All-22: The Offense With Sanchez At the Helm
During the days leading up to the Eagles-Texans game, Brent Celek spent part of his film-watching sessions focusing in on J.J. Watt.
For some tight ends, that might seem unusual. For Celek, it was not.
“When you watch him on film, he lined up at every single position,” Celek said. “So I knew there was gonna be times where I was gonna line up against him, and then it happened.”
Since Chip Kelly took over, the 29-year-old tight end has entered a new stage in his career. The days of catching 70+ balls (like Celek did back in 2009) are over. Instead, he spends more than 50 percent of his snaps as a run blocker. And on Sunday, that meant occasionally getting matched up against Watt.
“That was a halftime adjustment for them,” Kelly said. “I think we were having some run success going to the tight end. So they actually moved him from defensive tackle to defensive end to try to stop that.”
When all is said and done this season, we could look at the Eagles’ four-play, 70-yard drive in the third quarter against the Texans as a turning point. Running the football is what Kelly and his staff want to do. That is the preferred identity of this offense. But often this year, the run game has been unsuccessful.
Against Houston, with the Eagles clinging to a three-point lead, they ran it four times in a row – twice with LeSean McCoy and twice with Chris Polk. On the first play of the drive, Celek found himself face to face with Watt.
The call was a sweep to the left. Celek’s job was to pin Watt inside while Matt Tobin and Jason Kelce pulled to the outside and got out in space.
Asked what the key is on this specific block, Celek said: “For me, it’s [to] move my feet fast. Latch on, and once I get into ‘em, I feel like I can do a good job. But really before I get into ‘em, move my feet, sometimes try to influence ‘em, but it’s all about foot quickness.”
Here, you can see Celek did a fantastic job. Watt tried to cut upfield, and Celek pinned him, allowing McCoy to get outside.
“Watching him on film, he’s not a very physical guy when it comes to running through guys,” said Celek. “He’s a very quick guy, he’s got quick feet, he’s very good at swimming. So I just knew to sit in place a little bit, let him make his move and then go after him. That’s what I tried to do. But that guy’s a great player. He’s definitely hard to block.”
Later on the drive, the Eagles ran another sweep, but this one was to the right side. This time, Watt took himself out of the play. He started to move outside before changing course and knifing upfield, but it was too late. He wasn’t able to get to Chris Polk, and the Eagles had a 22-yard gain.
“He’s always key, and I think that he’s a guy that doesn’t get enough credit,” said Jason Kelce when asked about Celek. “The ultimate team player, unselfish guy, willing to do anything to help the team win. And he was great on Sunday. The way he was blocking J.J. Watt, to have a tight end that’s able to handle the best defensive lineman, arguably in the NFL, that’s hard to come by.”
The Eagles have gone to the sweep often this season, and with Kelce and Evan Mathis both in the lineup going forward, that will continue. The offensive linemen who are out front often get the notice, but Celek has done a tremendous job of handling the defensive linemen all season long.
THE GOOD WITH SANCHEZ
With Mark Sanchez running the show, the basic concepts and principles of the Eagles’ offense won’t change. But make no mistake about it: It’s Kelly’s job to cater the scheme to his new signal-caller.
“I don’t have an offense,” Kelly said. “I’ve said that since day one. Our offense is directed around our quarterback. So tell me who is playing quarterback, and I’ll tell you what our offense is going to be and how it’s going to look, because we can always cater it to the skills of our offense. That’s the beauty of what we’re doing here.”
Against the Texans, Sanchez went 15-for-22 for 202 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Per Pro Football Focus, he only attempted one pass of 20+ yards. It’s a small sample size, but could be a hint at one of the changes on offense. With Nick Foles on the field, 18.9 percent of the Eagles’ pass plays traveled 20+ yards from the line of scrimmage. That was the second-highest mark in the league.
Sanchez got rid of the ball quicker and relied on the run game. That would seem to be the correct formula to employ going forward.
“I think we run a quarterback-friendly system, as long as you’re a good decision-maker,” said offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. “You’ve heard me say this time and time again, but the number one attribute for a quarterback is being able to make good, solid decisions. You’ve got to be a good decision-maker. Then you’ve got to have a sense of timing, and then you’ve got to be an accurate thrower.”
