All-22: Option Football With Sanchez
As LeSean McCoy made his way from the locker room to his post-game press conference at AT&T Stadium last week, a defensive assistant congratulated him on his 159-yard effort against the Dallas Cowboys.
“Them boys up front,” McCoy shouted back. “They were blowing [stuff] up.”
McCoy and others noted that the offensive performance reminded them of 2013. Last season, the Eagles relied on a dominant run game, play-action and a downfield passing attack for the most successful offensive season in franchise history. But those second two things don’t work unless the first one gets on track. And that was the story offensively from the Eagles’ 33-10 win.
The offensive line opened up holes, McCoy made guys miss, Mark Sanchez took care of the ball, and the Eagles had themselves a happy Thanksgiving.
Sanchez has admitted that the zone read aspect of the Eagles’ offense has been difficult to grasp. In his first four games (three starts), he’d had opportunities to pull the ball and gain yards on his own, but he was hesitant. On the occasions when he did keep it, he looked shaky.
Like any self-respecting football coach will tell you, reps matter. And in his fourth start, Sanchez made sound decisions, which helped the rushing attack. It started in the first quarter with the Eagles facing a 2nd-and-goal from the Dallas 2-yard-line. Sanchez read defensive end Jeremy Mincey. Mincey crashed inside, Sanchez kept the ball, and the Eagles had a touchdown.
“You’ve just gotta read it out and continue to trust it,” Sanchez said afterwards. “That’s been one of the toughest things for me. Coaches have been great. To be honest, the one down at the goal line, [Nick] Foles has helped out a lot. Just when we’re watching film and watching run plays and stuff, he’ll just chime in and say, ‘Hey, that’s a give. This is a keep. This is boom.’ When we’re watching his film or other guys’ film that were playing Dallas, so he’s been a huge help.”
Kelly’s run game – as currently constructed – doesn’t have to be about quarterbacks gaining big chunks of yardage (although that certainly would be a nice option to have). It’s about the QB being able to account for defenders in the box.
“They were trying to bend the end and tried to take away the back,” Kelly said. “And obviously, when they try to outnumber us, the quarterback can be a weapon at certain points of time during the game. We saw some things from the sidelines and just that if they presented the same look, there’s an opportunity for us to pick up some yards.”
Here’s another example from later in the first quarter. This time, the Eagles leave the 3-technique, Tyron Crawford, unblocked and run a sweep.
Evan Mathis runs right past Crawford to get to the second level, and Crawford freezes when he’s face-to-face with Sanchez.
Had Crawford gone straight for McCoy, Sanchez would have had the option to pull the ball and run with it. Instead, he handed it off, and McCoy picked up a nice gain on the sweep.
The Cowboys looked unprepared for these plays all game long, although to be fair, that might be more of a personnel/talent issue than anything else.
In the second half, Sanchez fooled the All-22 camera guy and kept the ball for a 13-yard gain.
On the very next play, look at defensive end Anthony Spencer pause for a second to keep an eye on Sanchez. Lane Johnson (who had his best game of the season, in my opinion) does a great job of getting off his double-team to the linebacker, and McCoy picks up 9 yards.
“It holds some guys,” said McCoy. “I’m used to them guys just crashing the reads. They figure we’d rather live with the quarterback running than let Shady get it. But when he pulls it, it keeps the guys honest, and I can get the ball and run a little bit.”
Another example on a 6-yard McCoy run. Spencer hesitates on Sanchez once again.
“Whenever you have a guy keep it a few times, you can make the ends play more honest,” said Jason Kelce. “Sometimes it doesn’t help because teams, they’ll give up a 20-yard run as long as the quarterback’s holding onto the ball and they get hits on him. But I think that sometimes when you keep the ball and you are screwing around with the end, it puts in the back of his head, it screws with his read a little bit.”
The question going forward will be: How much are teams going to respect Sanchez as a runner? He’s a better mover than Foles, but it’s not like he’s Russell Wilson, either. Either way, last week demonstrated that it helps the run game when Sanchez at least convinces the defense that he’s willing to keep the ball on occasion.
TEMPO, TEMPO, TEMPO…
The Cowboys have now faced Kelly and the Eagles three times, yet last week the tempo seemed to catch them off-guard.
“We wanted to press the tempo on them fast and see if they could hang,” Johnson said. “I think we ran the plays as fast as we have. We pushed the tempo and got to 14 pretty quick. That made a statement early.”
Here’s a 3rd-and-2 play from the Eagles’ first drive. McCoy and Darren Sproles line up together in the backfield, a look the Eagles have not shown often. The Cowboys are in man coverage, so when Sanchez puts Sproles in motion, someone has to travel with him.
It takes the Cowboys too long to figure out who that someone is going to be. You can see from the film that Orlando Scandrick is slow to shift over, and the Eagles have an easy pitch and catch for 4 yards and a first down.
The tempo impacted Dallas in the run game as well.
“It was fast,” said defensive lineman Jeremy Mincey. “You have to give them credit. They did a good job of game-planning us. We were losing gaps, which we usually don’t do. We can always get better at that. We just have to focus on what we need to do and we’ll be fine.”
McCoy has gained 289 yards and averaged 6.3 YPC in the past two games. As we’ve seen for the better part of two seasons, when the rushing attack works, everything else works for this offense.
There’s no doubt that the offensive line is playing better, and McCoy is helped by the fact that the Eagles will start the same five guys in front of him for the third game in a row Sunday. But it’s also worth noting that Tennessee and Dallas rank 30th and 24th against the run, according to Football Outsiders.
For all the talk about Seattle’s secondary, the Seahawks rank fifth against the run. If the Eagles can get McCoy going vs. Pete Carroll’s squad, it’ll be a strong indication that this could be an offense that’s finally clicking on all cylinders.
As for Sanchez, he fumbled once against the Cowboys, but otherwise did a good job of taking care of the ball. While Kelly has stressed that the offense hasn’t changed from Foles to Sanchez, what he really means is that he has the same tools at his disposal. The tools he’s using to use, however, have changed.
For example, 18.9 percent of Foles’ passes traveled 20+ yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus. That’s tied for second in the NFL. With Sanchez, that number is 12.5 percent, which ranks 18th. Sanchez takes fewer shots downfield and gets rid of the ball quicker. He’s been good on plays designed to get him out of the pocket and has done a good job of dealing with pressure. On the season, Sanchez is averaging 8.02 yards per attempt, sixth in the league. Foles averaged 6.96 (26th).
The Seahawks will easily be the best defense the Eagles face in the last month of the season. Their three other opponents – the Cowboys, Washington and the Giants – rank 24th, 26th and 25th, respectively, in defensive DVOA. Seattle is sixth.
The formula will stay the same: run game, tempo, play-action pass. There’s always room for improvement in terms of execution, but if the offense can perform like it did on Thanksgiving, Eagles fans will be smiling going into January.