Before the Cardinals game, when asked about the read-option offense, Chip Kelly took exception with the label.
“I don’t think it’s an offense,” he said, while also pointing out that the Eagles use the zone read, not the read option. “I think it’s a play.”
That distinction has been clear in the Eagles’ two games since the bye. The principle of using the quarterback’s legs to account for an unblocked defender has not been a major factor in wins over Arizona and Detroit.
By my count, the Eagles have used the zone read (or zone-read look; sometimes it’s a straight handoff regardless) on 13 of 141 plays the last two weeks. That’s about 9.2 percent of the time. Through the first eight weeks of the season, that number was 31.4 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
There are many elements at work here. A major one last week was that the Eagles played a lot more under center than they usually do because of the weather. On those plays, Nick Foles turned his back to the line of scrimmage, meaning there was no zone-read. But the week before against Arizona, the Eagles only used the zone read on seven of 73 plays, or 9.6 percent of the time.
The theory here – and we’ll see if this bears itself out in the coming weeks – is that the bye gave Kelly and his staff time to tweak the run game to better suit Foles. The idea of playing option football is still relevant, but because teams were so often crashing down their unblocked defenders on LeSean McCoy, the Eagles were forced to adjust in a variety of ways.
[Editor’s note: For the first time, I’m trying out GIFs here instead of straight screen-grabs. Advice/suggestions/feedback are welcome.]
One thing the Eagles are doing is using a tight end to account for the previously unblocked defender. For example, on this fourth-quarter run, Brent Celek is set up in-line and blocks the defensive end. Rather than Foles read the defender, the Eagles just block him with the tight end so he can’t crash in on McCoy and force the QB to keep the ball.
The Lions’ plan for defending the zone read was to use safety Glover Quin to account for Foles. Here, you see Foles carries out his fake, Quin is slow to react to McCoy, and the result is a 6-yard run.
“It’s huge,” Kelly said when asked about the importance of the tight ends in the run game. “Just because a lot of our plays are cutback plays. If the defense is flowing and we get him moving in one direction, LeSean has the ability or Bryce [Brown] to cut the ball back, but that means what really didn’t start at the point of attack ends up being the point of attack.”
The sift block, which we wrote about at length last week, was also on display against Detroit. James Casey has quietly been on the field for 34 snaps the last two weeks. He only averaged 5.7 offensive snaps per game before the bye. But the Eagles have recently taken advantage of his run-blocking experience.
Here, Casey sets up on the right side. The Eagles initially leave safety Louis Delmas unblocked on the opposite side. But Casey comes across the formation and takes him out.
The Lions were defending the zone read with the scrape technique here. In theory, Delmas would crash in on McCoy, and Quin would follow behind him to account for Foles. But in reality, this was not a zone-read play. Casey’s block ruins the Lions’ plan.
Quin, meanwhile, still is accounting for Foles. By the time Polk hits the hole and breaks a tackle, Quin is in no position to help on the ball-carrier. The result is a 38-yard TD.
“Basically what it is is just a cut-off block on the run,” said tight ends coach Ted Williams. “And so consequently you can either line up over them and cut them off, which sometimes is very difficult. Or you can put them on the other side and just bring them back, which makes it a little simpler and adds an element of surprise to it.”
And then there are the packaged plays. We wrote about one of them earlier this week. But the Eagles continue to give Foles a lot of passing options if the run isn’t there.
On this fourth-quarter play, Foles can either hand it off or hit either of his two outside receivers. Riley Cooper runs a hitch at the top of the screen. Brad Smith basically turns and faces the QB when the ball is snapped. You can see both corners are playing off.
Eight of the 11 players on this call are blocking run. Foles, Smith and Cooper are the only exceptions.
Foles pulls the ball and finds Smith, who does a good job one-on-one against the corner and picks up 13 yards.
Here’s another example of Foles being given options when he pulls the ball. On a two-point conversion attempt in the fourth, DeSean Jackson goes in motion behind Foles. The Eagles leave an edge defender unblocked. Foles can either hand it off to Bryce Brown or hit Jackson at the top of the screen if he pulls it.
Foles ends up handing the ball off to Brown. But look at how many defenders are accounting for Jackson and Foles.
The motion and different options pull three defenders away from the play. There was another corner accounting for Cooper, meaning the Eagles were blocking 7-on-7 on the run, which scored.
It’s tough to tell what’s game-plan-related and what’s weather-related. But since the bye, we’re seeing less zone-read and more options for Foles when he decides to pull the ball.