All-22: Opponents Picking Up On Eagles’ Tendencies
There were times, Josh Huff says, when Dallas’ defense knew what was coming.
“I know a couple of times this past game when I was on the Dallas sideline lined up, I would hear them call out our plays,” he said. “Not saying they were doing any SpyGate or anything like that, just saying with our tendencies that comes about where teams really focus in and hone in on how our tight ends are lined up or how we’re lined up or what the splits are.”
Lane Johnson agrees that the Cowboys had a bead on what the Eagles were trying to do offensively.
“Yeah, I think so,” said Johnson, when asked if he believed Dallas had a feel for their tendencies. “I think moving forward we have to mix it up a little bit, create some more variety of plays and try to get some confusion for the defense.”
There is no singular reason for the offense’s struggles through two weeks. The 0-line has been spotty at best; Sam Bradford has been inconsistent; the wide receivers have several drops and are not gaining separation with any regularity. The list goes on.
According to Chip Kelly, it all boils down to execution. That’s largely true, but there is something else at play here.
“I believe this offense has become somewhat predictable,” said Ron Jaworski, fresh off a full day of breaking down Eagles coaching tape at NFL Films. “When I see what Atlanta has done, I see what Dallas has done, they seem to have a pretty good [grasp] of what the Eagles are trying to do. I say that when I see their line stunts, when I see their slants, when I see guys attacking a particular gap where they are trying to run the football and stopping those running plays.
“Just think back to that 3rd-and-1 play against Atlanta when they slanted and scraped [linebacker Paul] Worrilow right into the hole and he makes the play. That didn’t happen by accident, but by film study, preparation, studying tendencies and calling the right defensive front at the right time. I saw it far too apparent in the Dallas game where the slants and the stunts were going right into the hole where the Eagles were running the football.”
The play Jaworski is referring to is the 3rd-and-1 in the fourth quarter against the Falcons when Ryan Mathews was stuffed for no gain, leading to a 44-yard field goal try by Cody Parkey that sailed wide right. As Jaws said, Worrilow fills right into the hole where Mathews ends up as if he were anticipating it.
You’ll see a similar sequence unfold below. Mathews scores a touchdown on the play, but it’s not because the Falcons were fooled.
Against Dallas, a familiar sight, only this time it’s Sean Lee flashing into the hole.
On all three examples, the defense seemed totally prepared for what was about to come its way.
‘We’re an adjustment league’
Seth Joyner thinks he’s identified a pattern while taking in the game from his couch.
“We are pretty predictable about formations and how and where we run. As I watched the game Sunday, whichever side the running back was offset to the first half, we ran opposite that side and tried to pull linemen that way,” the former Eagles linebacker explained. “[Dallas] would line up in the under or over defense away from the back and put a defensive tackle in a one technique and he would just shoot the A-Gap. (The play above demonstrates what Joyner is talking about).
“Well, if you’re trying to pull a guy, it’s almost impossible for that guard to reach him once you pull him; he’s right there on the center’s heel or he’s pushing the center back in the backfield because the guard can’t reach him. And when that happens you’ve got penetration, and once you’ve got penetration then half the field gets cut off and there is no more cutbacks.”
“Now you’re looping linebackers. Sean Lee is a great linebacker but my goodness. So many solo tackles because they got schemed.”
What Joyner picked up on proved pretty accurate. If the back lined up to one side in the first half, chances are he and the line were headed in the opposite direction.
Kelly switched it up in the second half, Joyner notes, calling sweeps to the side of the offset. This proved to be an effective change-up in the second half against Atlanta.
But Dallas was all over it.
“[The Cowboys] just made an adjustment and moved the line over and just did the exact opposite [of what they did in the first half],” said Joyner. “I just think we need to see some more complexity. Some of the same plays we saw against Atlanta are the same plays we saw against Dallas, and of course they’re going to game plan for it because that’s what they’ve seen. So where is the complexity? Where is the genius of this offense where you’re able to adjust?
“And I think the difference between the NFL and college football is that we’re an adjustment league. If you can’t adjust, then you won’t win plain and simple. And you’ve got to adjust multiple times. You can’t wait until halftime to adjust. You’ve got to see something one series, two series and you better be adjusting to it by the time you get to the third series. And I don’t see that. That’s an issue.”
‘Now the ball is in Chip’s court’
Kelly was asked if he felt like the Cowboys defense was picking up on tendencies in the ground game.
