Are you curious why the Eagles drafted a second tight end, Dallas Goedert, when they already have Pro Bowler and Super Bowl-winner Zach Ertz on the roster? Look no further than The Athletic, where I penned an article recently that examined the Eagles' use of multiple tight end sets last year. The numbers surprised me, especially what emerged about the Eagles in the red zone, in the playoffs, and specifically the effectiveness of Ertz and Trey Burton in the same formation. Make sure to subscribe to The Athletic Philly (hat tip to the inimitable Sheil Kapadia for asking me to contribute) and check it out:
Despite disappointing results in the last two games, the Eagles are a good football team. Going into this week, they were first in the NFL in point differential and second in DVOA. Now, they remain third-best in the former and should stay near the top in the latter.
Two losses, by a combined score of eight points, do not end the season. But they do show us what kind of team the Eagles are: one that can't afford to make mistakes if they want to compete for the division title.
The truth is that the Eagles don't have many difference-making players. Fletcher Cox and (old but still great) Jason Peters, perhaps. After those two, who can the team count on to consistently win individual match-ups? Carson Wentz has flashes of brilliance. Third down back extraordinaire Darren Sproles is the only explosive play maker on offense.
This roster isn't built to exploit mismatches in talent. It's built on competence. On defense, guys like Brandon Graham, Jordan Hicks, and Malcolm Jenkins form the core, but none of them are keeping offensive coordinators up at night trying to scheme around them. They are good because they do the right thing (most of the time). They won't get you killed and they can succeed within the scheme. Ditto on offense: Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz are solid starters in the NFL as long as you're not counting on them to be the number one option.
The early season win streak was built on competence in all phases. The defense didn't do anything special with fancy blitzes; it just lined up and got pressure with four rushers. The offense took league-best field position and converted drives into points at the second-highest rate. They did so methodically, not gashing teams with big plays but marching down the field with a mix of efficient runs and short passes (part of the reason Carson Wentz scores so low in Air Yards). Limiting turnovers (to zero for the first three games) and capitalizing on opponent mistakes.
That strategy was effective until this started happening:
As far as I can tell, weeks five and six are the most penalties the Eagles have committed in consecutive weeks since 1989. And those penalties matter. According to friend of the blog Sean Taylor, each additional penalty a team has over its opponent is worth approximately -0.5 points. The Eagles have out-fouled their opponents by 16 in the last two weeks and, surprise, lost by a combined eight points. Add in a couple more unforced errors, like a rookie fifth round pick stumbling out of the gate and a veteran running back fumbling at the worst possible time, and you can see how the Eagles went from 3-0 to 3-2.
Again, this is not to bury them. They are still a good team that should be at least in the race all season. But it's not like teams we've seen in years past that could spot an opponent a three touchdown lead and roar back in the final minutes. There are too few #playmakers and not enough strengths. That means they either have to return to the suffocating competence of the early season—limiting turnovers and penalties, staying efficient on offense, and preventing big plays on defense—or come up with a new way to win... like putting more in Wentz's seemingly-capable hands.
There's no shortage of opinion when it comes to Riley Cooper, the Eagles' soon-to-be free agent wide receiver best known for his racial outburst at a Kenny Chesney concert last year. That off-the-field incident was itself sufficient reason for many fans to want to see Cooper gone. I'm not going to wade into that moral morass, but rather address the sizable room for debate about his on the field performance.
Cooper had what was obviously a breakout season in 2013. After posting a total of just 46 receptions for 679 yards and 5 TDs in his first three years, he took over the starting lineup for an injured Jeremy Maclin and finished the regular season with 47 receptions, 835 yards, and 8 TDs. Plus, he scored another productive 6/68/1 line in the Eagles' wild card game.
Cooper also put positive tape out there. He's the type of big-bodied blocking wide receiver that Chip Kelly values to augment his running game down the field. And there's a good reason Cooper's stats went way up once Nick Foles took over. He became especially effective on deep throws and in the red zone, where he was adept at adjusting to Foles' occasional errant jump balls.
Despite all of that good news, I wouldn't sign Riley Cooper to a long term starter's contract. And the biggest reason may sound counter-intuitive: despite the clear QB-WR connection, the more you build an Eagles offense around Foles, the more you need an upgrade from Cooper at wide receiver. Here's the proof, summed up in one All-22 shot (from the very first play of the Saints game):
Kelly talks about his offense in terms of simple math. He wants to run the football and he wants to have a numbers advantage up front when he does so. That means more blockers than defenders in the box, not the other way around -- and there are two ways to achieve this.
