Why The Eagles Must Upgrade From Riley Cooper, In One Photo

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):

Cooper 1.png

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.

Game Rewind: 15 Screenshots From the First 15 Minutes of the Chip Kelly Era

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:

Eagles-Jaguars Preseason Thoughts: How To Combat The Scrape-Exchange

Is it too late to talk about the Eagles' third preseason game? Hope not, because that's what I'm about to do. 

  •  When we last talked, I was remarking about how bad Trent Cole looks in his new role. Shocker: he's still bad. In the few nickel snaps that he put his hand in the ground and rushed the passer, Cole got some good pressure (as he always has). But putting him in space does no one any good in coverage and it has so far hindered his naturally good run defense. Especially bad: any play that has him line up over the slot receiver and blitz. First, it's not fooling anyone. Second, he's too far away from the quarterback to do any damage.
  • Luckily, the rest of the linebacking core is shaping up well so far. DeMeco Ryans has been solid, if unspectacular. Mychal Kendricks was a force all over the field against the Jagurs, and was often brought on blitzes up the middle (with Cole dropping back though). On the other side, Connor Barwin continues to impress. His interception was the most athletic feat we've seen an awhile at linebacker. Interesting note: on that play, the Eagles kept their base defense in on Jacksonville's 2nd and 19, against 4 WRs and 1 TE. Odd choice.
  • I am a paying member of the Patrick Chung fan club. He's not a star, but watching him come up and make solid tackles is a revelation. 
  • I didn't think Michael Vick was as horrible as the post-game narrative suggested. He held on to the ball too long a few times and threw one bad pick. But Vick also made some laser completions and showed ample mobility. He was never going to be as perfect as he had shown through the first two contests. Plus, the offensive line wasn't exactly in peak form early.
  • In truth, the offense Chip Kelly had Vick run seldom resembled that of the previous games. There was more under-center snaps and down-the-field passing routes than we were shown before. As some remarked, it looked at times more like an Andy Reid offense than one run by Kelly.
  •  Sheil Kapadia has a good breakdown of what looks like the Jaguars using the scrape-exchange to combat the zone read. Here's what it looks like below. As in their typical zone read play, the Eagles let the defensive end go unblocked, with Lane Johnson crashing down on the guard, and Todd Herremans releasing to the second level. However, in the scrape-exchange, the defensive end is trained to immediately come down the line at the running back, forcing the QB keeper. The linebacker Herremans must reach arcs around the outside instead (away from the would-be block) and gets in Vick's face right away:
Scrape Exchange.png
  • It worked great in the above play, but not only is the scrape hard to pull off, it's not all that difficult to combat either.  The first way is simply for Vick to get better at running the QB keeper and executing the second option. On this play he ran vertically too quickly instead of laterally, negating any chance to throw the quick bubble screen to DeSean Jackson.
  • The second way is even easier: just don't run the zone read. Think about what happens in the above play if the Jaguars defenders get too comfortable executing the scrape, only to have the Eagles block normally. If Johnson and Herremans take on their defenders straight up and the linebacker comes around the edge instead of up the middle, there's going to be a huge hole for the running back. The offense can use further deception with an H-back in the backfield. That player come across the formation to lead blocker with multiple choices about who to attack. The below image comes from Chris Brown's (always excellent) breakdown of this technique:

  • Want another option? How about stop reading the defensive end? By mixing up the read, you can keep defenders unsure of their responsibility. Last time we talked about a play where the Eagles read a defensive tackle. Here's a similar play in which Vick reads the linebacker(s):
  • And here's even more variation. This time the Eagles read the end, but if Vick keeps it he's running behind a pulling guard in Evan Mathis. Bryce Brown picks up 11 yards to the left on this run after the zone read freezes the unblocked defender, but I wonder how many yards Vick would have gotten had he pulled it down himself to the right:
  • By the way, Jamar Chaney did seemingly everything possible to try to get cut over the last couple of years. What finally did him in? Not being able to block a punter on special teams. Ouch.
  • And what is the Toddfather doing below cavorting with the enemy, aka Jason Baboon?
Babin Herremans.png

Eagles-Patriots Preseason Thoughts: This Offense Is Going To Be Fun

  • 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.

For much much more on everything Chip Kelly and the Birds, buy the Eagles Almanac!

Chip Kelly Is Already Two Steps Ahead Of NFL Defenses

In his Sunday training camp rundown, Sheil Kapadia mentioned one play the Eagles ran that caught my eye:

The Eagles run what initially seems like a read-option play, but instead of taking off, Vick unleashes a pass to McCoy, who is out wide.

It's just one small play in a whole day of practice, but the implications are much greater—it shows that Chip Kelly is a couple steps ahead of the NFL defenses he's facing. Opposing coaches have been studying up on the zone read, trying to get a handle on stopping it before it expands even more widely this season. Last week, Chris Brown wrote a fantastic piece on that quest, as did Greg Bedard—who had Stanford's Derek Mason take him through the learning process NFL coordinators are facing.

If you read those articles, you'll understand the difficulty inherent in facing an offense capable of running the read option. You'll also see suggestions that NFL defenses can catch up if they adopt the "scrape-exchange" and other policies that expert college teams have worked on. But while coaches are trying to teach their defenders how to fight back, Kelly is bringing in a host of new ideas from the college level, most notably turning the "regular" zone read we've already seen from Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick into a triple option attack.

Brown wrote about these variations back in 2009. He described how the triple option off the zone read is easy to do with a third runner in the backfield, but also how bubble screens and other pass options can be even more deadly and unpredictable way to keep the defense honest. Here's Fishduck on Kelly's use of the bubble screen: 

Most of what Fishduck talks about in the related article is using the bubble screen as a constraint play to keep the defense honest. Many times, the read is taking place before the snap, and the zone read is little more than a play-action pass. But other times, as in 1:40 in the video, the quarterback is reading two defenders. After pulling the ball based on the defensive end crashing down, he sees the outside linebacker coming at him too. Instead of taking a loss, the quarterback has a third option to throw a quick bubble pass.

Kelly actually talks about that exact play in this video (at 2:15) with Urban Meyer:

The key, as you learn from Fishduck above, is that a third pass option added to the zone read makes it that much harder to defend. The defense can't load defenders into the box without the quarterback making an easy switch to the outside pass (without even needing to audible). Moreover, even if they execute the scrape-exchange properly and get a defender on the quarterback keeper, he still has an option to throw. 

Nothing about this is fool-proof, and a sound defense can slow down the triple option threat (or keep it to dink-and-dunk down the field). But NFL teams still trying to catch up to last year's version of the zone read are going to be falling down if they don't adjust to what Kelly is adding on to it.

Also: Buy the Eagles Almanac 2013 if you haven't already!