"What is Chip Kelly doing?"
That's the question running through the minds of Philadelphia Eagles fans after watching the coach orchestrate a series of personnel moves that completely flipped the starting lineup and removed three Pro Bowl players (LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin and Nick Foles) from the squad. While change is certainly inevitable in the NFL, the surprising decisions of the wily Kelly have led many to question the Eagles' viability as NFC contenders.
1) DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews fit Chip Kelly's system better.
It's crazy to suggest someone who racked up 2,926 rushing yards over the past two seasons with the Eagles -- collecting a rushing title in 2013, to boot -- is a poor fit for Kelly's system, but LeSean McCoy's jitterbug running style certainly didn't match the "north-south" premise of Philly's running game. Kelly employs a zone-based running scheme that places a premium on decisiveness and efficiency at the point of attack. Runners within the scheme are expected to adhere to a "one-cut" rule (that is, they are limited to taking one cut in the backfield before attacking the crease at the line of scrimmage), to reduce the chances of a negative run. While McCoy provided a handful of splash plays with the Eagles, his tendency to dance around the backfield led to negative plays that put the offense behind the chains. Kelly, of course, is bent on revving the pace of his attack by stringing together positive plays. McCoy's undisciplined style also occasionally prevented the team from playing at warp speed. Thus, it made sense to jettison McCoy and bring aboard a pair of downhill runners.
Murray and Mathews have the patience and discipline to attack creases between the tackles. Each runner goes at the line of scrimmage with burst while also exhibiting the poise, body control and balance to slide to another hole if the original lane is clogged. Most importantly, Murray and Mathews routinely hit the hole with their shoulders square to the line, allowing them to jump into open lanes or run through defenders at the point of attack. As a result, Murray and Mathews have picked up 4-plus yards per attempt over their careers (4.8 for Murray and 4.4 for Mathews), with each notching two 1,000-yard seasons (over four years with the Cowboys for Murray and five with the Chargers for Mathews). Those numbers are certainly on par with McCoy's production during his time in Philadelphia (McCoy posted four 1,000-yard seasons and averaged 4.6 yards per attempt in six years).
Let's look more closely at what Murray and Mathews have to offer:
The reigning NFL rushing champ is a no-nonsense runner with outstanding vision, anticipation and balance. He is slippery at the point attack, but he also flashes the strength and power to run through contact in the hole. Murray's ability to run out of tackles is rarely discussed as one of his strengths, but I believe it is critical to his success as a "one-cut" runner. In an Eagles offense designed to give runners multiple tracks at the line of scrimmage, Murray's combination of body control, vision and power will make him a first-down machine as the designated workhorse of a zone-based running scheme.
In the play depicted below, from the Dallas Cowboys' Week 17 win over the Washington Redskins last season, Murray takes a handoff on an outside zone play heading to the right. He attacks the inside leg of the right tackle, then decides whether to cut or bounce based on the reaction of the defensive front. Spotting a crease on the interior, Murray makes a hard cut and scoots to the second level, with his eyes on the blocks of the center and right guard. Murray slips through the seam and powers through a tackle in the secondary on the way to a touchdown. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Here's more evidence of the potential Murray has to thrive in the Eagles' zone-based running scheme. In the play depicted below, from the Cowboys' upset win over the Seattle Seahawks in Week 6 last season, Murray is aligned as the tailback in an I-formation and takes the handoff on the outside zone heading to the right. At the point of attack, he sees the flow of the defense flowing quickly to the outside, leaving a crease on the interior. Murray makes a quick cut to the left, explodes through the hole and runs through an arm tackle en route to a 15-yard score. Murray's combination of vision, quickness and power again produce a positive gain in the red zone, which is critical to scoring points against elite defenses. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The sixth-year pro is a nifty runner with outstanding vision, quickness and burst. He displays explosive pitter-pat in the hole, and he's also a disciplined runner adept at finding creases on downhill runs. Though he appears to be a finesse runner at first glance, Mathews flashes enough strength and power to run through arm tackles at the second level on the way to big runs on the perimeter. With Mathews also showing the determination and grit needed to excel between the tackles on inside zones and draws from one-back sets, he appears to be a great fit for the Eagles' scheme, particularly regarding their nickel run package from spread formations.