Asked why he thinks the Eagles’ system is QB-friendly, Shurmur added: “I think it’s friendly because the progressions are pretty cut and dry, where we want the football to go based on what the defense is, and then you always factor in matchups, and we don’t bog them down with a lot of silly things. So the ball can come out quickly.”
Sanchez’s touchdown to Jordan Matthews is a good example. The Eagles ran a vertical concept, and Matthews was the targeted receiver from the snap. Sanchez pump-faked the safety, although he wasn’t in position to make a play anyway, and made a beautiful throw to Matthews down the seam.
Sanchez has nailed this throw consistently dating back to the summer. Matthews and the tight ends should see plenty of seam throws coming their way in future weeks.
THE BAD WITH SANCHEZ
Foles got crushed this year for his 3.2 percent interception rate. For his career, Sanchez has an interception rate of 3.8 percent. In his last 32 games, Sanchez has thrown 38 interceptions and fumbled 24 times.
The quarterback acknowledged the issue this week and thinks he can correct it.
“Right before halftime, J.J. Watt came through, and I tried to escape him,” Sanchez said. “I’ve been in that situation a bunch where the ball’s flailing around and it gets knocked out of your hand and you try to throw it at that last second, and I literally just dropped to the ground.
“That hurts as a competitor. That sucks. It’s not fun. But I knew we had a field goal in the bag, and I knew [Cody] Parkey’s been money, so let’s not squander an opportunity to get points going into halftime up 17-14 and see where this game takes us. I think in the past I might have tried to make a play, tried to do too much, tried to push a little too hard and that’s where you turn over the ball.”
Here’s the play Sanchez was describing.
Watching live, I wondered why the Eagles just left Watt unblocked on this play. Lane Johnson explained.
“I was expecting him to run with me to collect him, and he just came off,” Johnson said. “But my job is to go left, sell the run to try to get the linebackers drawn up, and if I can collect him, I will. But in that case, he just sprinted out and went right towards Mark.”
Sanchez didn’t exactly crumble right away. He tried to spin out of Watt’s grasp at first, but eventually went down.
And then there are the interceptions. One bounced off of Josh Huff’s hands and wasn’t Sanchez’s fault. And really, the other pick was probably more on Riley Cooper than Sanchez.
“Coop and Jordan got jammed up,” Kelly said. “They were in man coverage. Coop got funneled inside, Jordan got funneled outside. The two of them got twisted. I think [Sanchez] expected Coop to be at the top of his stem and coming out of his cut, but because there was a little bit of contact going on there between, there was actually two DBs and two receivers, four guys over there.”
In other words, Cooper had trouble getting off his jam within the first 5 yards, and it threw off the timing of the play.
Andrew Gardner got beaten by Watt on the play, and Sanchez had to either get rid of the ball or take a sack. It certainly wasn’t the best decision, but one that’s understandable, given the circumstances.
Probably more concerning was the near-pick he threw earlier in the game.
Sanchez was expecting defensive back Andre Hal to come down to account for Matthews, but Hal read Sanchez, dropped to Cooper and should have had an interception. That’s a throw Sanchez can’t make.
According to Football Outsiders, the Eagles have turned the ball over on 20 percent of their offensive possessions. That’s the worst mark in the league. Sanchez’s success in the coming weeks will be predicated on his ability to take care of the football, something that has been an issue in the past.
In terms of the scheme helping Sanchez, I asked Kelly about his system being QB-friendly.
“I’ve never really thought of it that way,” he said. “I just think we try to make it a friendly system for the QB, the running back, the O‑line, the wide receivers. I think that’s your job as a coach. If you make it too complicated where your players don’t understand it, therefore they’re thinking [too much] and they can’t go out and execute, then shame on you as a coach. I would say any system that’s not QB friendly, then it’s probably a bad system.”
His point is a good one. Kelly’s strength has been putting his players in positions to succeed. But it’s not like this unit has been humming along. The Eagles’ offense ranks 18th in Football Outsiders’ ratings and 20th in passing. Injuries up front and erratic QB play have limited offensive production. The team is 6-2 because it has the best special teams in the league, the defense is much-improved and the offense has done just enough.
With the offensive line healthier than it’s been all season, and with Polk and Darren Sproles aiding McCoy, look for the rushing attack to lead the offense in the weeks ahead. Sanchez will be asked to make good decisions and exploit defenses that hone in on McCoy, which is bound to happen.
His ability to do those things will determine how successful the offense can be in the weeks ahead.