All-22: The Offensive Line’s Transformation

How the Eagles' offensive line improved their play from the first to second Cowboys game, and won their team the game.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

Photo by: Jeff Fusco.

The Eagles’ offensive line couldn’t have played much worse against the Cowboys in Week 2. They gave up so much penetration that the team totaled just seven rushing yards, averaging 0.4 yards per carry. If not for Sam Bradford’s 9-yard scramble, they would’ve finished in the negative.

Down two starters (Jason Peters and Andrew Gardner) heading into their rematch against Dallas Sunday night, the offensive line appeared poised for another poor performance.

What followed surprised many, however, as they paved the way for a dominant performance on the ground. The Eagles rushed for 172 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry, and won largely because of how well they ran the ball.

“Those guys did a really nice job against a formidable front. We knew that going in that that was going to be a heck of a matchup for us,” Chip Kelly said. “Our line, since the second game of the year, has really executed from a fundamentals standpoint. They’re sticking on blocks better, they’re covering people up and [they’re] giving our backs an opportunity to run.”

The reason for the offensive line’s success may have been even more surprising than the performance itself. It wasn’t Jason Kelce or Lane Johnson who played the best, but Matt Tobin and Dennis Kelly. Although Johnson did an admirable job switching from right tackle to left tackle on short notice, Kelly played consistently well and sparked several big plays.

“Tobin and Kelly played the best of the offensive line,” Johnson said. “Especially in run blocking, they were good and getting some movement. That’s the best game they played all year.”

THE RIGHT SIDE

The Eagles selected Kelly in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft to be a tackle, but he hadn’t started a game there in three years before Sunday night. When he got his opportunity, he transitioned seamlessly into the starting unit.

“Dennis played extremely well,” Pat Shurmur said. “Dennis is a big guy, and if he gets his hands on you, it’s really hard for the defender to separate. I thought our whole offensive line sort of felt challenged, and they went out and they did a terrific job. Dennis did a really, really fine job.”

According to Kelly, he felt comfortable at tackle in part because of the rhythm he developed with Tobin during practice. Tobin added that they “were never off page on even one play the whole week.”

That was evident throughout the game Sunday night, but the two executed one mate block particularly well. Facing 2nd-and-3 from their 39-yard line, DeMarco Murray picked up six yards, largely because of Kelly and Tobin.

“Kelly drove his guy across – we call that displacement – and then Tobin got his hands on Sean Lee,” Johnson said. “That’s the biggest deal is getting your hands on their linebackers because they’re slippery. If you can get your hands on the linebackers like that, it’ll create those big running lanes.”

According to Kelly, the key to he and Tobin’s success was their pre-snap recognition. How long Tobin stays on their double-team depends on the alignment of the linebacker, and the duo (circled below) decided Tobin needed to leave earlier than usual to block Lee.

Tobin & Kelly Image

“Sean Lee is a very good player and we want to make sure we have him blocked, so when we see him line up close to the line of scrimmage, we know Tobin has to go up there quickly,” Kelly said. “It worked out really well because [Tobin] gets a good first piece on him and then he gets back on him after Lee tries to disengage, and that’s what opens up the hole. We knew how Lee was playing it and what he’d try to do.”

OVERTIME

As well as Kelly and Tobin played, Kelce also made a key in-game adjustment that led to the Eagles’ 4th-down conversion in overtime.

On Philadelphia’s last run play of the fourth quarter, Murray lost three yards because Kelce blew his assignment. The center allowed linebacker Andrew Gachkar to run up the middle untouched, tackling Murray in the backfield and forcing the Eagles into a 3rd-and-long.

However, the snap before Sam Bradford’s game-winning touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews, the Eagles went back to that play. Although they didn’t pick up many yards, Kelce didn’t make the same mistake and the Eagles converted the fourth down.

“I had a good idea of what kind of defense they were going to be in,” Kelce said. “They actually tried to hit us with the same defense that they had a tackle-for-loss in to end the fourth quarter, where they tried to run the ‘backer through the backside ‘A’ gap, hoping I was going to be double-teaming with the left guard.

“We did a good job of being patient and not overstepping and we had good movement on the ‘backer. We were able to pick up the fourth down and it was huge.”

UNBALANCED

The Eagles’ offensive line played much better Sunday night than in their first matchup against the Cowboys, but they also made a couple of adjustments to improve their chance for success.