The first is to have a dangerous read-option constraint play built into the basic runs. By reading a defender instead of blocking him, the quarterback can freeze that unblocked man and enable better numbers on the play side. The second is to have dangerous wide receiver threats on the outside (ideally spread way outside) that force the defense to respect the passing game down the field. Defensive coordinators can't stack the box and provide help to both corners on the outside at the same time.
As you can see in the above photo, the Saints do not respect Cooper as a passing threat. While both Eagles receivers face man coverage, DeSean Jackson's corner has safety help over the top. The Saints, rightfully, fear Jackson's speed. They don't have that same concern about Cooper, who they're perfectly willing to leave matched up in single coverage at the bottom of the image. The safety whose job could be to protect against the deep ball to that side has entered the box instead. The Saints would much rather add an extra defender down by the line of scrimmage to combat LeSean McCoy and the rushing attack.
Thus, on this play the Saints have a numbers advantage up front: seven defenders in the box against six Eagles blockers. If Michael Vick were in the backfield, that wouldn't be so bad. The zone read can be a powerful weapon if defenders respect it. Foles is never going to inspire that respect. Yes, he can still make it work on occasion, pulling out a few surprise yards here or there, and freezing a confused defender now and then. But the read constraint will not work consistently without a run threat at QB, and therefore the run game will not work consistently against a numbers disadvantage up front.
If Foles is the Eagles' quarterback going forward -- and he has certainly earned that right -- then the offense needs other constraints. The obvious secondary options are wide receivers that the defense needs to respect.** Jackson is half of that puzzle. Cooper is not. The Saints treated him on this play as most defenses did this season, reveling in the opportunity to gain an advantage in the box and daring Cooper to beat them.
Cooper certainly had a breakout season, with career highs in all categories. But if he were a wide receiver worth spending starter-level money on, he would have consistently beat the single-coverage insult he face on a weekly basis and forced defenses to start respecting him. He did no such thing, and the numbers show it.
Pro Football Focus tracks a stat called yards per route run, focusing on receiver production on all snaps they ran a passing route. Some of the consensus best receivers in the game score highly on this list: the top ten is Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Josh Gordon, Justin Blackmon, Anquan Boldin, DeSean Jackson, Antonio Brown, Alshon Jeffrey, Andre Johnson, and AJ Green. These are players who combine two important attributes of a top receiver: production when targeted, and a high number of targets.
As I just mentioned, Jackson placed sixth on this list. That was thanks, first of all, to the second-highest yards per target of any receiver in the league: 11.2, only behind deep threat Kenny Stills and a step above all-around beasts Gordon and Jordy Nelson. You may be surprised to know that Riley Cooper also placed in the top ten on yards per target, netting 10.3 yards per pass thrown his way.
But the difference between Jackson and Cooper comes in the number of times they're targeted. Jackson, despite a spread-the-wealth offense and defenses putting heavy emphasis on stopping him, was in the top third most-targeted per route run. But out of 94 receivers with at least 25% of their team's targets, Cooper was a lowly 79th (right next to underperforming slot buddy Jason Avant). Cooper was targeted only 15% of his routes, compared to Jackson's 22% -- even though Cooper faced the single coverage shown above nearly all year.
The split between Cooper's rank in target percentage and his rank in yards per target is extreme, and may make it easier to understand the type of receiver he is. For example, there are certain receivers who were targeted a lot but have low yardage production on those targets. Some are slot receivers, like Cole Beasley for Dallas and Julian Edelman for New England. The others are underperforming #1 wide receivers on bad offenses: Buffalo's Stevie Johnson, Jacksonville's Cecil Shorts, Washington's Pierre Garson, and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson.
Cooper had the opposite problem. He was targeted few times despite solid performance on those targets. What receivers put up that same split last year? Secondary receivers who aren't particularly good, but get single coverage because the defense doesn't consider them threats: the aforementioned Stills in New Orleans, Tampa Bay's Tiquan Underwood, Dallas' rookie Terrance Williams, San Diego's Eddie Royal, Seattle's Doug Baldwin, Green Bay's James Jones, Kansas City's Donnie Avery. As far as the stats are concerned, these are Cooper's most direct comparables, and none of them (with the possible exception of Williams' upside) are players you would be excited to have as a starting wide receiver on your offense.
That's the type of player Riley Cooper is: a replacement-level starter that defenses are more than happy to leave alone to gameplan against actual receiving threats like Jimmy Graham, Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, and DeSean Jackson -- and actual running threats like DeMarco Murray, Jamaal Charles, and LeSean McCoy. If the Eagles let Maclin walk in free agency and re-up with Cooper as their #2 wide receiver, you'll hear the champagne popping in defensive coordinator meetings across the NFC. With Foles neutering the read-option attack, Chip Kelly needs wide receivers on the outside who can stretch out the defense and give McCoy room to run. Cooper, for all his other strengths, isn't that guy. And that means you not only don't pay to keep him, but you also actively look for an upgrade.
