Last year, the Eagles led the NFL in rushing by a sizable margin, despite routinely facing extra defenders in the box who loaded up to stop LeSean McCoy and the deadly zone-read attack.
This year could hardly be more different. On Sunday against the 49ers, the Eagles rushed the ball 12 times for an anemic 22 yards, the fourth-worst performance in franchise history since 1970. And this was against one of the least-stacked defensive fronts the Eagles have faced since Chip Kelly took over.
See for yourself. Here's how the Saints lined up against the Eagles to start the playoff game last year:
Even against a three-wide receiver look, the Saints dropped their second safety down into the box to combat the run, giving them seven defenders against six blockers. The Eagles faced stacked defenses like this all year -- and still bullied their way to 5.1 yards per carry.
By contrast, here's the predominant defensive alignment the Eagles faced on Sunday:
We're in No-22 territory here, but you don't need the overhead angle to see what's going on. On 1st and 10 in the beginning of the second quarter against what's supposed to be one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the NFL, the 49ers only put six defenders in the box and dropped both safeties at least 15 yards down-field.
Kelly normally salivates over this kind of defensive front. He has six blockers on the line against their six defenders -- a numerical advantage. Plus, Kelly can tip the scale further in his favor by having his quarterback read one defensive end, giving his offensive line and tight end a six to five hat-on-hat advantage. Last year, McCoy would have gained 20 yards before being touched.
You can re-watch the play yourself on Game Rewind, but it was not pretty. Forgoing the read-option for straight hand off, the Eagles ran what I believe is a Power Play. David Molk and Dennis Kelly blocked down on the defensive tackles, Todd Herremans and Brent Celek double-teamed the end, and Matt Tobin pulled to lead McCoy into the hole.
Some watchers have criticized LeSean McCoy recently for dancing in the hole, but there wasn't much of one here. As McCoy charged in, both Molk and Kelly were pushed back into his face. Meanwhile, the 49ers left defensive end split his double team. McCoy was tackled for a one yard gain.
EDIT: Fran Duffy over at PE.com looked at the same play in his weekly All-22 post.
This happened over and over. The 49ers didn't do anything special. They just played the exact opposite of every defense the Eagles faced last year: kept their safeties back in a prevent look and dared the beat-up offensive line to open holes for McCoy man-on-man. And the Eagles failed, over and over again.
There are a number of conclusions to take away from this. The first is obvious: bringing back Lane Johnson against the St. Louis Rams better improve the offensive line in a hurry. If the Eagles can't create running room when they have a numbers advantage, this is going to be a long season.
There are broader questions too. Can Nick Foles and the wide receivers step up and win games on their own? Any quarterback is going to struggle when he has no consistent run game or pass protection -- and especially when neither is the result of a concerted effort by the defense to stack the box and/or blitz. Last year opponents tried to stop McCoy and dared Foles to beat them through the air. San Francisco was one of the first teams to challenge the young quarterback with extra defenders in coverage.
Foles has been inconsistent through the first four games, showing an indecisiveness we didn't see during the team's miracle run last year. He double clutches too many balls and his long throws have been inaccurate. But he doesn't share all the blame. While Maclin has stepped up more than almost anyone expected, he still doesn't have the breakaway speed to get separation on deep routes. And Riley Cooper, lord of the drops, has a putrid 5 yards per target.
Also, at some point in the offseason Kelly trashed (or at least mothballed) the zone-read part of his offense. You see Foles keep the ball every now and then, but the Eagles have largely abandoned any effort to constrain the defense with that threat. A running quarterback could punish the light defensive front the 49ers played so often on Sunday. For now, with Foles, the Kelly offense has lost one of its great weapons -- a third dimension that wins games when all else fails.
The run game should improve when the offensive line gets healthy, but if not, we'll see how long that decision holds.