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."
CAN SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN...
1. Why Brent Celek went down instead of scoring on the final possession?
With two minutes left, the Eagles set up at the Lions' 37-yard-line, holding a 34-20 lead and facing a 4th-and-12. Foles faked a handoff to Polk and found Celek wide open. The Eagles' tight end had a clear path to the end zone, but slid down at the Detroit 10-yard-line.
"I knew as soon as we called that play that if I caught it, I was going down," Celek said. "Listen, I score, then we have to do a kickoff and then the defense has to go out there. Guys can get hurt. It's not a smart move for the team."
Some have complained about Celek not scoring, but his decision made complete sense. It was the quickest, surest way for the Eagles to end the game. Foles took two kneel-downs, and the players headed to the locker room.
Had Celek scored, the Eagles would have had to set up for an extra point and then the kickoff. The Lions' offense would have still probably tried to pass the ball downfield. Given that the defense would have been in prevent, maybe Detroit would have even scored.
Either way, the game was over. But Celek's decision made perfect sense. And while it wasn't the exact same situation as the time Brian Westbrook went down, it still earned the running back's approval.
@BrentCelek GREAT PLAY!!!
— Brian Westbrook (@36westbrook) December 8, 2013
2. Why the Eagles kept going for two?
This one seems pretty obvious, but Kelly cleared up any confusion after the game.
"We had talked about it early, and then as the snow kept coming, we knew we weren't going to [kick]," he said. "I think they attempted one and you saw what happened on that. The ball was coming out at such a low trajectory. It is very, very difficult to get the footing, and it was probably just we thought maybe a recipe for disaster. It was going to be a non-kicking game from that standpoint."
Near the end of the first half, the Eagles faced a 4th-and-7 from the Detroit 10. Even from that short a distance, Kelly didn't feel comfortable sending Alex Henery out there. So he went for it (Foles threw incomplete to Riley Cooper). The only attempted kick was by David Akers on a PAT after the Lions initially set up for two but were whistled for a false start. Akers' kick was blocked by Bennie Logan.
It was impossible to kick given the conditions. The decision was really as simple as that.
I'm going to ask about this to confirm, but I think that last throw to Celek was a run-pass option that put the decision in Foles' hands.
Here's the pre-snap look.
You can see the Lions have nine defenders in the box and two cornerbacks to the top of the screen. There are no defenders to the bottom of the screen. Celek initially blocks the defensive end before releasing into his route.
I believe Foles had the option here to either hand it off to Polk or pull the ball and wait for Celek to get open. How good is that play-fake by the way? The ball looks like it's firmly entrenched in Polk's mid-section. That draws the attention of the defenders to the bottom of the screen. And Celek does a great job with his initial block.
Here you can see Brad Smith, who was set up in the slot, has his back to the line of scrimmage. The entire line is run blocking, and Smith is setting up to block the defensive back. Celek, meanwhile, leaks out into open space, and Foles finds him for the 27-yard gain that sealed the game.
"It was something we had talked about on the sideline, and Brent and I were really the only ones who knew what was going on," Foles said. "We had seen that throughout the course of the game. You have to make big plays, you have to do stuff like that to win games in the situation. We were fourth down, we knew we needed a first down to run the clock out, that is a big play. We did not want to put the ball back in Matt's hands. It was one of those things we were able to see through the course of the game, and Brent made a big play.
"A veteran move right there. I don't know how many people would have wanted to score a touchdown, but Brent being a team player goes down and slides because he knows that they don't have any timeouts. We are just going to kneel and win the game."
THE NUMBERS THAT MATTER
2 - The number of 20+ runs McCoy had during the previous nine-game stretch from Week 4 (Sept. 29) through Week 13 (Dec. 1).
3 - The number of 20+ runs McCoy had during a 2 minute, 22 second stretch in the fourth quarter against the Lions. The Eagles' running back reeled off TD runs of 40 and 57 yards. He also added a 26-yard scamper.
McCoy is once again the NFL's leading rusher with 1,305 yards - 84 more than Adrian Peterson. Among the 33 running backs who have gained at least 500 yards this year, none has a higher YPC average than McCoy (5.0).
GAME BALL OFFENSE: LESEAN MCCOY
I would love to go against the grain here, but when you break the franchise record for rushing yards in a game, you're a good bet to take home this award.
McCoy piled up 217 yards on the ground and oftentimes looked like he was playing on a dry field. He needs 5 more yards to set a career-high, and McCoy also has a shot to break the Eagles' franchise record for most rushing yards in a season.
Wilbert Montgomery currently holds the mark (1,512 yards in 1979). McCoy needs 207 yards in the final three games (69.3 YPG) to break that mark.
GAME BALL DEFENSE: CARY WILLIAMS/BRADLEY FLETCHER
Let's be honest here. Calvin Johnson's numbers would have looked a lot different had this game been played in better conditions. But still, you deal with the circumstances you are dealt. And the Eagles limited Megatron to three catches for 49 yards, his lowest total since Week 5.
Pass protection wasn't the issue. Neither team notched a sack. But Matthew Stafford (five fumbles) couldn't hang on to the snaps. He found Johnson for a 33-yard catch on a post against Williams early on, but only completed two more passes (one for 9 yards, one for 7 yards) to him the rest of the game.
Williams did an excellent job on a double-move against Johnson in the fourth quarter with the Eagles clinging to a two-point lead.
The cornerbacks were a giant question mark coming into the season, but they've held up well in big spots.