**One caveat: the offense needs at least one more receiving threat from somewhere. While wide receiver is the obvious play, it's not the only one. In his rookie season, Zach Ertz did finish sixth among tight ends on yards per pass route run. Just saying.
This time last year, fresh off a sickening 4-12 season and the long-anticipated firing of one of the best coaches in franchise history, we watched as the Eagles spun their wheels in a coaching search. Fresh off being rejected by some of their top candidates, the organization seemed to be turning toward Gus Bradley, although interviews with Bruce Arians, Brian Kelly, and rumblings about Ken Whisenhunt cast an ominous cloud over the proceedings. It wouldn't be until January 16th that Oregon's belle finally came back around and agreed to a surprise contract in Philadelphia.
Chip Kelly's arrival was met with lots of fanfare, and more than a few skeptics. I won't bother to link to those old columns written about the "college coach" and his "gimmick offense," but suffice it to say that no one's a skeptic now. If anything, we're still underestimating the job he did in his first year. Before the season began, I found all 113 teams in Football Outsiders' database that finished 20th or worse in both offensive and defensive DVOA. Those bad teams had an average overall DVOA improvement of +11.9% in their next season. Kelly's Eagles, as it stands now, posted a +37.8% increase, the third-largest jump on record.
But with an early bounce from the playoffs, the long offseason looms and more changes are inevitable. In today's NFL, huge improvement can always be followed by huge disappointment. In my opinion, the Eagles are much more likely to add to, grow from, and improve off of their 2013 success. But that's far from guaranteed. Here's where the team goes from here:
1. Prune The Dead Wood
Being only a year away from a 4-12 season, there are still a number of players on the Eagles roster who shouldn't be around at training camp next year, whether for reasons of age, performance, or both. Let's do a quick roundup of the top targets.
- Todd Herremans: Even moving back to guard this season didn't seem to halt the Toddfather's decline. He's not the worst guard in the league, but Herremans was the weakest link on the offensive line and you can't expect him to get better heading into his age-32 season. Maybe you offer a restructured contract and the chance to compete for his job, but guard is one of the more fungible starting positions in the league. Time to see if there's a younger, less expensive backup who can take over.
- Trent Cole: The Eagles' longtime DE-turned-OLB passed Clyde Simmons for second place on the Eagles all time sack list with a late season revival. Like Herremans, Cole is heading into his age-32 season and the third year of a contract extension. Despite his resurgence in the second half of the season, Cole never fully adjusted to his linebacker role and couldn't rescue the Eagles' moribund pass rush. We wish him the best, but it's time to move on.
- Brent Celek: Another member of the old guard, Celek turns 29 before the end of the month. He proved his worth blocking, made some key receptions down the stretch, and finished with his highest DVOA since 2008. But Zach Ertz figures to replace him more and more as the down-the-field tight end. Celek is probably still a useful player on this team for his versatility, but he's not worth the $4 million salary he's due next year. Prime (Stache) restructure candidate.
- James Casey: That was always a one year deal, disguised as three years. Not a bad blocker (and the Eagle could use an H-Back/FB from time to time), but barely saw the field the field for anything else. He probably would rather seek his fortune elsewhere too, although maybe he comes back on a reduced salary as the 3rd TE.
- Jason Avant: While Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson had big DVOA improvement, Avant was one of the few Eagles offensive players to decline this year. He had perhaps his worse season statistically in at least 5 years. Love the leadership, but Avant's not sticking around.
- Patrick Chung: Another guy on a fake 3 year deal who should and will be cut posthaste.
- Alex Henery: I'll go into depth on this once I can crunch more numbers, but Henery isn't worth keeping for beans.
2. Keep An Eye On
There are difficult decisions elsewhere too. Would be surprised if any are cut this offseason, but the team has reason to examine these relationships closely.
- DeMeco Ryans: Leader of the defense and stout run defender who's a major liability in coverage. Turns 29 this summer and has a contract that's easy to do away with. Don't think you cut him yet, but the conversation about the future has to happen.
- Cary Williams & Bradley Fletcher: Let's consider the two corners together. Using a broad stat like passer rating, both of these players were middle of the pack. On a good defense, each is probably a solid #2 corner. They're not going to shut down the other team's top receiver one-on-one, but they'll hold their own against most everyone else and get their share of victories. The question is how highly you value that kind of production. Both Williams and Fletcher have salaries that spike substantially in 2014. Do you let one go to make room for Brandon Boykin? Do you keep them both around another year and draft replacement(s)? Could a restructure/extension be on the table?
