All-22: Eagles Add Zone-Read Wrinkle

Asked after the bye whether LeSean McCoy had been encountering too much traffic in the backfield, Chip Kelly offered a brief response.

“I don’t think any running back likes to deal with defenders in the backfield too much, but I don’t see that occurring at a high rate,” he said.

The Eagles’ head coach prefers sometimes to not show his hand. The previous week, McCoy had been dropped for a loss five times against the Redskins. He had to deal with a defender in the backfield on 12 of 20 occasions, oftentimes spinning out of trouble and picking up positive yardage.

But that model didn’t seem sustainable. Part of the problem had to do with the Eagles’ zone read. Teams were using their unblocked defenders to crash down on McCoy. If Nick Foles kept the ball, so be it. They would live with the 5- or 6-yard gain and an opportunity to hit the QB.

The bye week provides an opportunity for self-scouting. And against the Cardinals, the Eagles showed some wrinkles in the running game that better fit the offense with Foles as the signal-caller. By my count, they only used the true zone read seven times. And they employed some different tactics like using a tight end to account for the unblocked defender.

“We adjust to things that give us problems,” said guard Evan Mathis. “And we also adjust to the opponent we’re gonna see. Some teams were putting an extra guy in the box. And some teams were putting an extra guy in the box and crashing that end down. That might have been the reason for the play where the tight end kicks that end out. It takes care of that.”

For example, here’s a fourth-quarter run play to McCoy. The Eagles are going to leave edge defender John Abraham momentarily unblocked. But Brent Celek comes across the formation to ensure Abraham can’t just crash down on McCoy.

“Sometimes when that defensive end is curling around the edge from the backside, it’s nice to come back and take care of him,” Celek said. “And that’s just what we were doing on that play. As defensive ends, it’s tough when you’ve got a guy coming back either hitting you high or cutting you. So it’s a hard play for them to defend.”

You can see as Foles is handing the ball off that Abraham now has something new to worry about. He’s no longer free to just zero in on McCoy.

“It depends on how certain teams play the zone, play the read-option and things like that,” Mathis said. “If you see a team that crashes that end a lot, then that end can create a problem. So to keep them from being a problem, you can kick ‘em out with a tight end like that.

“It’s still one of our standard zone plays where you just change one man in the blocking scheme.”

Celek, who had an outstanding game as a blocker, takes Abraham out. The Eagles don’t call it a “wham” block, but rather a “wind” block or a “sift” block, according to James Casey.

Lane Johnson and Mathis get out in front. And the Eagles pick up 7 yards.

“That’s just something you do when the backside edge is coming like that,” Celek said. “Instead of reading him, sometimes you do that.”

Added Jason Kelce: “I think that’s one of the ways we’ve been using to neutralize that [ends crashing on McCoy] because that really seemed to be through the last three or four games what teams had been moving to.”

By my count, the Eagles used the sift block on run plays six times Sunday. It was far from a resounding success (21 yards total), but it’s another wrinkle that could discourage opponents from simply going after McCoy on the zone-read runs.

“That’s something new we’ve started doing recently,” Casey said. “As the season progresses, you can’t just keep doing the same thing over and over and over. You want to get really good at your base plays, but then you’ve gotta have a little bit of different looks off of the same thing. And that’s just one more thing we can do that gives them another look that they’ve gotta prepare for throughout the week. And hopefully it’ll create some lanes for us down the road. We had a couple plays during the game that I think were pretty close to breaking out.”

The other factor is that the tight end motioning can create indecision for the edge defender or a linebacker if the defense is in man coverage. The Eagles showed a similar look as the one shown above on several occasions, but instead of a run play, they went with play-action.

Foles starts under center on this second-quarter play.

Once again, Abraham is initially the unblocked defender. This time, though, Celek is going to cross the formation and stay in for pass protection.

Normally, you wouldn’t want your tight end blocking the opposing team’s leading sack guy one-on-one. But the play-fake creates some hesitancy on Abraham’s part, and Celek is able to keep him away from Foles long enough for the quarterback to connect with Jason Avant on a 20-yard gain.

Another option here is for the tight end to go out into a pass route. In fact, that’s what the Eagles did on their first offensive play of the game.

The Eagles leave outside linebacker Matt Shaughnessy unblocked. Celek takes off behind the offensive linemen, runs right past Shaughnessy and leaks into the flat.

Foles rolls out to his left and creates space with which to locate his receivers. Shaughnessy is left unblocked the entire time, but he bites on the play-fake and doesn’t immediately go after Foles.

The Cardinals had good coverage on this play, and Foles checked it down to Celek for a 3-yard gain. But again, something defenses will have to account for.

“A lot of times when teams are playing man coverage and you send a guy across the formation like that, it makes the linebackers kind of hold for a second because you have the threat or you might run into the flat,” Casey said. “And it might be a bootleg pass play. And also if you have a man-coverage guy running with you, he can kind of run across so it bumps a linebacker out of the box and then you can run it the other way.”

One final option that the Eagles didn’t show Sunday is for the QB to keep the ball as he would on a normal zone-read play. But the presence of the tight end can add a lead blocker.

“When that backside guy that usually the quarterback holds, when he’s doing the read-option stuff, if you send a guy back across, you don’t have to worry about the quarterback holding that guy,” Casey said.

“And if he crashes down too hard, you can always bend it back around him. So you’ve got multiple options. You can bend it back around the guy backside, or you can just seal him off and just keep the play front side. And it’s one more thing they’ve gotta worry about. And it’s one more thing that outside edge player, he’s gonna come unblocked. But then there could be a guy coming back and cracking him. Or he could just be coming free and he’s gotta read the quarterback. So he’s got a lot to think about.”

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