So Far, ‘Plays Run’ Has Been A Losing Battle

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

It felt like an important admission when Chip Kelly conceded Monday that his defense can get worn down over the course of the season because of the high amount of snaps that they face.

“I think when you look at the games, yeah, depending on where you play. But I think that becomes production on the offensive side of the ball. If we’re not getting the requisite amount of snaps, then that’s where we’re hurting our defense,” Kelly said. “We talk about it all the time: it’s plays run. We only ran 59 plays, I think, on Thursday against Detroit and that’s where we’re hurting. The week before, or two weeks before, we had 98 snaps against the Miami Dolphins. It’s really just the production from the offensive side of the ball in terms of what’s giving them an opportunity to wear us down on the defensive side of the ball.”

It’s a familiar refrain when Kelly gets asked about time of possession or miles logged defensively: it’s about plays run. The theory seems to be this: the faster your offense moves, the more plays it can get off. Convert your third downs and sustain drives, and you gain a significant advantage in the number of opportunities to strike. So long as the offense does its job, the defense won’t face over-exposure.

Problem is, that theory is not working — particularly at present.

The offense has been the definition of inefficient. It ranks 26th in yards per drive (29.25) and 27th in points per drive (1.62), according to Football Outsiders. Further, they are 27th in third-down conversion rate (34 percent), additional evidence that this offense has struggled to keep drives going.

The number of plays run remains among the highest in the NFL despite the offense’s inconsistencies. The chart below shows where the Eagles have ranked in plays run over the two-plus seasons under Kelly.

YearAvg. number of playsLeague rank

While those numbers have been near the top of the league, Kelly has not gained the separation from the opponent in this category that he desires. In fact, he’s losing that battle more often than he’s winning it.

YearAvg. Opponent plays runLeague rank

We took a look at every game the Eagles have played under Kelly, and found that they have won in the area of plays run just 18 times in 43 games for a success rate of 42 percent. Here’s how it breaks down by season:

2015: 5 of 11 games
2014: 8 of 16 games
2013: 5 of 16 games

They have won thirteen of the 18 games (72 percent) that they’ve out-dueled the opposition in plays run, which seems to be evidence in support of Kelly’s emphasis on the stat. There are exceptions, certainly (the Eagles were out-gunned by Oakland 92-57 in plays back in 2013 and won 49-20, for example) but generally speaking it’s a good number to have in your favor.

At least until this point, however, the scales have not tipped towards the Eagles and this tempo offense.

Meanwhile, time of possession — a stat that Kelly has routinely downplayed the importance of — continues to slant heavily towards the other team.

YearAvg. opponent TOPLeague rank

Billy Davis‘ defense was on the field for 1,150 plays in 2013, 1,113 plays in ’14 and is on pace to log 1,112 plays this season. To put that in perspective, San Diego — which has faced the fewest snaps this season — is on pace for 955 plays. That’s a difference of 157 — the equivalent of two-plus games worth of work.

“That’s not good,” said Herm Edwards, for a piece we wrote on tempo last summer. “You don’t want that. When we were at Tampa – now, we played a different type of offense, obviously – we never got to 1,000. We were about 850. We never wanted to get into the 60s and the 65s. If we got to 70 [per game], we were in trouble because we were worn down because we weren’t a big defense. We were a fast, penetrating defense.”

Edwards said that Tony Dungy led a study during their days together in Tampa on decline in production relative to plays faced.

“There’s a certain breaking point in any defense. The breaking point is over 65 plays,” said Edwards. “For any defense. You don’t want to get into those numbers.”

The Eagles have faced 65 or more plays in nine of their 11 games this season, and have reached the 70 mark seven times. Pace across the league has picked up overall since Dungy and Edwards’ days in Tampa, so perhaps those numbers need some updating. But it’s safe to say that the Eagles routinely travel into waters that some coaches would be more wary of.

Not that it all falls on the offense. As Davis and many players on this team have pointed out numerous times, the defense can help dictate the amount of time spent on the field.

“We are in control of how long a drive is, the defense is, not how many times,” said Davis. “But the series, there should be 12 series in every game. That’s the average. We are at 12 or lower in every game, so that’s not an issue. We’re not defending more than anybody. We have to get those three-and-outs, four-and-outs, five-and-outs. When you get extended downs because we’re on the field, that’s where we hurt ourselves.

“So the tempo conversation, and I’ve said this many times, they don’t affect us unless it’s a bunch of series, more series than other people. Does that make sense? The drive itself is 100 percent on the defensive coaches and players.”

Still, it’s hard to look at the numbers, see the fact that the Eagles are routinely at the bottom of the league in plays defensed, and not think it is tied in large part to the offense it’s playing opposite of.

Current players that were asked about the potential negative effects all downplayed the notion, though it’s logical to think that there are drawbacks to racking up plays against — often in rapid fashion.

“It’s not easy already to defend in this league. It’s not easy to necessarily to be a defenseman [opposite] this type of offense,” Cary Williams told us in a former life. “You can be out there for a nine-play drive and create a turnover and the next thing you know, 45 seconds to a minute [later], you’re right back out there. It’s hard. But I think we’ve got the guys in this room to get the job done.”

Obviously, they didn’t, as the ’14 version of the Eagles faded down the stretch. It’s impossible to quantify how much fatigue (mental or physical) factored into that, and whether it has anything to do with the recent slip in productivity of the 2015 defense. Play-calling and personnel are clearly big factors in all this and should wear most of the blame.

But the fact remains that this defense is consistently on the field more than any other unit in the league, facing more snaps than anyone else. If it’s about plays run, as Kelly says, then this group is at a disadvantage.

You can argue the tradeoff is worthwhile when the offense is flying high and putting up points with ease. But when it’s sputtering like this, a fast-paced attack can become more of a burden than an ally.