THAT'S WHAT HE SAID
"I still remember one play on the goal line I’m blocking Fairley, I felt like I anchored really well, and then he just starts pushing me. And my feet... I'm not getting walked back, my feet are just standing there and they’re just sliding, going back and I don’t know what to do." - JASON KELCE
I couldn't find a single player in the locker room who said he had played in snow like that before. Mathis decided to change his cleats at halftime - from the rubber ones to the studded ones. Other players, like Kelce, Peters and Herremans, didn't think the change in footwear would make much of a difference.
FIVE RANDOM THOUGHTS
1. Lots of funny "only-in-the-snow" moments. It started off early. Before flipping the coin, Ed Hochuli explained sternly: "If this lands on an angle, I will flip it over!"
Thanks for the clarification, big guy.
Before the Lions attempted their only extra point, they called a timeout. The reason? To clear out space to hold the ball.
And finally, with the Eagles threatening to score inside the Lions' 10 in the fourth quarter, Hochuli made another announcement: "We're gonna stop the game a moment and clear the goal line. We can't see the goal line."
Sounds like a good idea to me, Ed. Thanks for the heads-up.
2. The biggest issue on the day for the Eagles was special teams. They allowed a 58-yard punt return TD to Jeremy Ross and then a 98-yard kickoff return.
"He made good plays, but for that type of game, you’ve got to make him try to stop and start and change direction," said Kurt Coleman. "And he was able to hit the holes."
Polk appeared to be at fault primarily on the punt return. Colt Anderson forced Ross towards the sideline, but Polk didn't keep contain and let him get outside.
On the kickoff return, several Eagles - including Polk and Smith - got blocked to create the initial hole. The Lions blocked it up well, and the Eagles couldn't recover.
Obviously, had the Eagles lost, this would be a much bigger storyline. The team never fixed its issues, giving up a 46-yard kickoff return in the fourth. Special teams had been playing well, and the weather was a factor, but this is something that needs to be addressed quickly, especially with lethal returner Cordarrelle Patterson and the Vikings coming up next.
3. I think Kelly will start to receive some Coach of the Year buzz this week. The Eagles were 4-12 last season, implemented new schemes on both sides of the ball and are now 8-5, one of the hottest teams in football.
"Some of the adjustments we make in games are awesome," said Celek, a favorite of Kelly's. "There are some times that we are running things we didn't get a chance to run in practice that week. The way the guys execute them is great. The way Coach Kelly has the faith in us to do those types of things is big. Guys appreciate it."
There are several good candidates. Andy Reid is probably the frontrunner with the Chiefs at 10-3. Marvin Lewis could warrant consideration if the Bengals (9-4) close out strong. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks are 11-2. Sean Payton (10-3) and Ron Rivera (8-4) too. But Kelly should be in the conversation.
4. Mychal Kendricks had never played a game in the snow before. Afterwards, he stood by his locker with the football from his fourth-quarter fumble recovery in hand and a big smile on his face.
"It was so fun," Kendricks said. "We weren’t thinking, 'We can’t see.' We’re thinking, 'We’re about to play a snow game!' It was so freaking fun, so fun. One of the funnest games I’ve ever played for sure. Losing sucks, but if we wouldn’t have come up with this win, I honestly would say it’d still be a fun game just because I’ve never experienced the snow."
Stafford got away with four fumbled snaps, but the fifth time, Kendricks dove on the football behind the line of scrimmage. The Lions were only down eight at the time and were threatening to score at the Eagles' 24-yard-line with 7:28 left in the game. The shotgun snap was early, Stafford wasn't ready for it, and he failed to fall on the football, instead trying to scoop it up.
"We actually had the same situation happen in practice and I got a one-handed scoop for a touchdown," Kendricks said.
He explained that Foles fumbled a snap during a "clutch period" at practice. Kendricks also pointed out that one of Zach Ertz's big catches in the win over the Cardinals also was similar to one he made in practice the previous week.
"So the things that we’re practicing are really showing up in games."
5. I usually hate using words like gutsy, but I think that fits for how Foles played. The conditions were terrible, and he started out 4-for-13 for 35 yards. Midway through the third quarter, it seemed like he had no shot of completing a pass.
But Foles finished strong, completing seven of his last nine passes for 144 yards. The 44-yarder to Cooper was a great catch, but Foles put the ball in a good place.
"I mis-executed in the first half, and I have to execute on certain plays," Foles said. "The other team was playing in the same environment and he [Stafford] was throwing the ball. I knew it was one of those things where I would adjust to it and we would adjust as a team because the routes changed up a little bit because of the speed of them."
Two of the Eagles' final three games will be played in favorable conditions (at Minnesota, at Dallas). The exception could be the regular-season home finale against Chicago in two weeks and potentially the playoffs.
Foles grew up in Austin, Texas and played his college ball at Arizona. In the long run, having played a game like this should serve him well.
Percentage Of Snaps
Most noteworthy? Probably that James Casey played 29 percent of the offensive snaps. I still have to re-watch, but the guess is Casey was used as a blocker in the run game. That actually started last week against the Cardinals.
Polk played nine snaps; Bryce Brown played 10. You have to figure Polk earned some playing with that 38-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.
Damaris Johnson did not play any offensive snaps. And it appears that Smith has leapfrogged Johnson and Jeff Maehl as the No. 4 receiver.
Percentage Of Snaps
Not sure if Trent Cole suffered an injury, but he only played 49 percent of the snaps. The Eagles were only in nickel with Brandon Boykin in the game for 34 percent of the snaps.
GUESSING THE LINE
The Eagles travel to Minnesota to take on the 3-9-1 Vikings next week. Minnesota is coming off a wild 29-26 loss to the Ravens. Adrian Peterson left the game in the first half with a foot injury, the severity of which is unknown.
There likely won't be a line on this game until we find out more, but I'll make the Eagles 6-point favorites on the road.