevant to me….this is the Rainmakers city

      • Brian

        It’s NickFolean Dynamite! ‘Rainmaker’ sounds too much like a Stephen King Book.

    • Dustan M. Howell

      So if Foles’s good fortune doesn’t last, Chip will still have a chance to reunite with Mariota in the 2015 draft.

      Excellent !

    • Andy124

      How the heck does this post get a down-vote?

      Taking the opportunity to point out that none of the down-votes you got today over here or over there where we were disagreeing (strongly) came from me. Not that you care, just that the anonymity leaves doubt, and I dislike doubt.

      • G_WallyHunter

        somebody’s downvote trolling

        • Andy124

          down-vote because I’ve had a lot to drink in the middle of the week. :)

          • G_WallyHunter

            buzzed birds scrollin I c, something I do often as well

          • MildEagsFan

            Seek help.

    • nicksaenz1

      I’m just spit-balling ideas here, but do you think it’s possible that Mariota didn’t come out knowing that the Eagles wouldn’t be able to draft him because of record (unwillingness/inability to move up high enough) and because of Foles’ play? He certainly had the opportunity to be the top QB and a likely top 5 pick, so it seems strange to me that he would go back, only to come out next year and likely be behind Winston. Again, I’m spit-balling, knowing that this is quite the stretch.

      • anon

        man please. He stayed in b/c he’s been playing like a** and they’re losing games. While he could get drafted in the first round his stock is way down so he staying in which is a good idea.

        • nicksaenz1

          No disagreement. Stock is down now but only a little, IMO. Nothing that can’t be made up in the combine where people would have been drooling over is size, athleticism and arm. But, I hear ya. Losing always hurts the resume.

  • Hobes

    “And if he crashes down too hard, you can always bend it back around him. So you’ve got multiple options. You can bend it back around the guy backside, or you can just seal him off and just keep the play front side. And it’s one more thing they’ve gotta worry about.”

    Is it just me, or does that sound really gross?

    • DirtyWaters

      I thought the same thing, just refrained from mentioning it. Thanks for being that guy.


    SK: awesome work as always brother. You can’t ever do enough of these!

    As for the new wrinkles…child’s play in the grand scheme of things. We are still probably in the novice section of the Chip Kelly war book. Who knows what crazy stuff building off this stuff we will be seeing 365 days from now,,, Our players probably have only seen about 20% of what Chip has in store for the NFL..

    Exciting times, and Chip will DEFINTELY keep Kapadia busy
    I’m assuming the All22 for the TEs breakout performance is on the way..,The Fake Toss to shady, only to hit Ertz rolling to the opposite corner of the ENDZONE was Lovely as was the seem route to Ertz..Kelly talked about how fun it is to see things start to slow down for Ertz and that he is making plays now, that he was missing in September…Said Ertz made that play in practice on Thursday…nice to see it carry over into the game


    ACcording to Footballoutsiders:
    From week 9-13, the FOles era, The eagles have been the top team in the NFL ranked:
    1st in offense
    15th in Defense
    3rd in ST

    • DirtyWaters

      Coincidently, in that same time period, my wife’s “accidents” have decreased 37%.

      • Andy124


  • nicksaenz1

    Obviously, I like that Kelly made some adjustments to the run game, just wish they would have generated a little more production from them. I don’t, however, care for the reluctance to implement much power running. Use this alleged Swiss Army knife named Casey and let him lead block for Shady, at least toward the end of the game.

  • roman candle

    I thought the genius of the zone read is that the QB accounts for the unblocked defender and creates a mismatch in numbers. If the TE comes across to block that guy, he’s not available to block playside. Calling this a variation on zone read seems like spin to me.

    • southy

      That’s what I was thinking too. But I think the point of this wrinkle is that since the DE isn’t being frozen by the QB you don’t have that numbers advantage anymore anyway. What it does do is give you another option on the back side, so QB run OR pass to the TE, and the DE now has to look out for the TE either blocking or running a route or not coming at all, which should make him less likely to crash down without hesitation.

      AND in theory the DE could crash, Celek could run right by him, and now you have Foles out the back door with a lead blocker.

  • Scott J

    Is Polk injured? Bryce Brown has done nothing this year to deserve being the 2nd RB. I would love to see Chris Polk pound the ball, especially at the end of the game.

  • Andy

    Excellent analysis and great quotes from the players, too. These players must love getting some informed questions from a journalist for a change, and it is clear they are willing to open up because they see that you understand what’s going on on the field. Kudos as always to Sheil.