- Brandon Graham & Vinny Curry: Both are young and relatively inexpensive, so they probably get another year in this 3-4 transition. But if the right offer came along, Graham especially could be on the block.
- Jason Peters: Nothing big here but he's entering the final year of his contract. Peters was named to his fifth All-Pro team but looked like he lost a step. Eagles hope to already have his replacement on the roster (Lane Johnson), but we can't rule out an extension if he proves he's still capable. Remember, Tra Thomas manned the left tackle spot in Philly until he was 34.
- DeSean Jackson: His salary goes up by over 50% in 2014. Hopefully both he and the team are happy with that. Or not.
3. Are They Worth Keeping?
Retaining your own free agents can be tricky, but this year there aren't too many questions. The big decisions come at wide receiver.
- Jeremy Maclin: The biggest name on this list comes with a huge "What If?" label following his ACL tear last August. I was on record for a Maclin contract extension before the injury and still want him back. The question is how healthy he is and what kind of money he's looking for. The market for wide receivers isn't especially deep, but you don't often see guys get big money coming off knee injuries. A one-year deal with the Eagles might make sense for both sides.
- Riley Cooper: The wide receiver went from racist problem-child to key contributor quickly. He has size, blocks well, and adjusts to deep balls better than most. But on a good team he's a 3rd or 4th wide receiver, and I wouldn't pay him more than that because he'll never be someone who can consistently beat single-coverage. In other words, let him test the market (where there may not be much interest) and only resign him at a backup rate.
- Michael Vick: If he resigns himself to taking a paycheck as a backup, there are worse places to do it than Philadelphia. But maybe he's looking for one last shot at a starting role, and he could get it with the Jets, Jaguars, or somewhere else.
- Donnie Jones: Fantastic job this season. Sign the man.
- Nate Allen: Actually became the best member of the safety corps, which just shows how bad the safeties were. Let him walk.
- Kurt Coleman: Bye.
- Colt Anderson: Never going to be a competent safety, but still a great special teams player. Bring him back and let him compete.
4. Seek Improvement From Youngsters
The last two drafts have been tremendously successful for the Eagles, and they have more than a handful of young players who are forming a new backbone to this team. Their improvement (or decline) will largely decide how the team does in 2014 and beyond. It will also determine who deserves contract extensions and who might not be worth the trouble.
- On defense, the young studs are Brandon Boykin, Mychal Kendricks, and Fletcher Cox. They've all shown flashes, but where is the ceiling? Meanwhile, Bennie Logan and Earl Wolff will be given every opportunity to win starting jobs, but both need to make big leaps this offseason.
- On offense you're looking at Lane Johnson, who had a successful rookie season by mostly avoiding making news. All eyes will be on him next year, to see if he can take over at left tackle after Jason Peters. Zach Ertz also seems inline for a big year as the featured tight end in 2014.
- Nick Foles' offseason matters the most. I'm not convinced he's a franchise quarterback, but he played like one in 2013. Defenses will study him intently next year, and he's unlikely to maintain his fantastic interception rate. Can he improve in other areas to maintain an edge? Foles has earned the benefit of the doubt, but we will find out.
- As for backups: guys like Bryce Brown, Chris Polk, Dennis Kelly, Damion Square, Najee Goode, and Matt Barkley need to prove they're worth trusting. Does Casey Matthews get another year? What about Curtis Marsh, Roc Carmichael, and Julian Vandervelde? Lots of question marks.
5. Identify Obvious Roster Holes
Last offseason, the Eagles had gaping holes across the defense. They drafted a smattering of young players (Wolff, Logan), and added low-to-mid price veterans (Barwin, Williams, Fletcher, Chung, Sopoaga). Due to the relative success of that plan, there aren't as many problem spots as there were a year ago. Here are the main starting spots that need help.
- Safety: It's easy to imagine a future where Wolff is the only guy left from last year, and he's certainly not a sure thing. Major upgrade still needed here.
- Pass Rusher: The Eagles need to generate more of a pass rush. Some of that could come from improvement along the defensive line. But a dynamic pass rushing outside linebacker might make the biggest difference of anyone on the team.
- Wide Receiver: At the very least you bring back Riley Cooper, but ideally you're looking at someone more dynamic across from DeSean. Plus, a new slot receiver to replace Avant would be nice.
- Kicker: Forget field goals for a second. You need a kicker who can consistently reach the end zone on kickoffs.
- Nose Tackle: Logan may be the guy, but my lasting memory of him from 2013 will be the Saints blowing him off the line of scrimmage.
- Guard: If you jettison Herremans.
6. Plan For The Future
While you're logging the problems the team faces right now, it's also time to take stock of the future. Where will the team have holes a year or two from now?
