All-22: Twists And Turns In the Passing Game
Prior to the Eagles game Sunday against the Dolphins, many expected them to use a run-heavy offense and exploit the NFL’s second-to-worst run defense. But then they averaged just 2.3 yards per carry against Miami, so it wasn’t surprising they threw the ball 48 times compared to 36 rushes.
However, even before their struggles against Miami on the ground, they relied on the pass to move the ball down the field, throwing for nearly 400 yards (although -39 sack yards hurt their total number of passing yards). They utilized their tight ends in particular as Brent Celek accumulated 134 receiving yards, his highest total since 2012 and the third-most of his career, while Zach Ertz added seven catches for 68 receiving yards.
“We just thought those match-ups for us were something we felt like going into the game [with],” Chip Kelly said. “We run the ball a lot with Brent when Brent is in there, so obviously we felt like in play-action pass, we could exploit some things there, and I thought Brent did a really nice job with it.
“They made some adjustments and played a little bit more man coverage than zone coverage to kind of take some of that stuff away, but we felt like those match-ups on the inside with their linebackers and safeties were to our advantage with our tight ends.”
Sam Bradford played well before his third quarter exit, completing 19 of his 25 passes for 236 yards, one touchdown and a 118.1 passer rating. Even when Mark Sanchez entered the game, the Eagles had some success moving the ball down the field.
Sanchez’s fourth quarter interception in the end zone (rightfully) drew the most attention, but he made several good throws. He also operated an Eagles’ passing attack that didn’t have to be altered much because of him.
“We’re allowed, because of Mark’s understanding of what we’re doing, we can run everything that we have in our game plan that week,” Kelly said. “That’s one thing about Mark and his work ethic, he’s in this building very late every night. He works extremely hard on the game plans, he prepares himself like he’s going to be the starter, whether he’s named the starter going into that game or it occurs in the first quarter, second quarter, [or] third quarter.”
‘SAM DID A GOOD JOB’
Kelly’s words about entering the game Sunday with a plan to feature his tight ends are evident from the first snap. After Josh Huff returned a kickoff to Philadelphia’s 36-yard line, the Eagles came out in 11 personnel on first-and-10.
Bradford faked the handoff to DeMarco Murray and then connected with Celek for a 60-yard gain. That play set up the Eagles touchdown three snaps later, and gave them the early lead. They’ve had a lot of success with over routes this year, particularly with Jordan Matthews, but Kelly used a nice wrinkle to get Celek wide open.
Riley Cooper, the left outside receiver, ran in motion across the formation to the flat on the right, which drew a linebacker away from the middle of the field. Bradford had a low-to-high read, so Cooper was first in his progression and Celek was second. The linebacker covering Celek was sucked up into the play-action, and Huff got in the way of a safety trying to tackle the tight end.
“Based off their coverage, you know they’re going to be aggressive before this play so that’s why the play-action worked so well,” Thad Lewis said. “Guys lost Celek on the play-action fake and that’s why he was open.”
The over routes worked for much of the game, and when Miami finally adjusted, the Eagles used that as bait to exploit the Dolphins’ coverages.
In the middle of the third quarter, Philadelphia faced second-and-8 from their 35-yard line. Jordan Matthews ran an over route from the slot, which the safety tried to jump. Because the safety did that, he abandoned the middle of the field and left Cooper open on a go route.
However, the offensive line gave up a sack, and Bradford left the game with a concussion and separated left shoulder.
“Sam did a good job of moving the safety on this play,” Lewis said. “Riley is actually the last read — it’s a right-to-left progression — and Sam does a good job of getting him open.”
The Eagles entered Sunday’s game planning to utilize their tight ends and over routes even more than usual, and the same can be said with four verticals. Four verticals is a concept Kelly has always used — Sheil had a great breakdown of it last summer — but they called it more against the Dolphins than most of their other games this season.
“We thought it would be good going in,” Pat Shurmur said. “We called it more than a handful of times, some with drop back, some with play-action, and the way the coverage was revealing itself, you know, typically when you get single-safety coverage, the four verticals are a good concept to match against it.”
The Eagles used four verticals off play-action early in the third quarter on first-and-10 from their 33-yard line. It didn’t long for Bradford to connect with Ertz, the first read in the play, for 27 yards.
According to Lewis, it worked so well because of something the Eagles noticed when watching film of the Dolphins. They had Ertz adjust the first step of his route to fake a shallow crossing route, which opened up the big play.
“First of all, everything is game planned,” Lewis said. “So we knew when they were in this coverage and the tight end acted like he was going shallow because we run that concept so much, they usually drop him and leave him. So that’s why he was open in the middle.
“From Ertz’s first step, he stepped shallow so the linebacker wouldn’t be on him. And then the safety has to cover both him and Huff, and they’re actually both open.”
With the game on the line near the end of the fourth quarter, the Eagles went back to this concept. Kelly called it when facing fourth-and-10 on their 44-yard line with 61 seconds left.
It worked well but the offensive line allowed pressure, forcing Sanchez to quickly get rid of the ball. He completed a short pass to Matthews, but the receiver only picked up six yards.
“He didn’t have enough time,” Kelly said. “We had four verticals going. Riley Cooper actually was coming open coming down the seam, [and so] was Zach Ertz; [there] was a single-high safety. But when Mark got to the top of his drop, the defensive end was in his face, so I think he had to get the ball off.
“It was a four-man rush, but we didn’t do a good enough job protecting him for giving him an opportunity to get it. So on that play, we ran four guys deep and we had one guy as the check-down if they ran out of there in coverage. But he really didn’t get a chance to get to the top of his drop and set his feet and throw the football.”
Although the Eagles moved the ball well through the air, they couldn’t cash in when it mattered most. Sanchez’s interception certainly hurt them, but his teammates didn’t help him much either.
On the same drive early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles nearly scored twice. Facing second-and-1 on Miami’s 26-yard line, Sanchez hit Austin in the end zone, but the receiver couldn’t get his second foot down in bounds. Two plays later, Sanchez’s touchdown pass to Ertz was nullified by Cooper’s illegal shift penalty.
“We perimeter players and running backs have to give him some bigger plays to help him settle down,” Murray said. “I thought he did well for the most part.”
Sanchez, however, was responsible for his fair share of miscues. That included multiple handoffs that disrupted the running back’s timing because of bad footwork, and other plays where he inaccurately anticipated coverages.
But before Bradford got hurt, he had a miscommunication as well. When the Eagles faced second-and-6 on Miami’s 46-yard line in the third quarter, Bradford needlessly lost a yard.
Kelly called an inside zone, but the quarterback pulled the handoff and wanted to throw to Austin — who had no defender nearby — in the slot. However, Austin blocked the whole way and never looked back for the ball, leading Bradford to tuck the ball in and run.
“[Sam] probably should have handed the ball off,” Kelly said. “There was a safety rolling down on [Austin]. So that’s what Miles saw from his view; he wasn’t uncovered. [The Dolphins] were a little confused at the beginning of the play, but all of a sudden, the safety was coming in and running down on him. So it was a run play and Miles was going to block his guy.”