Chip Kelly got a taste last year of how NFL defenses would attempt to slow down the Eagles’ prolific offensive attack.
What he learned was that scheming ways to beat man coverage had to be a major point of emphasis before Year 2.
"People want to play you in man-to-man coverage," Kelly said last week. "We saw a lot more of that than other people. Getting guys that can get open versus man coverage is a key deal. Whether it’s Coop [Riley Cooper] or Mac [Jeremy Maclin] or DeSean [Jackson] or whatever. That’s the one thing we know as a group going in, is one-on-one coverage is a big deal for us. It is a big deal in this league. People probably - I think, and I don’t know the statistics if you break it down - may have played us in more man than most teams in the league.
"So anybody we’re gonna look at at wide receiver from the future here on or that’s currently on our roster is: What’s your ability to get open in one-on-one coverage? Because we see a ton of it. That’s a huge thing for us in the offseason."
The Eagles did damage against zone looks early in the season, and opponents took notice. Part of the reason was that packaged plays put zone defenders in conflict and gave the team's quarterbacks post-snap options.
Soon, defenses took their chances playing a lot of man coverage, often with one safety deep. That allowed them to key in on LeSean McCoy and force the Eagles' pass-catchers to win one-on-one matchups. Tempo played a role as well.
"Sometimes it’s quicker to get lined up [in man coverage]," Kelly explained. " 'I’ve got that guy. Oh they’re lining up quick? I’ve got that guy again.' I think there’s a lot to be said in terms of that. You can assign a guy to the back, you can assign a guy to the quarterback. A lot of people played assignment football against us. And then it comes down to one on ones. And then you’ve gotta win. That’s the big thing."
The Eagles' best weapon against man coverage last year was Jackson. Some cornerbacks (Arizona's Patrick Peterson, New Orleans' Keenan Lewis) had success against him. But most either needed safety help over the top or gave Jackson a big cushion and let him make receptions on intermediate routes. As we've explained before, Jackson's release had nothing to do with his on-field ability or scheme fit.
Now, others will be asked to pick up the slack. And Kelly will lean on two new additions - Maclin and Darren Sproles.
Maclin, of course, is not really a new addition, but he did not play last season after suffering a torn ACL in July.
"He’s one of those guys that if we’re gonna see a lot of man coverage, I think can do a really, really good job because he’s such a precise route-runner, has outstanding speed, is good after the catch," Kelly said. "And so we’re excited to have him back."
With Sproles, the key is matchups. He's not someone who's going to line up out wide and consistently beat cornerbacks. But the Eagles gave up a fifth-round pick for his services, so clearly they believe the (soon-to-be) 31-year-old can help them win one-on-one battles in the passing game.
"We’re always looking for guys that can exploit those matchups," Kelly said. "I think the addition of Sproles. Are you gonna play us in man? Now you have to have a linebacker cover him if he's the back. That's a huge addition in terms of what we thought about bringing him in."
Of course, the key with Sproles is probably convincing teams he can still run the ball effectively. He only had 53 rushing attempts in 2013 and averaged 4.2 YPC. If opponents aren't concerned with him running the ball, they can go to their sub packages and match up a defensive back against Sproles. He showed on film last year that he can still beat safeties, but that' obviously not the same mismatch as Sproles against a linebacker.
Releasing Jackson was Kelly's call. And the head coach wouldn't have made it unless he felt confident he could replace the wide receiver's production. In addition to Sproles and Maclin, the Eagles will expand Zach Ertz's role, and they likely will add another offensive piece (or two?) in the draft.
Kelly has a pretty good idea of how teams are going to defend the Eagles in 2014. When considering personnel moves in the coming months, beating man coverage will be the focus.