All-22: New Wrinkle Sparks Eagles Run Game

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Through the first five games, it seemed everyone had a different reason for why the Eagles’ run game was struggling.

Most pointed to the injuries on the offensive line. Some suggested LeSean McCoy was injured or had lost a step. And others simply figured it was out how defenses were playing the Eagles.

But there was another factor at play, one that the coaching staff could control. During the Week 4 loss to the 49ers, there were indications that San Francisco knew some of what was coming. Against St. Louis, to a lesser extent, there were similar sentiments.

“They knew what plays were coming,” said Lane Johnson after the win over the Rams.

“I just think defenses have more knowledge of what’s coming. Last year everything was so new, and I think they’ve kind of seen a lot of what we do, so just moving forward, we’ll probably throw in a few more wrinkles.”

Chip Kelly would not be offended by Johnson’s comments. The Eagles’ offense is based on running a series of foundation plays effectively, dressing them up differently and moving at a fast pace. The problem at times this season has been that defenses have game-planned well against those foundation plays. Because of injuries up front and inconsistent quarterback play, the offense has not run as smoothly.

But against the Giants, a team that limited McCoy to 94 yards on 35 carries in two meetings last year with an inside stunt, Kelly broke out some wrinkles that helped jump-start the run game and the offense as a whole.

UNVEILING A NEW RUN PLAY

Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said recently that the Eagles only have a handful of run schemes: inside zone, mid-zone, outside zone, sweep and one-back power.

But on Sunday night, the offense took advantage of aggressive Giants linebackers with a (as far as we can tell) new run play – one that was executed with Nick Foles under center and the running back lined up directly behind him.

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“I think there are some things from an angle insertion point that we wanted to get accomplished with the running backs,” said Kelly. “So we were a little bit more under center. But it’s no different than being in the pistol.”

Center David Molk was a little less vague.

“They couldn’t do that [nut stunt] because they didn’t know which way we were going,” he said. “Back’s neutral so it made it hard for them to pull the trigger on it because if they’re wrong, they’re really wrong.

“When he is in the gun, [the back] is offset a little bit. If he is under, he is directly behind him so it makes it harder for a defense to realize what you’re doing, which is nice.”

When the play starts out, it looks like inside zone to the right. The defense starts to flow that way, specifically the linebackers.

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Foles shows the ball to that side, and McCoy’s initial steps take him that way.

But then the play flips.

Foles switches the handoff to the opposite side.

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The offensive line blocks one way, while the receivers block the other way. The goal is to form an alley in between for McCoy.

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On this play, you’ll notice Brent Celek doing a great job on Jason Pierre-Paul, while both Eagles rookie wide receivers, Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff, pin the Giants defensive backs to the outside. The result was an 18-yard gain for McCoy.

Friend of the blog Coach Flinn was kind enough to respond to an e-mail about this play, which is sometimes called H-Reverse. The key points:

* The blocking takes advantage of inside linebackers who are plugging their gaps anticipating an inside zone run.

* The play gets the running back to a natural cut-back lane immediately, operating like a mini-reverse. Get the defense flowing one way, and hit it the other way.

* It’s a great changeup to the inside zone.

The Eagles ran this play five times and gained 62 yards against the Giants (12.4 YPC). It wasn’t always blocked up perfectly, but McCoy got some one-on-one opportunities against defensive backs and made them miss.

“There were some great plays that we really hadn’t had in that Chip and them were able to get to and take advantage of the way they were playing some things,” said Jason Kelce. “I thought that we had a really good game plan and a feel for what they were gonna try to do to us.”

Added Molk: “We were just a step ahead. We had the right move when they made the wrong move.”

THE FOUNDATION PLAYS

The changeup gave the Giants something else to think about, and they weren’t able to key in on the Eagles’ foundation plays. One of those is the split zone.

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Zach Ertz has been putting in extra time to improve his run blocking, getting work in with Jason Peters after practice. And while this was only one game, that work appears to be paying of.

Here, Ertz is going to come across the formation and take Pierre-Paul out.

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Because the Giants are in man coverage, the defensive back travels with Ertz, and he essentially gets a two-for-one block.

Peters, who had a great game, simply manhandles the defensive tackle, and a giant lane opens up for McCoy, who picks up 18 yards.

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The Eagles ran split zone five times for 25 yards (5.0 YPC)

Another foundation play is the sweep. The Eagles ran that eight times for 71 yards (8.9 YPC). On the third-quarter scoring drive, McCoy picked up 28 yards on a sweep, and then Darren Sproles scored on the same play to the other side from 15 yards out.

On the McCoy run, you can see he switches sides right before the snap. That’s another tweak the Eagles have been using to mess with the defense’s run keys.

He breaks an initial tackle and then Molk and Todd Herremans get out in front.

“We started off hitting ‘em inside under center a lot, if you noticed that, a lot more than usual,” said McCoy. “Hit ‘em inside, gashing ‘em, gashing ‘em. So then anybody, if you’re getting killed inside, you try to mush it in, which they’re a Wide-9 type of team and they kind of moved in and got the edges. With the tackles we have, they can really reach. And it’s the guys up front. They got to their keys so fast on the double blocks to the ‘backers. They played good. Even the wide receivers had a lot of good blocks today.”

Added Kelce: “Absolutely. Those two plays [split zone and sweep] in general have been our two best plays. And they’ve played off of each other really well. And we have an athletic offensive line, so we can usually make blocks in space better than most other teams. So if a team’s just gonna sit there and try to take away our inside zone, we have to be able to get to some other plays. And I thought that guys out there that were playing did a good job of that.”

SHOT PLAYS OFF PLAY-ACTION

Even when the run game’s not producing big numbers, Kelly has tended to stick with it. The Eagles are a spread-to-run team. Everything they do is connected to the run game.

“When the running game’s going, that’s what kind of makes the offense because now you can go over top, get the play-actions,” said McCoy. “Then the safeties are so conscious of the run when you’re gashing ‘em. That’s the first thing they think about. And then once that happens, you leave the corners one on one with so much space out there to make plays, and that’s how we really play. Once we get the running game going, then we have so many passes that come off the run with different options, like tonight.”

In the third quarter, with the running game having had success, Foles found Matthews for a 26-yard completion.

Up front, the Eagles showed split-zone action.

Matthews runs an over route, and with the linebackers sucked in, he gets wide open.

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Through six weeks of the season, the Eagles have the 20th-ranked offense, according to Football Outsiders. They have posted a 5-1 record behind a special teams unit that ranks first and a defense that ranks 11th.

But on Sunday, Kelly added a new wrinkle in H-Reverse and kept the Giants’ defense off-balance with his run calls. That opened things up for Foles, and the Eagles were able to effectively move the football.

There will likely be more changeups added during the bye week. Year 2 under Kelly will ultimately be about adding new tools to the toolbox and determining when to break them out.

With Kelce and Evan Mathis scheduled to return in Week 10, the offense should be in good shape to do its part during the second half of the season.