All-22: Behind the Offensive Line’s Bad Start
Jason Kelce was extremely frustrated after the Eagles’ loss to the Redskins Sunday, calling the offensive line “a disgrace.” When he met with reporters Tuesday after practice, he didn’t back off his comments at all.
“I still think that through the first four weeks, we have been a disgrace,” Kelce said. “We haven’t been able to run the ball. Especially with the backs that we have, we should have rushing yards. We don’t give the offensive coaches and head coach the confidence to call run plays, because we’re not consistent.”
Despite spending more than $50 million in the offseason on DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, the Eagles rank 30th in the NFL in rushing yards per game (70) and 31st in yards per carry (3.1). Although they appeared to take a big step forward in the box score Sunday by reaching nearly five yards a rush, that mark dips below 3.5 when eliminating Murray’s 30-yard run.
Their inconsistent rushing attack has kept the Eagles behind the chains, making third downs longer and putting the passing game in a tougher situation. After finishing in the top-10 in the NFL in third down conversion percentage the last two seasons, Philadelphia ranks 31st this year.
“Common theme when we are not successful is a lack of success on first and second down, so we are getting into longer third down situations,” Chip Kelly said. “If we can be a little more consistent on first and second down, it would put us into more manageable third downs. We’d be in a good situation.”
With a quarter of the season gone, the Eagles’ offensive line has shown some improvement. However, they’re still holding the rest of the unit back. The offense has had other issues — including drops and rarely attacking the field vertically — but the offensive line’s success is paramount.
Kelce explained that although his unit has grown since the start of the season, it’s not happening quick enough.
“That’s what is a disgrace is that we’re not getting it fixed,” Kelce said. “The bottom line is our defense is good enough. Our offense struggled to move the ball when we don’t do our job and that’s been the thing from the beginning of the season. That’s been exactly what stalled out our offense from the beginning all the way through these first four games.”
‘EVERYBODY TAKES THEIR TURN’
Perhaps the most concerning element of the offensive line’s struggles thus far is there’s no simple fix. When re-watching the game film, you see a plethora of miscues from several different players.
“I don’t think there’s any one reason why it’s not getting better,” Kelce said. “It just hasn’t been a unified offense out there. There’s mistakes from everyone across the board. Everybody takes their turn.”
When Kelce says everybody, he’s not being hyperbolic. A 2014 Pro Bowler, the center is included in that.
Early in the second quarter against Washington, the Eagles faced 1st-and-10 from their own 30-yard-line. Murray lost five yards on an outside zone, however, even after stiff-arming three defenders.
As soon as Murray takes the handoff, he has to go backward to avoid a defensive lineman who beat Kelce.
“Before the snap I’m trying to think, ‘Okay, if I can get outside this guy, we’ve got a great play,'” Kelce said. “I’m trying to force the ball outside. If I just take my proper footwork, and I’m ready for that slant, and I stay on that, we have a chance for a good play. But because I’m trying to do something before the snap, overthinking that, and not just doing my job, all of a sudden the guy is looping behind me into the backfield.”
As Kelce mentioned, it appears the play could’ve gone for big yards if he sealed the defensive lineman. Instead, Murray had no opportunity to make a play.
“I’ve got to do a better job of being able to react to that in the middle of a play,” Kelce said. “Those slants and angles have killed us since Dallas. We’ve got to do a better job with that.”
Soon after the second half started, an offensive lineman again was beaten almost immediately after the snap. This time it was Matt Tobin, who shifted from right guard to left tackle after Jason Peters left the game injured.
Although his man didn’t make the tackle, Tobin’s defender did delay Murray’s ability to cut up field. He forced the running back to take a couple of steps backward and helped give the defense more time to get off their blocks and make the tackle for a zero-yard gain.
“There, you just can’t go as far with your feet, because you’re probably over-setting a bit, and then you have to use your hands to punch them and stop their momentum,” Tobin said. “Playing tackle is more spatial awareness, when to punch, when not to punch, moving your feet and a lot of times mirroring the guy because they’re fast. At guard, they’ll just try to straight run you over. They’re two different things.”
Although the Eagles’ offensive line has been poor in the run game, they did a good job in pass protection through the first three weeks. After the Jets win, only two quarterbacks in the NFL had been sacked at a lower rate than Bradford.
However, Bradford was sacked five times Sunday, nearly tripling his season total.
“It’s not being on the same page. It’s not handling a slant, an angle. It’s not handling proper footwork,” Kelce said. “It’s a lot of different things that are really resulting in really, really poor plays for us.”
