All-22: Inside Sam Bradford’s Struggles

Why have the Eagles struggled to throw the ball down field?

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

The Eagles’ philosophy is simple.

“Our whole way of looking at it is not be satisfied with just 10-6, 10-6,” Jeffrey Lurie said in March. “It’s to try and go for it. You got to take risks to do that. It’s worth it to take the risk.”

Perhaps the biggest risk Philadelphia has taken so far in Chip Kelly’s tenure is trading Nick Foles for Sam Bradford. Foles threw for 40 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions and 5,054 yards in 21 games under Kelly. Bradford, meanwhile, had only played in seven games in the previous two seasons at the time the deal was made.

“We felt like to get a player of Sam’s caliber, it wouldn’t have happened unless he was injured,” Kelly said, “and we’re confident in our training staff and our strength and conditioning coaches that they can help him in his rehab and get him back to where he was when he was the top player in the draft.”

Through three games this season, Bradford hasn’t missed a snap. His downside hasn’t come from staying on the sideline, but being on the field. He ranks second-to-last in the NFL in yards per attempt, fourth-to-last in passer rating and has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns.

Although Bradford and the passing attack have clearly been hurt by an abysmal run game and potential predictability problems, his performance has revitalized criticism of the risk Kelly took on him.

THE DEEP BALL

In 2013, the Eagles set an NFL record with 99 offensive plays of at least 20 yards, with five a game coming through the air. Two years later, that number has been cut in half as the Eagles average just 2.33 passing plays of at least 20 yards a game.

The reason? Bradford hasn’t completed — or even attempted — many passes down field. He has only thrown three balls more than 20 yards this season and connected on zero of them. Among passes thrown 11 to 20 yards, he’s completed 6 of 17 attempts for a 23.5 passer rating.

“I’ve said this since day one, how people defend you is how your game will express itself,” Kelly said. “No one’s allowing us to throw the ball down the field because they’re playing back off again. If the [defensive backs] lined up ten yards deep, why are you trying to throw the ball deep? That’s silly.”

Coverage

Although there are certainly times when Bradford has nowhere to throw down field (more on that below), opportunities clearly exist.  On Bradford’s first pass attempt Sunday, the Jets played man coverage with a single safety deep and a linebacker in zone over the middle of the field.

The Eagles lined up in an empty formation with trips (three receivers) to the right side of the formation. Riley Cooper, who was the middle receiver on the trips side, ran a 12-yard in route. Nelson Agholor, who was the outside receiver next to Cooper, ran a go route.

Pass

Before Bradford started his throwing motion, the rookie receiver already had a step on Darrelle Revis. However, Bradford targeted Cooper and nearly threw an interception to the linebacker in zone.

Players were (understandably) reluctant to discuss the details of these plays, so Cooper certainly could’ve come before Agholor in Bradford’s progression. Cooper was also held on the play by Antonio Cromartie, which led to an automatic first down.

However, it appears Bradford should’ve recognized the linebacker dropping back and held onto the ball. The offensive line did an outstanding job on this play in pass protection — a theme throughout the game — and gave him plenty of time.

Although there have been other opportunities for Bradford to throw the ball down field, he’s also been hurt by his teammates, as Kelly mentioned.

The Eagles have struggled running the ball, ranking third-to-last in the NFL with 2.7 yards per carry. Because they pick up few yards on early downs, coverages can sit back and give up underneath routes.

In the season opener, when penalties also hurt Philadelphia, this problem was particularly evident.

Coverage 2

Early in the first quarter, the Eagles faced 3rd-and-20 from their own 10-yard-line. Because of that, the Falcons lined up far off the ball, as pictured above. When Bradford completed his drop back, the potential for a deep pass — or even a first down — didn’t look promising.

Dropback

The Falcons had seven defenders who were about as far back as the two deepest Eagles, forcing Bradford to dump the ball off to Darren Sproles.

“It just felt like we were playing behind the sticks all day,” Bradford said after game. “It seems like we can’t get anything going on first down which put us in second and long, third and really long.”

Coverage 2

This occurs far more than the Eagles would like. Against the Jets, they faced 3rd-and-20 early in the third quarter. When Bradford dropped back, he had nowhere to throw down field and again dumped the ball off to Sproles.

“They’re going to make you run for first downs and that’s what we have to do,” Kelly said. “It really is dictated by what people play against us.”

DROPS

When your quarterback struggles, you hope your receivers can pick up the slack. For Bradford, however, that hasn’t necessarily been the case. According to Sporting Charts, five Eagles rank in the top-50 in the NFL in drop percentage, including Ryan Mathews at No. 2.

“Sam was off target a couple times [Sunday], and we had a couple untimely drops by guys that in the game were playing extremely well,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “We had a couple of wheel routes that might have gone for touchdowns had they been executed; where we caught one later, which did go for a touchdown. You’ve just got to just keep working and get everybody in sync and I think that’s going to be the challenge.”

Kelly added: “I don’t know if we’ve seen more, but I just think it seems like they are at critical times. It’s a third-and-3 and the third down is going to convert and then there’s the drop.”

Sometimes, Bradford contributes to the drops by throwing balls the receivers can catch, but in tough locations.

On one play against the Jets, he had Agholor crossing over the middle. Instead of hitting him in stride, he made the rookie fall to the ground to attempt to make the catch. On another play, he made Mathews completely turn around on a wheel route because the ball was thrown behind Mathews.

However, there have been perfectly-placed balls that receivers have dropped. One of those came against New York and could’ve lead to a big play, as shown in this video.

DEFENSIVE ADJUSTMENTS

If you ask Shurmur, there are three key elements that determine whether a pass will be completed.

“Our passing game, we’ve just got to get the total game in sync,” he said. “There’s three components when you don’t complete a ball. It could be the protection, it could be the route and it could be the throw. I think when you look at our passing game and you look at the problems we’ve had with it, it’s a combination of those three.”

Through three games, it seems safe to say the problem isn’t the protection. According to Pro Football Reference, only two quarterbacks in the NFL have been sacked at a lower rate than Bradford. Film review also confirmed Bradford had good pockets to throw from, particularly against New York.

However, there are also larger components at play.

Defenses are making schematic adjustments to Kelly’s passing attack by running more zone coverage than man-to-man. According to Kelly, defenses ran man-to-man about 60 percent of the time in his first season. Last year, the numbers flipped and defenses ran zone about 60 percent of the time. This year, the trend seems to be continuing.

“It was a change of over 20 percent in terms of how people played us and defended us, and rightly so,” Kelly said. “We got the ball over the top. A lot of guys were getting the ball over the top. People don’t like getting the ball thrown over their heads so they’re going to back up.”

Defenses may be changing not only how they defend the field vertically against the Eagles, but also horizontally. This season, no outside receiver ranks in the top-five on the team in receptions or yards.

“It’s a good question. I don’t know [why that is],” Bradford said. “Maybe it’s the way we’ve been calling the game, maybe it’s the way defenses have been playing us. Obviously, we feel really good with the matchups that we’ve had inside. With [Zach] Ertz and Jordan [Matthews] and Sproles, we feel that any time we can get those guys matched up inside, whether it be a safety, a ‘backer or a nickel, those are usually matchups that we like.”

According to Shurmur, however, the offense works best when attacking every part of the field. That’s why he hopes to see a more balanced attack going forward.

“Normally when we play our best is when the ball gets spread around and gets kicked around to all the skill players,” he said. “Balance is a good thing.”