All-22: Improvements In the Run Game
The Eagles have a losing record, are winless against NFC East opponents and haven’t been able to play well in all four quarters of a game through five weeks.
However, beating the Saints Sunday put the Eagles on a path to potentially turn the season around.
“Everybody knew this was a very important game,” Jason Kelce said. “1-4 is drastically different from 2-3, especially with where the division is. I don’t want to say it was a must-win, but it kind of was.”
Although the defense did a tremendous job forcing four turnovers and Sam Bradford responded to two early interceptions by throwing for 333 yards and two passing touchdowns, the biggest difference-maker was the offensive line.
After an abysmal start to the season — particularly in run blocking — the Eagles’ offensive line paved the way for a rushing attack that totaled 186 yards.
“I don’t think it was vastly anything different from what we’ve done,” Kelce said. “Obviously, we did some more under-center stuff and had a few different wrinkles, but for the most part it was the same plays we come with every week. We did a great job of executing.”
UNDER-CENTER VS. SHOTGUN
DeMarco Murray hasn’t been shy about sharing his opinion on running the ball out of under-center formations versus the shotgun. When asked after Sunday’s game if he thought running from under-center played a part in the win, he was succinct.
“Yeah,” Murray said. “Whenever you can get under-center and run the ball I think is great and it helps out the offensive line to hide some of our runs.”
The Eagles ran the ball from under-center formations against New Orleans more than they previously did this season. Half of their 34 runs came from such alignments, as they averaged 3.2 yards per carry. When the Eagles ran the ball out of the shotgun, they averaged 7.7 yards per carry.
As for Murray, 11 of his 20 rushes came from under-center formations. On such runs, he averaged 2.6 yards per carry. When he rushed out of the shotgun, that average jumped up to 6.1.
“I think he’s as effective in the shotgun as he is under-center,” Pat Shurmur said. “I think a player may like something more than another, but that doesn’t mean that they are not good at the thing that they may not — because I know he’s made comments about how he likes to run downhill on it. That doesn’t mean he’s — some guys that dunk the ball well are still good shooting three pointers. So I think that’s the case.”
However, the Saints game offers a small sample size and there are benefits to running the ball from under-center. As it pertains to the Eagles, the biggest advantage probably has to do with predictability.
One tactic the offensive line has struggled with is handling slanting defensive linemen. However, according to several players, slanting becomes less of an issue when the running back is lined up in the middle of the backfield, rather than offset to one side of the quarterback, because the play is less predictable.
Take for instance Murray’s longest run out of an under-center formation, when he picked up nine yards in the middle of the first quarter. Although one Saint shoots the ‘A’ gap in between Kelce and Allen Barbre, none of the defensive lineman perform a stunt or slant.
Because no defender penetrated deep into the backfield, Murray could cleanly cutback and get to the edge.
Although running the ball from under-center formations can deter defensive linemen from slanting, the Saints did very little of that in the first place. Even when the Eagles ran the ball out of shotgun with a clear tendency of where the play would go, New Orleans avoided the tactic.
“They certainly didn’t slant the front much,” Kelce said. “But I don’t know why.”
On Murray’s 4-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, Barbre and Kelce pulled and blocked a linebacker to give the running back an easy path to the end zone. In previous games, however, the Eagles sometimes struggled on outside runs as an interior defensive lineman penetrated the backfield, giving the ball-carrier no room to run and preventing offensive linemen from getting to their blocks.
But on this play, no such disruption occurred. Although a few different offensive linemen recognized the connection between slants and penetration, Shurmur explained that the offense also did less zone blocking, particularly on outside runs.
“We ran a lot of man-block plays where we were block down, block down, pull around sweep-type plays that were very effective and it takes a lot of coordination,” Shurmur said. “I thought they did a good job.”
According to Kelce, the Eagles used man blocking more in the second half Sunday when the Saints began overplaying their zones. Although they tried the tactic previously, particularly against the Cowboys, Kelce said Sunday was the first time they implemented it successfully.
THE SIFT BLOCK
The Eagles made a couple of other minor adjustments, including using more two-tight end sets and motioning a receiver so he was diagonal to the tight end (which you can see in Murray’s 9-yard run above). According to Lane Johnson, the biggest benefit of those changes weren’t altered blocking schemes, but simply different formations.
“We were just mixing it up with something they haven’t seen,” Johnson said. “I think the first two years, people have seen pretty much everything we do. But over the past couple of weeks, we started to put in some different stuff.”
Another small change the Eagles made is something they haven’t done much this season, but something they have done in previous years: the sift block. On zone plays, the Eagles often leave the backside defensive end unblocked. However, when using this wrinkle, a blocker — typically a tight end off the line of scrimmage — cuts across the field behind the offensive line to kick out the defensive end.
“It caps the backside zone play so the end can’t make the play,” Kelce said, “and alleviates tendencies because the end is now blocked.”
They can do it out of shotgun or under-center, and with one, two or even zero tight ends on the field. According to Zach Ertz, however, it’s a play the Eagles like to do out of two-tight end sets. Against the Saints, the Eagles used this concept three times, all from under-center two-tight end formations.
The most successful play using this block was Ryan Mathews’ 16-yard pickup in the first quarter, one of his best runs of the day. Ertz appears to miss his block badly, but the play is designed for the ball-carrier to go up the middle.
“It helps when the running back goes a certain direction that he’s supposed to so my angles are better,” Ertz said, “but he made a heck of a play.”
The Eagles averaged 7.7 yards per carry using this concept, which makes Ertz think they’ll do it more going forward.
“It was very successful for us,” Ertz said. “The matchups were better.”
‘THIS IS A GAME FOR P.E. MAJORS’
Although Chip Kelly implemented a few successful wrinkles Sunday, none of them would’ve mattered if the offensive line didn’t execute better. A few linemen partially attributed their better blocking to improved chemistry and communication, but they also emphasized one other element: getting out of their own heads.
Kelce admitted last week that he’s been overthinking during games, which is a problem he seemed to solve against the Saints as he played perhaps his best game of the season.
“That was something we’ve been trying to do for a few weeks but we finally just did that,” Kelce said. “We didn’t try to overcomplicate it and ran a lot of plays that were very familiar for us. I think everybody really had the mindset going in not to overthink it, not to worry about the guy next you. Just go out there and do your job and do what you’re supposed to do. The rest will take care of itself.”
Shurmur was also asked about this, and although he was laughing as he spoke, he didn’t seem to be entirely joking.
“The mind is a dangerous thing,” Shurmur said. “You just got to go play sometimes. This is a game for P.E. majors. You have to go play and be aggressive and we’ve got to go. I mean that because you’ve just got to go play, and sometimes block, go right or go left or whatever you’re going to do and block the guy that shows. I think sometimes that’s what we need to do more.”