“No,” he responded. “We didn’t run a lot of plays, but we ran sweep from a running back on one side of the quarterback; we ran sweep from a running back on the same side as the quarterback; we ran sweep with motion three different ways. We were running it, but we still didn’t block them up front.
“I don’t think how we were handing it off and the formations we were running them out of, they all varied. But the biggest thing is we didn’t stop penetration all night long, especially in the run game.”
While Kelly may have altered the formations some, Lane Johnson confirmed that the Eagles have “pretty much” been leaning on just two running plays so far this season: sweep and inside zone. While that seems to be on the low end even for Kelly, the head coach has long been a minimalist when it comes to number of run plays. He explained why during a coaches clinic back in 2009 while at Oregon.
“This past season, we finished second in the country in rushing the football. We average 6.2 yards per carry. We have four running plays. We run the inside zone, outside zone, counter and draw,” he said. “If you give your players something to hang their hats on, they will perform. If they can run the offense with any scenario they may face, you will be successful in running the ball. If they have all the answers to the problems the defense may give them, they will be good.”
Plus, it’s important to carry a light sack when running tempo. The players need to get to the line, get the call and go. With defenses on their heels and winded, good technique on an endlessly-rehearsed play should be enough to get the better of the opposition.
“You can just be really good at what you do,” said tackle Dennis Kelly. “You can focus on being worried about yourself, not worrying about having what plays are going to work against certain things. You just get really good at perfecting your craft, that way no matter what you go against you know what you’re going to do.”
“The blessing is that it’s not overly complicated,” added Johnson. “The curse is that sometimes people get used to it and kind of feel what you’re going to run before you even do it.”
To combat that, Kelly uses packaged plays that can exploit a defense that thinks it’s on the scent. That is part of the beauty of the zone read. If defenders are overly-aggressive in going after the running back, the QB can pull it and head for daylight in the opposite direction. Or perhaps he’ll flick it to a wide receiver on a bubble screen or maybe even downfield.
While the Eagles still utilize packaged plays, it seems like the zone read element has all but vanished early on in the Bradford era. A QB is rarely able to audible in this system because of the tempo. Take away the zone read element as well, and you’re talking about an offense that is not totally flush with options from a quarterback’s perspective.
“I just think that for this offense to run at its optimum, you’ve gotta have a mobile quarterback,” said Jaworski. “Teams are paying no respect to Sam Bradford as a runner. Absolutely zero. So even if he can’t run, they’re going to have to call some plays for him just to get outside and let him slide or else there’s not going to be any respect for the edge of the defense away from the point of attack.”
This isn’t the first time that Kelly’s normally high-flying offense has stumbled. Following the loss to Dallas Sunday, he referenced a similar funk back in 2013 when the Eagles lost to the Cowboys 17-3 and the Giants 15-7. They rebounded to go 7-1 down the stretch, as the offense finished No. 1 in rushing (160 yards per game) and No. 2 overall.
“I just think we kind of get back to basics. It’s still a fundamental football game,” said Kelly.
It is, and Kelly has had a good deal of success at every level relying not on a multitude of elaborate plays, but rather a short stack of dressed-up old reliables that can be executed and executed well in just about any circumstance.
It’s a fundamental football game, but a fundamental football game played in an adjustment league, as Joyner termed it. A lot of tape has been put out there since 2013, a lot of tendencies analyzed and discovered. The Niners last year said they were able to decode some of Kelly’s plays pre-snap. Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright called the offense “basic” and the Eagles a “pretty simple team.”
This season, the first two opponents seemed to have a good feel for what was coming their way, and the most recent one was apparently shouting out the plays from the sideline before they happened. So it’s likely not as simple as running the plays that are called better. It’s also about evolving to account for the defenses that have evolved.
“I’m familiar with how coaching staffs and scouting departments in this league work,” said Jaworski. “And maybe the fan just doesn’t understand the time and energy that coaching staffs put in to shut down other people. And I don’t mean in like a weekly game plan, but the entire offseason where they study every single thing that you do and they work to put a plan in place on how to stop a team. And now there’s two years of tape on this offense and I think to a certain degree, teams have figured the plan out. Now the ball is in Chip’s court and Pat Shurmur’s court. How do they counter what teams are doing?”
“I think coaches realize that, players realize that and we have to come together collectively and get it fixed,” said Johnson of the need to switch things up. “As far as moving forward, I think we have a lot more plays we’re going to try to introduce to create more confusion.”