- Cedric Thornton is an exclusive-rights free agent (meaning he can't negotiate with anyone else). One of the few eligible players on the roster probably worth a long term extension.
- Can't count on 30-something offensive linemen to stay healthy in the short term or sustain performance long term. Grab more depth on the offensive line.
- Draft a quarterback. Always draft a quarterback.
- Kendricks looks like a keeper, but Ryans may not have more than a year left. Time to get another young middle linebacker.
- Boykin is probably a long term answer at cornerback, given his stellar performance in the slot. But tied to the Williams & Fletcher questions above, drafting more corners should be high on the list.
7. Find Difference-Makers In Free Agency
Building through the draft is great, but being active at the top of the free agent market is also important. I'm not talking about bringing in another Nnamdi Asomugha, but the Eagles will have plenty of cap space and few in-house players to spend it on. Howie Roseman and company must identify a few key players who can come in and not only fix problem spots in the short term, but are also good long term bets. Some candidates...
- Jairus Byrd: If the Bills safety makes it to free agency, he'll command top dollar. You'd rather he wasn't going into his age-28 season, but he's an All-Pro caliber player still in his prime who would immediately lock down one of the Eagles' safety spots.
- TJ Ward: Fellow second-team All-Pro safety may be slightly less expensive than Byrd. He's also nearly a year younger. Would be a great get.
- Eric Decker: Again, I'd rather just bring Maclin back. But Decker is a much better version of Riley Cooper (albeit at a significant markup). There's also the underachieving Hakeem Nicks out there
- Julian Edelman: Probably can go cheaper in the Avant-replacement department, but there aren't many better slot guys when healthy. Maybe Chip wants more upgrade here.
- Brian Orakpo: Who knows what's going on in D.C. these days? Elite pass rushers don't come cheap, but Orakpo would fit right into a key role on the Eagles defense.
- Donald Butler: If he makes to the open market, you could grab San Diego's young stud middle linebacker and jettison Ryans earlier than planned.
8. Refine The Scheme
To be fair, this is more than one-eighth of the offseason agenda, but it's the one that's least conditional on specific player debates. No matter who the Eagles bring back and who they add, the coaches have to adjust and prepare for a new season.
Chip's offense lit up the league, and ended up second only to Peyton Manning's Broncos on the DVOA chart. He'll be on every defensive coordinator's To-Do list this offseason. I have confidence in the head coach, since he's shown the ability to adjust his offense to two quarterbacks with opposite skill sets. But Kelly needs to stay a step ahead. Defenses stymied some of his schemes, and in some areas he became too predictable by the end of the season (see Cowboys and Saints defenders reading nearly every screen). New weapons will help on that front, but so will new wrinkles. I'm looking forward to seeing what he draws up in 2014.
When you switch to defense and special teams, it's worth noting that the team finished in nearly the same place as 2012 according to DVOA. The defense improved slightly, but there's still a long way to go. Patient, accurate quarterbacks (a species the Eagles were lucky to avoid for long stretches of the season) tore this defense apart with its weakness in coverage down the middle, complete lack of pass rush, and horrible missed tackles. Again, personnel was often at fault there, and this was only year one of a defensive scheme shift. But the scheme can't be as predictable going forward either. Time for Billy Davis to prove he can lead the unit to a renaissance.
Before the season started, I set my expectations for 2013 at a reasonable level: an improvement from last year's disaster squad and a foundation built for future growth. As I said then, most teams as bad as the Eagles improved, on DVOA terms, by an average of about 12%. I anticipated something along those lines, with a slight record improvement but certainly no mention of playoffs.
Obviously, I was wrong. Before Sunday's loss, the Eagles had improved by nearly 33% in DVOA, one of the best turnarounds ever. That will cool slightly this week, but the team still has the inside track on a playoff spot, something most people (including Jeffrey Lurie) never expected to happen so soon.
But Sunday's game reminded us that this squad -- or at least half of it -- is still a work in progress. Chip Kelly's offense is gangbusters, even if it can sputter out for stretches. On a "bad day," Nick Foles threw for 428 yards on 30 for 48 attempts, 3 TDs and 1 INT. Plus he ran the ball 5 times for 41 yards to boot. LeSean McCoy only got 8 carries, but still finished with over 100 yards from scrimmage. DeSean Jackson had nearly 200 receiving yards plus an end-around touchdown called back due to penalty. Oh, and rookie tight end Zach Ertz ended the day with 57 yards on 6 receptions, including a one-handed TD grab. No big problems here.
