The Eagles’ offense took the field with 11:46 left against the Cowboys in need of a serious boost.
Chip Kelly’s squad had come up empty on six of its previous seven possessions and clung to a 17-16 lead with the division on the line. So Kelly leaned on what the offense does best: running the football.
The Eagles put together an 11-play, 60-yard drive that resulted in a 6-yard Bryce Brown touchdown. Nine of the 11 plays were runs. And one run in particular gave the Eagles a boost: a new sweep play from an unbalanced line that was just installed during the week, according to players.
Kelly has tweaked the running game throughout the season - most significantly adding the split zone during the bye. The play called for a tight end to block the backside edge defender, rather than having Nick Foles account for the defender with his legs.
Against Dallas, Kelly sought a perimeter run to take advantage of defenses that geared up to stop the split zone and the inside zone, the Eagles' bread and butter. While the offense ran the ball pretty effectively throughout the game against Dallas, the Cowboys had some success honing in on the inside runs and stopping LeSean McCoy and Brown.
"Sometimes they were stuffing the inside zone, so we had to kind of hit it outside and just give ‘em different looks," said right tackle Lane Johnson. "That’s what we did the second half."
Added Brown: "You’ve gotta be versatile. You’ve gotta be able to change it up, mix it up, keep the defense off-balance."
On the 11-play drive, the Eagles ran this particular sweep play three times for 19 yards. Overall, they ran it six times for 32 yards against Dallas.
The first thing you'll notice is Johnson lined up in between Jason Peters and Evan Mathis on the left side. The Eagles have used the unbalanced line or "tackle-over" look all season long.
When the ball's snapped, Peters takes on the defensive end, and Johnson blocks down on the defensive tackle. Jason Kelce blocks down on the other defensive tackle, while Mathis and Todd Herremans pull.
The other key element is James Casey, who has a tight split to the left. His job is to take out a Cowboys linebacker who is pursuing the ball-carrier.
"That was a play that we had game-planned all week," Kelce said. "It allowed the outside receiver/tight end to come in and crack the inside ‘backer, kind of puts a wall on the defense."
Peters escorts the defensive end downfield, Casey cracks down on the linebacker (with some help from Herremans), and Mathis gets out in space.
"I pull on that one, and my role is usually to block the widest defender," Mathis said. "And if everything else is taken care of, you usually get some pretty good lanes on that play.
"We run a lot of inside zone. To have the ability to take it really wide like that is good to have that kind of changeup."
The result on this play was an 8-yard gain.
The Eagles came back to the sweep on Brown's 6-yard touchdown.
One difference on this one. Instead of blocking the defensive end, Peters goes right for the safety. That means Mathis is charged with pulling and taking care of the end.
Meanwhile, Casey once again cracks down on the linebacker. Below is a better shot of where Casey and Peters are headed. This is a packaged play as well (or at least has the appearance of one). The Eagles have a screen set up to DeSean Jackson at the bottom of the screen with Riley Cooper stationed as a blocker.
One more item to note: Take a look at how the middle linebacker cheats over to his right. Kelce is not usually pulling on this play, but on the TD run, he had to.
"It wasn’t designed for me to pull," Kelce said. "The one time I did pull is because the backer who me and the backside guard were going to was so far pushed front-side that I had to pull in order to get him. I actually didn’t end up making it. I got caught by Evan."
You see what Kelce means. Mathis gets pushed back into Kelce, who's pulling as week. In the above frame, it looks like the linebacker has a good angle to Brown.
But it's Casey to the rescue. He blocks his man into the linebacker and takes out two defenders.
The defensive back wants nothing to do with Peters, and Brown has a clear path to the end zone.
"I think what James has added to us, especially here down the stretch, and we know in December, now going into January, you're going to have to run the football," Kelly said. "I think James has been a big, big part of that."
If the Eagles want to make noise in the playoffs, the run game will have to continue to lead the way, and new wrinkles continue to be added.
"You have to have other runs," Kelce said. "Teams, like especially last week, that are trying to stop that inside running game, the ends are playing really hard inside, making it tough for [Brent] Celek and the tight ends to cut ‘em off. So you start to get some of those outside plays, it makes the defense play a little bit more honest."
Thanks to the always helpful Chris Brown for the heads-up on the play above.