Zone Read: Eagles-Lions, the Day After

NFL: Detroit Lions at Philadelphia Eagles

Chip Kelly and his coaching staff worked all week on a special gameplan to neutralize the aggressiveness of the Detroit Lions’ defensive front.

Screens, draws, read-plays that would have left linemen unblocked. Those were all part of the plan as of Sunday morning.

“We had a lot of plays in the gameplan to attack their scheme and attack a lot of their explosion and things like that,” said center Jason Kelce. “I was excited to run them coming into the game because I thought they were awesome. But the weather really took them out of their typical way that they played football because they couldn’t get their footing, they couldn’t get upfield as fast.

“I think the coaches got to some more downhill stuff and some more vanilla stuff where we could just kind of get together and get double teams and get moving vertically.”

The word vanilla has been used in the past as a jab at Kelly’s offense. On Sunday, vanilla was what saved the Eagles.

The Lions like to set up in the Wide-9, fire off the ball and attack the quarterback. But the snow naturally slowed their ability to do those things. That meant the Eagles had to adjust. Kelly scrapped the original gameplan and went back to basics – inside zone runs that challenged his offensive linemen to win their battles up front.

“We’ve been trying to preach here just hitting things downhill,” Kelly said. “It was very tough, especially with this defense to go lateral. We learned that with the weather it was very difficult to go lateral and we felt like we had to get a downhill game going.”

In other words, they noticed what was working (and what wasn’t) and just went with it.

“Early on, we were trying some stuff that was more lateral, more outside, but it was really hard for everybody to get their footing I think,” said guard Evan Mathis. “It was just kind of awkward running those plays. So we just brought it back inside. It allows everybody for the most part to keep their footing, keep their base up underneath them and just use your power and drive ‘em and control the line of scrimmage.”

And that’s exactly what the Eagles did to finish the game. In the fourth quarter, they had 23 offensive plays – 19 runs and four passes (not counting kneel-downs). On the runs, they totaled 226 yards, averaging 11.9 yards per carry. In the final 15 minutes, the Eagles had five runs of 20+ yards: three by LeSean McCoy, one by Chris Polk and one scramble by Nick Foles.

While McCoy will grab many of the headlines today (and rightfully so), the offensive line deserves credit as well. The Lions entered the game with the second-best run defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. All week, Eagles linemen were asked about defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh. The weather obviously played a factor in slowing those guys down, but Kelce, Mathis and Todd Herremans did their part to control the interior down the stretch.

“Obviously they’re gonna be different players in the dome than they would be in that snow,” Herremans said. “But so are we. I think it just kind of became a shoving match up front to a point. Our backs did a really good job of setting up the blocks, making a good cut and just getting north.”

Added Kelce: “If our team was gonna be successful, it really came down to us three getting the job done against those two. Those two are pretty much the heart and soul of that defense. …So for us, I think naturally all three of us put a little bit more pressure on us to get the job done and we felt like going into the game, as long as us three took care of those two that we’d be able to be effective offensively.”

And Kelly: “I just know they weren’t as disruptive as they’ve been during the year, and I know going in that was one of the big challenges because Detroit was so stout from a run standpoint. …Obviously that was a big matchup we knew going in, and I thought Todd, Jason and Evan did a real good job of that.”

The Eagles at one point scored touchdowns on five straight drives in the second half before Foles knelt down a couple times to end the game.

Many will debate today about what the ceiling is for this football team. The Eagles have averaged 31.6 points during their five-game winning streak. Each week has presented a new challenge, and each week the team has answered the call. An under-the-radar factor has been offensive line continuity. The Eagles have started the same five guys up front in all 13 games.

With just three tests remaining to determine whether this is a playoff team or not, the guys up front feel good about where they’re at.

“Any time a unit’s together as long as we’ve been together all year through training camp, you’re gonna get to jelling at some point unless you just don’t have good offensive linemen,” said Jason Peters. “And we have ‘em and we’re jelling right now.”

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