How the Eagles Package the Zone Read And Bubble Screen
Back in early June, Chip Kelly sat at the head of a conference table in the NovaCare Complex and spent a full hour answering reporters’ questions about his program, his offensive scheme and his philosophies.
Not surprisingly, the topic of tempo was brought up. And the first-year Eagles’ head coach tried to explain that he didn’t always want to go at a super-fast speed.
“If they didn’t line up right and they have nine guys standing over there and you have a play called that’s going to run into those nine guys, then maybe playing fast wasn’t the smartest thing to do,” Kelly said. “Sometimes you need to let things get settled down and get an opportunity to make sure that you’ve got the right look.
“A lot of things we’re doing, we’re trying to throw it versus the best-located safety. Well, we better make sure we locate the safeties before we snap the football. Do we want to run it at one guy or run away from another guy? You’ve got to make sure some of those things you can see before you start it. It’s just not all driven on let’s see how many plays we can get run.”
While the truth is the Eagles are going to move quickly, Kelly’s response serves as the foundation for much of what he wants to do offensively: spread the field out, look for a numbers advantage and count on the quarterback to make the right decisions.
After the first preseason game, we showed how the Eagles scored two touchdowns on what was essentially the same play, a run-pass option out of a double-stack formation.
Against Carolina, we saw a similar idea executed over and over and over again. It combined the zone read with a bubble screen out of a 3×1 formation (three receivers to one side, one to the other).
The first time we saw this play was on 2nd-and-14 during the Eagles’ first offensive possession. Let’s start with the look:
The Eagles have Chris Polk in the backfield. Jason Avant, Brent Celek and DeSean Jackson are set up to the right. Riley Cooper is the lone receiver to the left.
Pre-snap, you can see the Eagles have a numbers advantage: three receivers against two defensive backs. The safety to that side of the field is deep, 15 yards off the line of scrimmage.
You can see the Eagles have the zone read option. If this were a straight running play, Nick Foles would read the unblocked defensive end and either hand the ball off to Polk or keep it himself.
But it’s not a straight running play. It’s a run/pass option. And because he noticed the numbers advantage to the perimeter, he pulls the ball and targets Avant, who has a couple blockers set up in front of him.
“You’re looking for numbers,” Foles explained. “Anybody can look and say, ‘OK, you’ve got five guys blocking, there’s five guys in the box. It’s a good box.’ If they try and bring something, you’ve gotta do something else because we can’t block everyone, so it just gives you other options away from running the ball right into the extra defenders.”
On the perimeter, it’s essentially three receivers against two defenders. The only unblocked player to that side of the field is the deep safety, and he’s coming from a depth of 16 yards off the line of scrimmage. The truth is Avant is probably the Eagles’ slowest wide receiver. And Jackson gave good effort here, but he is not a great blocker. Still, the play picked up 10 yards, and the offense went from 2nd-and-14 to a manageable 3rd-and-4.
One reason the Eagles are able to play fast and carry out their fakes so well is because the decision is solely in the hands of the quarterback. Polk, who was in the backfield on the above play, didn’t know he wasn’t getting the ball until the last second when Foles pulled it.
“We never know,” Polk said. “There’s just some times where they pull it, we’re still running through the hole because we’re expecting to get it, but you never really know when he’s gonna pull it. You’ve just gotta react and carry out the fake.”
The Eagles ran the same play with Matt Barkley in the third quarter. Here’s the pre-snap look. The key is the Panthers sneak a seventh defender, a defensive back, into the box. The TV camera had a great up-close shot of Barkley looking at the DB right before the ball was snapped.
That gives the Eagles a 3-on-2 advantage with the bubble screen.
And this time, they have Damaris Johnson running behind blocks from Clay Harbor and Zach Ertz, essentially two tight ends (even though Harbor is technically practicing at receiver).
Panthers linebacker A.J. Klein actually makes a nice play here, eventually chasing Johnson down, but not until he’s already picked up 15 yards.
“It’s just an extension of the run game to where we’re getting 10 yards, 15 yards on those bubbles and the defense can’t cover both,” Barkley said. “So it puts them in a bind.”
Again, Johnson just does what he’s supposed to, regardless of Barkley’s decision. Sometimes the quarterback is going to throw it his way. Other times, it’s going to be a run. The offensive line simply blocks for the run. Because it’s going to be a quick throw, failing to hold their blocks and giving up a sack is a non-issue.