The defense is still messy, though. As I've said before, you don't have to be an elite quarterback to find the holes in Billy Davis' scheme (Hint: look for the safeties). A smart, patient, accurate player will pick this secondary apart. That's what happened when the Eagles D was skinned alive during the three-game stretch against Philip Rivers, Alex Smith, and Peyton Manning. Since then, during the team's 7-2 run, opponents never scored more than 21 points.
The great nine-game run leading up to Sunday seemed to be the defense gelling, but most of it was the horrendous, mistake-prone quarterbacks the Eagles faced. Only two of the QBs the Eagles faced in that span have positive DVOA on the year, and they played one of those in a blizzard. Matt Cassel could easily have been another one of those lightweights, but he did his best 2008 impression, throwing for the 4th-most yards of his career. That came despite the Eagles front seven holding the Adrian Peterson-less Vikings to just 2.4 yards per carry.
Worth noting: Football Outsiders never bought into the Eagles defensive turnaround. While they were bend-but-not-breaking their way to sub-22 point totals, the defense allowed over 350 yards in all but two of the last 9 games. Coming into Sunday, the team ranked 22nd in defensive efficiency, versus 3rd on offense. Even with Denver and Kansas City as past opponents, the Eagles faced the 27th-weakest schedule and registered the highest level of inconsistency in the league prior to this week. Including week 15, the Eagles have the lowest point differential of any division leader.
So again, the Eagles aren't great. If their schedule weren't so easy, including six games against the criminally ugly NFC East, I imagine the team would have finished closer to my "return to 1999" prediction than their current possible outcome of 8-10 wins. If the Eagles win the division, which I now expect them to do either against Chicago with the Cowboys losing again, or in Dallas the week after, they will have vastly overperformed -- despite being only a mediocre overall team.
But that's OK. Even if the Eagles get rolled over by a better wild card team like San Francisco, Carolina, or New Orleans, the season will have been a smashing success, and one to build on in 2014. Kelly's offense still has room to grow next year, and the defensive reconstruction will continue. Until then, enjoy this #housemoney season.
On Monday, before the Eagles' opener, I downplayed the notion that the Eagles would be able to put many wins together this season, noting that what we're really looking for is a season like Andy Reid's foundation-building 1999. I WAS WRONG.
Well, at least I was wrong about the team's potential to win games this season. Looks like the offense Kelly brings may be good enough to be more competitive more quickly than I expected. Not to mention exciting. I'm riding high off that win, especially the first quarter that became one glorious offensive wet dream.
Still, I'd caution against reading too much into Monday's game. Not only was the offense new, the defense was also unexpectedly shifty. That's a positive development from their listless preseason performance, but as the game wore on Washington adapted to Billy Davis' schemes (and he backed off some). Some flaws were exposed and others soon will be by opposing coordinators now getting a fresh look at Eagles tape. Without the Redskins' early turnovers, the Eagles might not have gone home as happy.
Because the game turned out to be so long, and the coaches' tape isn't up yet, I only managed to re-watch the first 15 minutes of the game. Here are 15 screenshots from that giddy first quarter... (Click to embiggen)
Most of what I want to highlight are variations on the zone read play Kelly loves to call. Below is one where Vick appears to be reading the slot corner. When he stays home to guard against the bubble screen, McCoy gets the handoff up the middle. Also note, the blue block is Lane Johnson, firing up to the second level after lining up on the right next to Jason Peters. Freezing one defender and then running Shady behind two tackles like Johnson and Peters is frightening:
Similar play below. Again, Vick is reading the slot corner (#26). Washington had that corner come on the blitz a few times, including this one. Reading him is a perfect counter. Vick fakes the hand off and throws a quick bubble screen to DeSean:
Then the Eagles take the above concept and add another option for Vick -- a pop pass to the tight end over the middle. Now he's reading the middle linebacker London Fletcher (#59) in addition to freezing the rest of the right side of the defense via the bubble screen threat (which he may change to given pre-snap read). When Fletcher turns to pick up Brent Celek, Vick hands it off to McCoy:
Like any other running play, success is contingent on the men up front maintaining their blocks. But because of the passing options, by the time McCoy gets to the second level, there's no one there to meet him. London Fletcher, with four Pro Bowls, 15 years of experience, and over 1300 career tackles, has taken himself out of the play:
Later we see essentially the same play run to the right. This time, Fletcher takes a step forward, looking at McCoy. Vick throws to a wide-open Ertz instead, picking up an easy first down:
Below is another zone read where Vick is either reading the LB or the DT. I highlighted the former, but it depends who you think Celek is trying to block. Either way the threat of the QB keeper makes it devastating when he actually hands off to McCoy -- who follows a pulling Jason Kelce into a hole manned by the unbalanced line of Peters and Johnson on the right:
