All-22: Dissecting the Eagles’ Offensive Issues
David Molk seemed somewhat surprised to see a group of reporters waiting by his locker Tuesday afternoon.
“Molk! Molk! Molk!” chanted DeMeco Ryans, sporting a giant smile a couple stalls down.
“C’mon ‘Mec,” said the Eagles center. “Partner interview. I need some veteran help.”
The scene served as a good reminder of the twists and turns of an NFL season. A year ago, Molk was helping out his high school team, after having been cut by the San Diego Chargers. As recently as July, it looked like he would be battling for one of the team’s final roster spots.
But now, with Jason Kelce sidelined, Molk is a starter. On Sunday, that meant making the calls and setting the protections for an offense that was shut out against the San Francisco 49ers.
On Tuesday, reporters wanted to know why. Why did the team average 1.8 YPC? Why did Nick Foles take some vicious hits? Why were the Eagles able to drive 90 yards before stalling at the 49ers’ 1 yard line?
It’s obviously unfair to expect Molk to have all the answers. But the same questions have been asked throughout EaglesLand since the final whistle blew on Sunday. The offense was unable to get the ground game going, turned it over four times and got erratic play from its quarterback.
Was this just one bad game? Or is the heightened level of concern reasonable?
We took a look at the All-22 and talked to players and coaches. Below is a look at some of the issues, along with thoughts on what to expect going forward.
CREDITING THE OPPONENT
Speaking to reporters minutes after the game, Chip Kelly did not sugarcoat what he deemed to be the main issue with the Eagles’ ground game: the offensive line was a mess.
In addition to Molk, the Eagles were starting backup Matt Tobin at left guard and backup Dennis Kelly at right guard. Todd Herremans slid over to right tackle from his normal spot inside. The result? LeSean McCoy managed just 17 yards on 10 carries. His longest run of the game was 5 yards.
Much of what the Eagles do is based on numbers in the box. If they can get a hat on a hat, they generally feel good about their chances of running the ball. But the game is not played on the chalkboard, and when you’re starting multiple backups against a physical front seven, you very well could lose your share of one-on-one battles. There was a lot of that Sunday.
While many teams will station a safety in the box to stop McCoy, the 49ers took a different tack.
“They just rotated late,” said Foles. “They want to do everything out of a two-deep look and then rotate at the last second to really [not] know where they’re coming. Add an extra guy to the box, but do it from depth.”
Here’s an example from the third quarter. Pre-snap, it looks like two deep safeties and a six-man box. Under normal circumstances, this would be a conducive look to get something going on the ground.
But the 49ers rotate their safeties. Eric Reid shifts to the deep middle, and Antoine Bethea heads for the line of scrimmage.
The Eagles run an outside zone play. They block it up well, and it appears McCoy will have one of his bigger holes on the day.
But Bethea gets downhill in a hurry. This essentially turns into a one-on-one matchup, and McCoy can’t shake the safety in the hole.
“Fill the box with with eight and you get a free runner,” said Molk. “They would show a seven-man base front, and then they would drop that eighth man down, and he was good. He was really good.”
Added Tobin: “We had an outside zone wired too, and he came flying in from the backside and made a play. He had a pretty good game.”
Going against the Eagles’ tempo, the 49ers often showed the same two high safety look often pre-snap. Sometimes, they’d stick with it. Other times, they’d rotate late. A good plan and good execution. San Francisco kept the Eagles off-balance for much of the game.
Of course, a big part of the problem was relatively easy to diagnose: poor execution by the offensive line.
Here’s another outside zone play. The defense generally flows towards the sideline on these plays, but the 49ers did a good job of slanting, or cutting upfield inside the offensive linemen.
The 49ers get penetration in the backfield, and Dennis Kelly loses his balance, ending up on the ground.
Herremans trips over Kelly, and Tobin loses his balance as well. That’s three offensive linemen on the ground before McCoy has even crossed the line of scrimmage.
This isn’t exactly the numbers advantage the Eagles are looking for.
The point is not to pick on the offensive linemen for a clumsy play. It’s simply to show that many of the Eagles’ problems can be traced back to something very simple: they are hurting up front.
The issues surfaced in pass protection as well. On two occasions, it appeared that Tobin simply let his man go, and that man ended up crushing Foles. Here’s an example from the first quarter. Initially, it looks like the Eagles have the play blocked up well with Tobin on Justin Smith. The 49ers are only rushing four.
But Tobin lets Smith go.
“Tobin played good,” said Jason Peters. “The two pressures, it was more of a call. We were sliding the line, and I didn’t get it. That was my fault when Justin hit Foles. I should have slid with him. I didn’t get the call, so I slid out to help [Brent] Celek.”
“We were sliding the line, and I didn’t get the call,” Peters said. “He [Tobin] had got rolled up or something on the play and was hurting, and I didn’t get the call. They went four for four, and I didn’t slide with him.”
