All-22: Why the Eagles Abandoned the Run
Their success was essentially a foregone conclusion. Yes, they lost a two-time Pro Bowler and a second starter, but the Eagles’ offensive line still had a lot of talent. Their new pair of guards transitioned smoothly in the preseason, so expectations for the unit were relatively high.
Then Monday night happened.
The Eagles scored only three points in the first half, largely because the offensive line failed to open up holes in the running game. Their ineffectiveness led to not only three-and-outs, but drives in which the Eagles didn’t gain a single yard (and one that resulted in a loss of eight yards).
Because they struggled to run the ball, Chip Kelly quickly turned to the passing game. Although Sam Bradford ended up throwing for 336 passing yards and one touchdown, the Eagles dug themselves too big of a hole to climb out of even after scoring 21 points in the second half.
“The offensive line didn’t play well enough to win the game,” right guard Andrew Gardner said. “That’s all there is to it. You can’t come out as a team—and as an offensive line—and play the way we did early and then try to make up for it later in the game.”
‘WE DID NOT HANDLE THAT WELL’
When asked by a reporter yesterday about the performance of his offensive line, Chip Kelly categorically dismissed criticisms of the unit’s run blocking.
“Well, we didn’t call many runs. So I think it’s a misconception to say that we didn’t run the ball very well,” Kelly said. “It’s tough to evaluate the run if we are not running it.”
Although he makes a fair point about having a small sample size, it’s not tough at all to evaluate how effective Philadelphia’s 16 running plays were. The Eagles averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, which for comparison’s sake, would place them in the bottom third of the NFL in last season’s team rushing rankings.
You could also see their struggles from the start of the game—not to mention talking to the players themselves.
On their second run play of the game, the Eagles faced 1st-and-10 from their own 20-yard-line. With DeMarco Murray in the game, Kelly called a sweep to the right.
Because of Atlanta’s defensive front, center Jason Kelce and Gardner are the two linemen who pulled on the play. Right tackle Lane Johnson blocked down on the defensive tackle, while tight end Brent Celek stood up the outside linebacker (who’s in a three-point stance on the edge) before moving to the second level.
Gardner’s responsibility is to block the first person he sees when coming around the edge—which will be the outside linebacker after Celek leaves him. Then, Kelce comes around to block the next defender in sight. On the backside, both left guard Allen Barbre and left tackle Jason Peters are responsible for the defender in front of them.
However, before Murray even gets the handoff, the play is already in trouble. Johnson gets beaten inside and the defensive tackle is already three yards into the backfield.
Because of the penetration, the first thing Murray does after securing the ball is stiff arming the lineman five yards in the backfield. Then, he’s met by the outside linebacker who Gardner didn’t get to in time. Somehow, Murray breaks both of those tackles.
However, after eluding the outside linebacker, Murray is met by more Falcons even deeper in the backfield.
The Eagles lost 12 yards on the play, even after Atlanta declined Johnson’s holding penalty.
“They weren’t really reading anything,” Kelce said. “They were just trying to get up field, trying to wreak havoc. We did not handle that well.”
Rewind the tape to the Eagles’ first run play—when they faced 2nd-and-8 from their own 22-yard-line—and look at what Murray saw after he received the handoff. The Eagles’ lack of success with the inside zone—which a few players called their “bread and butter”—was a significant reason why the Eagles struggled.
Note that both outside linebackers are firmly behind the line of scrimmage, and the rest of the defenders aren’t far behind. Because Atlanta played with one safety closer to the line of scrimmage to help in run support, Murray can’t cut back where there’s more space.
He ends up running up the middle and gaining two yards.
“We couldn’t really get much movement on their defensive line,” Kelly said. “They are a one-gap penetrating line, getting up the field, and they did a good job.”
Outside of struggling at the point of attack, the Eagles’ offensive line also had difficulty with the Falcons’ stunts. Even when Ryan Mathews ran for a one-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, they didn’t block a “nut-stunt” well.
The defensive tackle quickly got into the backfield by lining up in one ‘A’ gap and shooting into the other. Meanwhile, Barbre looks like he got away with a hold.
Four of the starting offensive linemen agreed that communication and being able to recognize when a stunt is coming is key to blocking them, but Kelce also explained that the offensive line’s chemistry isn’t where it needs to be yet.
When asked after Monday night’s game whether the starting offensive line played enough in the preseason together, he was unsure.
“I don’t know,” Kelce said. “Obviously we’re still trying to build a little bit of chemistry up front with two new guys being in there. We knew what they were going to do before the game; we knew what was going on. They really didn’t play too much differently than we expected them to do. We just got beat.”
After the offensive line’s first half struggles (every starter also committed a penalty and they let Bradford get pressured when he threw his first interception), they clearly cleaned up their play in the final two quarters.
Although the consensus among the offensive line was that they simply executed better and that no major halftime adjustments were made, the Eagles also attacked the perimeter more.
That includes Darren Sproles’ 27-yard rush to the Falcons’ 10-yard-line in the third quarter.
On this play, Kelce and Johnson are the two linemen pulling while Gardner and Celek block down. On the backside, Barbre stands up the defensive tackle so left tackle Matt Tobin can get leverage and be in between the ball and the defender. Then, Barbre comes off and advances to the second level to cut off a scraping linebacker.
“That play has gone off of our inside zone play very well over the past few years,” Kelce said. “If the linebackers want to run up hill, that’s a play we can get to.”
Unlike the first outside run the Eagles called, the offensive line blocked this to perfection. Celek sealed the outside linebacker to the inside, Johnson kicked out another linebacker to the perimeter and Kelce came around to cut the safety.
This gave Sproles a huge alley to run through as he was untouched for about 25 yards.
“They did a good job of stopping us—we didn’t get much movement on the down linemen,” Johnson said. “When they did that, we started going more outside and put bigger guys on smaller guys in space.”
MOVING THE BALL
One criticism leveled at Kelly after Monday night was about the Eagles running 52 pass plays and only 16 run plays. Why did he do that?
Kelce, who was asked after the game if he was surprised about how little the Eagles ran the ball, offered his explanation.
“With how much we were struggling running the ball in the first half, that’s not surprising at all,” Kelce said. “If we would’ve established a running game earlier, we would’ve ran the ball more. But if you’re someone calling the plays and something’s not working, why would you keep calling it?”
Another criticism wasn’t just about Bradford attempting 52 passes, but that the quarterback didn’t take many shots down the field. The head coach took this question on directly before practice yesterday.
“Sam’s got as strong an arm as anyone in the league,” Kelly said. “But when you’re playing that type of defense, they are not going to let the ball—and that’s part of their theory, they kept the ball in front of them. But when keeping the ball in front of them, we had no issues moving the ball in the second half.
“But if that’s what they are going to do, I don’t think you prove anything to anybody and say, ‘Even though they are back there, we are just going to throw the ball up.’ I mean, that’s kind of silly to be honest with you.”
Kelly was correct in terms of Atlanta doing a good job of taking away the deep ball while leaving short throws wide open.
For example, when the Eagles faced 1st-and-16 from Atlanta’s 41-yard-line, Riley Cooper took a short two-yard pass and turned it into an easy 12-yard gain. These types of opportunities were readily available because the Falcons left the flat and underneath routes open.
Zach Ertz explained how the Falcons dropped deep into their zone, making it difficult for receivers to get open down the field.
“A lot of people were saying Sam was checking the ball down, but that’s what the defense was giving us and we’re going to take that every time,” Ertz said. “That’s the open spot of the defense.”