The Eagles didn't play much defense in the first quarter, but here's one play we can take a quick break for. The Redskins execute a great screen. They manage to get Alfred Morris the ball with three linemen poised to crush Mychal Kendricks and anyone else. But Kendricks, showing this may be a breakout season, dodges two of them and makes a textbook open field tackle:
One problem I kept noticing was Vick being indecisive on what should be quick reads. Here the pre-snap read is clearly going to indicate throwing the bubble screen right away. Only one of the three DBs to the bottom is within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage:
Vick should throw this ball immediately in the screenshot below. DeSean is open and Avant is just beginning to engage the first DB:
Instead, Vick holds on to the ball and sprints out. This brings pressure on himself and allows the safety to come down. But worst of all, he's letting Avant block downfield for a couple of seconds before the pass is thrown. The referees called an easy offensive pass interference on this one:
Vick also needs to make quicker decisions under pressure. Below he has a free rusher in his face and instead of dumping the ball off to an outlet receiver (or just throwing it at their feet), he freezes and takes a dumb sack:
Alright, now check out the play below. It's another zone read sweep where Vick is reading the defensive tackle. He sees the DT crash down, so he pulls the ball and runs upfield. Todd Herremans springs to the next level to block the linebacker, while Brent Celek (obscured) tries to cut block his man:
Some people speculated during the live game that Vick ran head first into the scrape-exchange. But really this is just a simple execution problem. Celek's cut block is awful but slows down his man. It's Herremans who totally whiffs on the linebacker, leaving Vick exposed. Note, Vick probably would have had better luck running to the sideline instead of cutting back inside:
One of Vick's sacks came when Herremans and Johnson had some kind of blocking miscommunication. Herremans blocked down on the defensive tackle while Johnson eyed the blitzing linebacker. Neither of them picked up Ryan Kerrigan:
Before even helping Vick up, the rookie turned to Herremans to hash things out:
- I'm not fretting about Fletcher Cox. As Derek Sarley laid out quite plainly, the problem on those first few run plays was much more about spacing in the new 3-4 defensive lineup. The bigger problem was Trent Cole, who looked totally out of place as a stand-up linebacker. Maybe he'll get better, but I wouldn't count on it. The sample size wasn't large, but I thought Brandon Graham looked a lot more comfortable out there.
- In nickel packages the Eagles tended to switch to a four-down linemen look, and Cole looked like his normal self there. Back in April I suggested that the coaches keep Cole as a down rusher -- even consider starting him at 3-4 defensive end. That latter option is probably off the table now that Cole has slimmed down for his OLB role, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him has a dedicated pass rush specialist in exclusive four-linemen looks before long.
- As a broader point, the 3-4 defensive transition is going to be rough. Not only do some of the players not fit into their defined roles, but the spacing issues will probably continue. Good offensive coaches will exploit this inexperienced front, and Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans are going to get mauled at the second level.
- On the touchdown pass, Sheil Kapadia says: "Vick said [DeSean] went deep because the Patriots had a single high safety." Jackson's ability to stretch coverage is even more necessary now that Jeremy Maclin is out for the year. If can't keep safeties honest, the run game and short passes become difficult.
- Zach Ertz looks like he needs some serious work. He's not a speedy receiver (only 4.68 second 40 yard dash) and he looks totally lost blocking. Here Ertz is at the top of the formation letting Jerod Mayo (admittedly a good linebacker) get by him without so much as slowing him down. While the offensive line is getting a good push up the middle, Mayo comes in off the edge unblocked and makes the tackle:
- Here's a cool play: a zone-read design where the quarterback is looking at the defensive tackle instead of the end. It's the Eagles' fourth play from scrimmage, with Vick deciding whether to hand off to Chris Polk or keep it himself. The typical zone-read we've seen in the NFL so far (and we also saw from the Eagles on Friday night) involves letting the defensive end come upfield unblocked. If he goes for the QB, you hand it off. If he goes for the RB, the QB keeps it. Same idea here, but Vick is reading Vince Wilfork at defensive tackle. If he had sprinted to his left to get Polk, Vick would have had a huge hole up the middle. Because he stayed in his lane, Polk gets the hand off and has two double teams to run behind on the right (click to embiggen):
- Just as I was drawing this play up, Chris Brown posted an extensive review of Chip's play calling, including this one (with a gif). You should definitely check that out.
- Brown talks about "packaged plays" as well, and Sheil has a glorious medley of screen caps on those run-pass options.
- However, my favorite play of the night was the one below. What looked like a zone-read play to the left was really a play-action rollout to the backside. Vick has a clear run-pass option on this play and it's killer for the defense. This is something Foles doesn't present -- a dangerous running threat out of the backfield. The Patriots defenders who weren't sucked in by the play action aren't sure whether to converge on Vick or cover their receivers, so neither happens. Easy 19-yard completion to Riley Cooper:
- Lane Johnson looked athletic and powerful. Sheil had good shots of him pancaking defenders and getting to the second level: here and here.