The result was a five-time Pro Bowler getting a free run at Foles while two offensive linemen stood around without anyone to block.
“We just had a little bit of miscommunication,” said Tobin. “It wasn’t from Molk’s point. It was just between J.P. and I. We didn’t communicate very well on those two specific plays. I was supposed to go right. I was just bumping to help him out, and he didn’t get the call, so he went left.”
On the fourth-down play from the 1 yard line, the Eagles made another error up front.
“On the last play and we’re trying to run naked, not every lineman is going to the left, so all of a sudden we’ve got a pile-up,” Chip Kelly said. “If everybody does go left, we’ve got a clean edge and we’re one‑on‑one with a guy in front of Nick, and now we’re trying to play a cat and mouse game on the corner where we are. But we’ve got a pile‑up inside. We get a hold‑up when we’re trying to run the naked and we can’t get the ball to the perimeter.”
The culprit appeared to be Dennis Kelly.
You can see the rest of the offensive linemen, except for Dennis Kelly, are blocking to the left. The play is designed to get the defense flowing that way before Foles rolls to his right.
As Chip Kelly mentioned, they would have loved to have gotten the cornerback in conflict – choosing between sticking with James Casey or attacking Foles. But since the edge defender didn’t bite on the run action, Foles faced pressure, and the cornerback could hang back with Casey.
One last point here: There’s plenty to criticize Foles about (see next section), but this looks like an extremely difficult throw to me, especially when a defender is closing in.
Anyway, these are some of the things that happen with inexperienced offensive linemen who haven’t played next to each other.
On Sunday, the likely offensive line (from left to right) will be Peters, Tobin, Molk, Herremans and Lane Johnson. It’s another new lineup, and there’s no predicting whether similar issues will surface again or be remedied against the St. Louis Rams.
Before the season started, I asked Foles what his favorite route was to throw. He didn’t offer anything specific, but said he liked any concept that allowed him to chuck it downfield.
According to Pro Football Focus, 23.5 percent of Foles’ passes have traveled 20+ yards past the line of scrimmage. That’s a huge number, second in the league to only Arizona’s Drew Stanton. On Sunday, he was 1-for-13 on those throws.
The main issue? Overthrowing his receivers.
“I definitely missed some throws that I want to hit, and that’s something that I’ll work towards this week,” Foles said. “My job as the quarterback is when that ball’s in my hand to deliver a ball to where my receivers can catch it. And there’s a couple times where I just let it out there a little bit too far.”
Here’s an example to Jeremy Maclin, who’s running a deep post:
That’s a lot of open green grass.
You want to let your receiver run and get the ball, but there’s an acceptable margin for error. The only person in the area outlined above is the official. But Foles led Maclin too far downfield, and the result was an incompletion.
“Our guys are open where I’m throwing ‘em,” Foles said. “It’s just I’ve gotta hit ‘em. It’s my job to hit ‘em. Those receivers are running their routes. They’re doing a great job. And my job as a quarterback is to deliver them a ball. …It doesn’t have to be perfect, just a ball to where they can go make a play.”
Earlier in the game, Foles missed Celek on a corner route. No one will mistake the Eagles’ tight end for Usain Bolt, but Celek got away with a push-off and created separation. It’s the snag concept we’ve written about. But another overthrow from Foles.
There were two others. On one, it looked like Zach Ertz was held. On another, Foles didn’t give Riley Cooper a shot on a deep post.
If he hits on just two of the four, perhaps the result Sunday is different. But Foles has struggled to make the most of his opportunities downfield all season long:
Most QB over/underthrows this season, per @ESPNStatsInfo: Foles (41), Brady (35), Manuel (28). Measure of QB influence on accuracy.
— Kevin Seifert (@SeifertESPN) September 30, 2014
And perhaps the issues go back to last season.
Given the lack of production in the run game, the Eagles need Foles to make the most of the opportunities downfield.
It’s amazing how one play here and there can shape how we look at things. For example, if Cooper holds on to that ball in the end zone on the late fourth-quarter drive, we’re probably talking about how Foles rallied the offense and led the Eagles to their fourth straight win.
If Bethea doesn’t make a great play on McCoy’s 5-yard run that got the Eagles to the 1 yard line, we’re talking about a game-winning drive for the ages and an undefeated squad.
But that’s not how it all played out. The reality is that in all likelihood, the Eagles will be going with two backup linemen at center and left guard, along with a rusty right tackle, for the next month or so. They are dealing with erratic quarterback play and a No. 2 wide receiver who is giving them nothing.
Chip Kelly has coached 21 games and made his mark on the NFL. He produced a top-five offensive unit last year with the help of a healthy line, a great running attack and a quarterback who exceeded everyone’s expectations.
The circumstances are now different, and the issues are real. Kelly and his staff will take a closer look this week at what they have to work with. With the Eagles in the driver’s seat in the NFC East, this is where the head coach earns his money.