“Whatever the quarterback thinks,” Johnson said. “I’m just going out and running the routes. I’m not reading the defense. I’m just trying to be out there. If he throws me the ball, I have to catch it and make a big play.”
Wide receiver Jeff Maehl, whom the Eagles acquired from the Texans last week, ran variations of this play hundreds of times while he was playing for Kelly at Oregon.
“If we’ve got more numbers than them, that’s a no-brainer,” Maehl said. “It’s based on what Coach Kelly wants to do and based on what the quarterback’s seeing.
“We try and put the defense in a situation where they really can’t win. That’s kind of what this offense is all about, just giving us the advantage wherever it may be and taking what the defense gives us.”
The non-screen option is to run the zone-read. In these instances, the quarterback is making two decisions. First, he’s deciding whether to throw the screen. If he’s not going that route, he’s deciding whether to hand the ball off or keep it himself, depending on how the unblocked defender reacts.
Here’s what we saw from Barkley later in the third quarter.
You can see the Panthers have three defensive backs on the Eagles’ three receivers, so there’s no numbers advantage with the bubble screen.
The Eagles have five offensive linemen against six defenders in the box. But since this is a zone read, they leave the right defensive end unblocked. The threat of Barkley running is meant to occupy or “block” him.
The play only picked up 3 yards because the linebacker got past right guard Matt Tennant, but you can see how the design works.
“It’s all based upon how the defensive player that we’re reading is playing,” said Jason Kelce. “If the defensive player that we’re reading stays inside the box or goes with the run play, now we’re gonna be minus hats on the run. He’s gonna do something on the perimeter or something else at a different spot. If we have numbers on the run play, we’re gonna take advantage of that.”
Todd Herremans made an interesting comment when asked about what’s impressed him about Kelly so far.
“I think the flow and the way that he calls the game is really good,” Herremans said. “It seems like you’re always setting up the next play, which I think is smart.”
That brings us to one final variation, which we saw in the fourth quarter of last week’s game. Here, the Eagles again have trips to the right side.
At first glance, it seems like they’re running the same play.
But there are differences. This is a straight pass play off a fake handoff, not an option play. The offensive linemen are pass-blocking, and there is no unblocked defender for the zone read. However, it still appears to be a bubble screen, something the Panthers’ defense had been seeing all night.
While Harbor and Greg Salas initially set up for the blocks, and Barkley looks at Johnson, this is just a fake. Harbor and Salas sidestep the defenders and take off on vertical routes.
Wish we had the All-22 here, but as you can see, suddenly the Panthers only have one safety against two Eagles receivers going deep.
Barkley’s pass goes right through Harbor’s hands. Otherwise it’s a big play.
Even though it’s an incompletion, it’s a play on film that other teams will see, making defensive backs think twice before charging the line of scrimmage and attacking the bubble screen.
Pat Shurmur has coached in the NFL for 14 years. But the Eagles’ offensive coordinator is now getting an up-close view of how offenses are changing, and he appreciates what the Eagles are trying to accomplish.
“You know, in the old days, the audible systems used to be to get you out of a bad play, not necessarily get you into the best play,” Shurmur explained. “And then there are offenses where you’ve got run/pass options. You’re just trying to do what’s best. I think all offenses have certain percentage where you want it, or if it presents itself, you throw it. We just package it up a little different, that’s all.”
As we noted last week, there’s a growing buzz among Eagles’ offensive players, who seem to be buying into Kelly’s methods, specifically the run/pass option plays and the tempo.
“It’s a lot of pressure [on a defense] because we feel like no matter what you guys do, we’re gonna make you wrong,” Polk said. “You put too many in the box, we’re gonna throw it out. You stack the outside, the box is always gonna work. So it’s gonna be real interesting to see how people play us, but as of right now, we’ve just gotta make them wrong no matter what they do.”
Added Harbor: “It puts a ton of pressure on them. It really comes down to numbers. If they have too many guys inside, we’re gonna throw it. If they have too many guys outside, we’re gonna run it. Whatever they do, we win.”
For more on the “packaged play” concept, be sure to check out Chris Brown’s terrific piece on Grantland.