When the Eagles trailed by three points with 20 seconds left in the game Sunday, they faced 2nd-and-3 from their own 27-yard-line. Then, the offensive line gave up two consecutive sacks, effectively ending their comeback bid.
Lane Johnson, who has often been the Eagles’ best offensive lineman this season, gave up the sack on the first play and a pressure on the second. On both, Bradford had a wide open receiver about 10 yards past the first down mark.
“I didn’t get a good kick off,” Johnson said. “I didn’t kick how I was normally kicking. Usually I get a bunch of depth, and the last two kicks, I didn’t get nearly as much depth as I needed to. It’s just me not playing how I’m supposed to play. I should’ve gotten a lot more depth and let Sam step up in the pocket.”
Next to Johnson, Dennis Kelly also had a rough outing in pass protection. Kelly entered the game at right guard after Tobin switched to left tackle. Kelly and Johnson gave up a sack after a miscommunication in the second quarter, but Kelly also gave up a pressure that exemplified the chemistry issues the Eagles experienced.
Right before the snap, Kelly had to look in the backfield so he could relay to Kelce when Bradford was ready for the ball. However, Washington changed their alignment when Kelly turned around, which the right guard didn’t realize.
“He was my guy,” Kelly said. “When I was looking forward, there was a linebacker. But then I looked back to check if Sam was ready and they had switched so I didn’t see that. We just got to communicate on that.”
Similar to the other sacks and hurries, Bradford didn’t have the time — or the pocket — needed to hit an open receiver. Although he did a great job of escaping the unblocked rusher, Bradford wasn’t able to connect with Riley Cooper on this third down play.
THE TIGHT ENDS
Brent Celek, who typically excels in run blocking, has had his struggles so far this season. In the middle of the fourth quarter Sunday when the Eagles were trying to put away the Redskins, Philadelphia faced 1st-and-10 from midfield.
However, Celek committed an egregious hold, which pushed the Eagles back to 1st-and-20 and led them to punt three plays later.
According to Zach Ertz, defenses appear to be keying in on whether the Eagles are running or passing depending on who the tight end is. If true, this may partially explain some of Celek’s blown assignments.
“It depends who’s in the game, whether it’s Brent or myself, the defense is going to change,” Ertz said. “There’s a lot more DBs in the game [when I’m in]. When Brent’s in the game, it’s a lot more big guys.”
Reviewing Sunday’s game film confirms Ertz’s belief that which tight end the Eagles have in the game is an indicator of what they’ll do. When Celek was in the game against Washington, nearly 60 percent of the plays were runs. When Ertz was in the game, around 70 percent of the plays were passes.
After repeatedly saying that he has the “right” personnel, Chip Kelly seemed to relax that thought a bit when asked whether he’s sure he has the offensive linemen he needs to succeed.
“At this point in time, you have to,” Kelly said. “There’s not a bunch of O-linemen on the street. Everybody is on their different teams at this point in time. So you hope [Peters] is healthy this week and he can go. If not, then we’ve got to go with what we got.”
While Kelly didn’t sound quite as confident, Kelce was sure when discussing whether the offensive line’s mistakes are fixable with their current personnel.
“I firmly believe we have players to get the job done,” Kelce said. “We have players to have a great offense. We’re just, quite frankly, not executing. Most of it’s correctable things, but they’re not getting corrected and that’s what the most frustrating thing is.”
Because of the injuries to the offensive line, Kelly mentioned yesterday that Johnson could flip from right tackle to left tackle against the Saints. According to Johnson, however, he’s only practiced left tackle for a few days during his NFL career.
“It’s not going to be easy by any means [if I switch],” Johnson said. “I haven’t played none lately. It’s been a while. I need to get some reps over there.”
Whereas Tobin says he has little difficulty changing sides on the offensive line, Johnson mentioned that there is a difference to him, at least for now.
“I feel more powerful in my left tackle stance. I feel like I’m a better pass blocker because my right side is dominant,” Johnson said. “I’ve gotten used to it at right tackle, being a better run blocker. It’s weird the different power you have in your different stances, but it’s something I can adjust to.”
While the Eagles have been shuffling new looks on their offensive line this season, several players say the looks defenses have given them aren’t very different compared to previous years.
“We’re not facing anything this year that we haven’t faced before,” Kelce said. “Teams have tried to stop our inside zone play for the last three years and that’s been the number one thing that we’ve been great at. When they try and stop that play, we have other plays that are open. The problem is that we are not executing on the other plays.
“We’re not executing on the sweep play that we’ve done really well when teams want to take away our inside zone play. We’re not executing our outside zone play, with the exception of the Jets game. If we can execute on those plays that are kind of our counter plays to teams trying to stop inside zone, then we’ll start running the ball effectively.”