- Fellow Eagles Almanac scribe Dan Klausner is trying to convince me that Chris Polk is ready for the big time. I'm open to the idea, but haven't seen it yet. Certainly he is the better pass blocker (see Sheil's screencaps here), but Bryce Brown is a much more dangerous weapon. Watching him explode through holes or grab passes out of the backfield, it's obvious that Brown's someone you want to have the ball. Perhaps it's a silly hypothetical, but I can't shake the feeling that Brown would have exploded through that hole for a first down on the Wilfork zone-read.
- Nick Foles moved the ball very efficiently in the Eagles' first real up tempo test. See more from Jimmy Kempski.
I've rehashed this Chip Kelly statement a couple of times now, but it remains one of the most interesting quotes so far this offseason:
"We are going to go three tight ends in a game. Now, if they go three linebackers, we spread them out and if they go DB's, we smash you. So, pick your poison. Simple game, isn't it? You guys thought coaching was hard. They bring little guys in, you run the ball. They bring big guys in, you throw the ball."
There's a lot to unpack in this short passage, including possible insight into Kelly's overall offensive philosophy: hit 'em where they ain't. It also confirms (as if the Zach Ertz pick didn't say this already) that Kelly wants to emphasize versatility with multiple tight end sets. However, at its most literal level, I think it's a lie: I don't believe the Eagles will base any sort of offense around having three tight ends in the game at once.
It's an easy fib to tell at this point in the offseason, especially when you need to explain away a crowded tight end position. Brent Celek has been an above-average starter for the last few years, a consistent threat in the passing game who isn't afraid of the dirty work. Kelly doesn't want to say that he's looking to replace the veteran leader. Meanwhile, the team signed James Casey to play an expanded H-back role and drafted Ertz just three picks into the second round. One might say there aren't enough snaps to go around if Kelly hadn't used some expert hand-waving.
Alright, so you say, what evidence is there that the team can't or won't use three tight ends at the same time? Plenty. Let's start with current stats. The New England Patriots are considered one of the most tight end-friendly teams in the NFL. Some, like Chris Brown, have even suggested that Kelly's pro offense will look more similar to the Patriots' than his own college spread. Like the Eagles this year, last year's Patriots squad ditched the fullback in favor of more tight ends/H-backs. However, they rarely used three such players at the same time. Looking at snap counts from Pro Football Focus, we can see exactly how often each Patriots tight end was on the field game-by-game. The players themselves aren't consistent due to injury, but in only 9 of 18 games of their games was the second-most active Patriots tight end on the field for even half of all offensive snaps. The third-most active tight end averaged only 15% playing time.
However, even individual play counts don't properly convey how rare it was for the Patriots to line up with all three tight ends. According to the NFL's own game stats service, New England used three or more tight ends on the field together in only 6.4% of all snaps. That doesn't mean that Kelly couldn't play that combination more. It's the most cliched statement of the offseason that we don't really know what his offense will look like. But the Patriots' unwillingness to go to three tight end sets with any regularity underscores the difficulty with such a formation.
Kelly suggests that he can do anything out of it, but that's not really true. Keeping Celek, Casey, and Ertz in the game together means you only get two other skill players. One of them is obviously a running back like LeSean McCoy. Then you get one wide receiver -- presumably DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin. Between the 20s this lineup lacks any ability to stretch the field. The three tight ends are valuable, flexible pieces. They can pose match up problems against linebackers and safeties in the pass game and cornerbacks in the run game. But Ertz is the fastest, and he only runs a 4.67 forty. With only one wide receiver to deal with, the defense can bring an extra man down into the box to thwart both the short passing game and the run. It's not an ideal match up for the offense -- compared to a two tight end set that keeps the defense honest with down-the-field threats on the outside while adding flexibility in the slot that a player like Jason Avant can't provide.
The three tight end lineup is fantastic for one thing: the red zone. Bring a dangerous rushing threat together with a bunch of big targets and the Eagles might actually be efficient down by the goal line. But I remain skeptical that any offense will use the formation much beyond that. Two tight ends should quickly become a bread-and-butter package for this team, and with injuries and substitutions, having three "starters" on the roster isn't a bad thing at all. But let's not get carried away beyond that. If Ertz progresses quickly, the Eagles likely will be looking for a suitor for Celek 11 months from now.
PS: There's an unwanted player out in free agency who has a similar athletic profile as Casey, and might become an even more versatile weapon with some innovative coaching. It's too bad the Eagles have already denied interest.
Photo from Getty.