One wrinkle that worked well was using an unbalanced line, when they had Kelly line up as the left tackle and Johnson at tight end with either Brent Celek or Zach Ertz at right tackle. The Eagles implemented it three times, running the ball in the red zone on each snap. They averaged nearly eight yards per carry, scored a touchdown on one play and reached the 1-yard line on another snap.

“We did some of that toward the end zone, which helped us out,” Johnson said. “It’s just something they haven’t seen. I think in the first game, they were looking for us to do the same old stuff. That’s a way for us to mix it up.”

The Eagles also used it because they thought they could capture the edge better with an extra offensive lineman on the play side, rather than a normal tight end. They picked up the most yards using an unbalanced formation when they tried it on 1st-and-10 at Dallas’ 18-yard line in the middle of the second quarter.

“Me being at tight end helps us capture the edge, and if you’re able to capture the anglers, you can get up to the linebackers,” Johnson said. “Usually when long runs happen, it’s because the ‘backers get blocked and we did that.”

Although Johnson (circled below) did a good job of blocking Greg Hardy before hitting a linebacker, the rest of the offensive line executed well too. Allen Barbre helped Johnson seal the linebacker as he pulled around, and Kelce helped wall off the inside as the second puller.

Sweep Picture

“When we were game planning, we saw they played man a lot and we figured the extra tackle instead of the tight end would help us on the edge,” Kelly said. “And it paid off.”

THE MID-ZONE

After losing to the Cowboys in Week 2, the offensive line was straightforward about why they played so poorly: they did a terrible job of handling the Cowboys’ stunts and slants. To counteract that on Sunday night, the Eagles ran a lot more mid-zones, rather than just inside zones.

“The mid-zone is basically an off-tackle play,” Kelce said. “The difference [compared to the inside zone] is about the point of attack and the path of the running back and the path of the offensive line. In zone blocking, you always want the offensive line’s shoulders and running back’s shoulders to be in unison, because that ensures you’re moving in unison. In inside zone, it’s more of a downhill, strike-you-now play.”

Although the Eagles still ran a lot of those downhill, inside zones, their best runs often came on mid-zones or other outside runs. (According to Kelce and Johnson, the mid-zone is very similar to the outside zone. Kelce said the two terms are nearly interchangeable, while Johnson added that he thinks of mid-zones as off-tackle runs whereas outside zones usually end up more on the perimeter.)

“The Cowboys do so much slanting and angling,” Kelce said. “When someone moves and you’re trying to drive them downfield, it’s a lot harder to react to. But when you go lateral more and they slant, you can just let them go to another person and you can collect the slanting and angling a little better. This past game, we executed it really well and had some good plays on it.”

One play the Eagles ran the mid-zone, according to Johnson, was a key snap in overtime when they faced 2nd-and-14 from their 28-yard line. Murray picked up 20 yards, keeping their game-winning drive alive.

MATHEWS AND MURRAY

Murray dominated Dallas in his return to Texas as he accumulated 83 rushing yards, 78 receiving yards and a touchdown on the ground. However, Mathews outplayed him in rushing production, averaging 6.1 yards per carry to Murray’s 4.6. According to Pro Football Focus, Mathews also averaged 4.6 yards per rush after contact, compared to Murray’s 1.8.

“[Mathews] is just a big, physical runner, and I think you notice that on film,” Kelly said. “And one of the reasons we were attracted to him is his style of running, I think, fits in terms of what we want to get accomplished offensively. It fits in our model – big, physical back; tough, hard-nosed runner and [he’s] doing a nice job for us.”

Kelly is correct about how noticable Mathews’ physicality is on film, but the running back’s vision also stands out. In the middle of the second quarter during the Eagles’ first scoring drive, Mathews picked up 21 yards on an effective cutback.

“He’s a very downhill runner, so when he’s running downhill, he doesn’t get turned a lot where you really kind of cut off anything that might happen backside,” Shurmur said. “He gets the ball and goes downhill, so then when there’s daylight left or right of him, he’s able to hit it.

“We saw the one cutback, the ball wasn’t designed to cut all the way back to the left, but he just felt everything press. You know, he hit the afterburners and hit it. And I think it starts by being a downhill runner. You can make those types of cuts, and that’s within his natural instinct of running the football and his vision takes over.”