Zone Read: Eagles-Jaguars, the Day After

Watching from the sideline, linebacker DeMeco Ryans knew the Eagles had a first down before the ball was even snapped.

Darren Sproles had just picked up 8 yards on a screen, but he was tackled short of the sticks, and the offense faced a 4th-and-1 from the Jacksonville 49. The Eagles were trailing 17-0 in the third quarter.

“Sitting on the sideline, I knew we had ‘em,” Ryans said. “Because as a defense, you’re kind of happy about a third-down stop and you’re not expecting a fourth-down play. Our offense gets on the ball and runs it quickly, catches everybody off-guard.”

Chip Kelly didn’t hesitate. Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur told him the Eagles were short, and Kelly made a tempo call – a message that can be communicated with one or two words. The call lets the offensive players know it’s time to bust it back to the line of scrimmage and get the ball snapped.

This tempo call was an Eagles go-to: inside zone. When Sproles was tackled on the screen, the game clock read 12:08. When Jason Kelce snapped the ball to Nick Foles on the next play, it read 11:52. Just 16 seconds had elapsed.

“I don’t know what the defensive call was, but it didn’t seem like they were lined up properly,” Kelce said. “Usually on a 4th-and-1, you don’t want two three-techniques [defensive tackles lined up between the guards and tackles], but we just ran our track, the way that we always do on that play. …I think that’s what this offense can do. When you’re really moving fast, going quickly, it forces people to line up. And if they’re not gonna line up, that’s when big plays can happen.”

Added Jason Peters: “I know when I got down, the defensive end wasn’t set. And we hiked the ball. When I looked up, Sproles was gone. So I didn’t even seen the play happen.”

Even Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley acknowledged what had happened.

“We had some miscommunication with the defensive line and in the back end [on that play],” he said. “Our front didn’t match the back end and they got the 49-yard run. …When we line up and play, we played very well. But we can’t do that. I think some of those plays that they got in the second half, they executed in a time that we weren’t ready.”

Kelce was left completely uncovered, which allowed him to get to the second level without any issue. Todd Herremans also delivered a nice block on the right side.

But it was the tempo that messed with the Jaguars’ defense. They lined up incorrectly, and from there, execution was relatively simple.

“We train that way,” said Kelly. “So felt like at that point in time in the game with 17-0, we needed to generate something, and I was confident we could hit it. I thought Darren did a great job. We did a real good job of getting the front set, and getting it pointed up and ready to go. I don’t think they were exactly dug in and ready to play for it. But that’s one of the byproducts of what we do offensively that sometimes you can get one of those things.”

Sproles burst up the middle and scampered 49 yards to the end zone.

“We knew they were getting kind of tired,” said the veteran running back. “So we tried to hurry-up on ‘em, and we hurried up on ‘em and they weren’t even set. It left a big hole in the middle of the field.”

Sproles is a favorite in the building. Kelly has stressed all along that even though he is 31, he’s still a capable ball-carrier. On Sunday, the head coach backed up his words. Sproles carried 11 times for 71 yards. He has had more than 11 rushing attempts just four times in his nine (plus) year career. The last time was October 2011, nearly three years ago.

“I didn’t know he had that much fight in him,” said LeSean McCoy, when asked what he’s learned about Sproles. “Every time that I saw him, it was for a play here or a play there, a punt return, a couple routes, maybe a run or two. But playing with him from camp on, he has so much more fight to him. His role is bigger here. By committee, we are going to do it together. He looked real good. He gives me that extra push that I like. I know that if I come out or it’s his package, he can still make plays. He is elusive and he’s very tough.”

“Same ole, same ole,” added Malcolm Jenkins, who played with Sproles in New Orleans. “He’s a spark. At any point in time, he can give your team that big play that they need, whether it’s a return, whether it’s a run, a catch out of the backfield. He’s always that threat to really blow the game open. Today his play was very, very timely and right what we needed at that time.”

Sproles also had four punt returns for 62 yards, including a 22-yarder. Overall, he touched the ball 19 times and was the spark the Eagles needed to get going.

“It was big,” Sproles said, smiling from ear to ear. “You get that question that, ‘You’re 30 years old, do you still have it?’ So I wanted to come out and prove that I still got it.”

In the Eagles’ Week 1 victory, he did just that.