After reviewing Mathews' 32-yard touchdown run in the San Diego Chargers' win over the St. Louis Rams in Week 12, I can envision the Eagles frequently giving the former Pro Bowl runner touches on a variety of inside zone runs and deception plays between the tackles. On that particular play, which you can see in the video to the right, Mathews is aligned at halfback in the dubs formation. The Chargers are running a draw play, with Mathews delaying for a count before taking the handoff from quarterback Philip Rivers. The delayed action prompts the Rams' defensive line to fly up the field, leaving a huge lane for Mathews in the middle. He works to the second level and makes a move on a pair of defenders in the secondary before scooting to the end zone.
The decision to trade away McCoy certainly provoked the ire of Eagles' fans and sparked quizzical looks from observers, but Murray and Mathews will make it easier for Kelly to do what he wants on offense.
2) Sam Bradford will excel directing an "inside-out" passing game.
Teams don't often trade away quarterbacks who have produced at an MVP level, but that didn't stop the Eagles -- whose open-mindedness was further illustrated by Monday's workout of Tim Tebow -- from sending Nick Foles to St. Louis in exchange for Bradford. Bradford is a talented passer with outstanding anticipation, awareness and instincts within the pocket. The former No. 1 overall pick throws the ball in rhythm at the top of his drops and routinely leads receivers into open areas with his throws. Injuries forced Bradford to miss 31 games over the past five seasons, including much of 2013 and all of 2014. But the addition of an accurate, pinpoint passer could help Philly's passing game soar behind an "inside-out" approach. After all, Bradford did win the 2010 Offensive Rookie of the Year award while working with current Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur in St. Louis, thriving in a "dink-and-dunk" attack constructed on West Coast offensive principles. If healthy, Bradford should return to All-Star levels.
Considering the Eagles' recent personnel moves, I believe the team is building a passing game around tight ends, running backs and slot receivers. Of course, the focal point could change with the signing of a marquee free-agent pass catcher or the addition of a dynamic young receiver in the draft. Nevertheless, Philly has assembled a collection of playmakers between the hashes that should help the oft-injured passer drive opposing defensive coordinators nuts. Let's take a look at the lineup:
TEs ZACH ERTZ AND BRENT CELEK
The Eagles sport one of the NFL's most dangerous tight-end tandems in Ertz and Celek, who have the athleticism to pose problems for linebackers and safeties in space. Ertz in particular is a dynamic pass catcher with the speed and burst to work down the seam; he excels at blowing past defenders on vertical routes. The team will take advantage of his skills by putting him in various spots in bunch or stacked formations. In addition, the Eagles will use Ertz on "rail" and wheel routes down the boundary, to exploit mismatches against linebackers.
In the play depicted below, from the Eagles' loss to the Seahawks in Week 14, Ertz is positioned at the "Y" in a dubs formation. Philly is running a "switch" route combination on the left, with Ertz running a rail route behind receiver Riley Cooper on an inside seam. The "switch" concept puts the linebacker in a chase position with an inadvertent pick, allowing Ertz to run away from K.J. Wright down the boundary for a 35-yard touchdown reception. These are the concepts the Eagles will likely feature to create big-play opportunities for Ertz. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
WR JORDAN MATTHEWS
The 2014 second-round pick enjoyed a sensational rookie campaign as the Eagles' slot receiver, finishing with 67 receptions for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. He showed outstanding hands and ball skills while snatching passes in traffic. Most importantly, Matthews displayed courage, concentration and toughness on crossing routes between the hashes.
The crossing route is a staple of the Eagles' bootleg passing attack, used to complement the outside zone running play, which is a key element of the game plan. The route puts a designated receiver behind the linebackers following a hard play fake in the backfield. With Philly's potent running game drawing significant attention from opposing defensive coordinators, the bootleg-crossing route to Matthews could become a big play for the team in 2015.
In the play below, from the Eagles' Week 17 win over the New York Giants, Matthews scores a 44-yard touchdown on the simple concept. Positioned in the slot with a tight split, Matthews runs across the field on an intermediate crosser at 10-to-12 yards. The play-fake draws the linebackers to the line of scrimmage, allowing Matthews to settle into a void at the second level. Quarterback Mark Sanchez delivers a strike to the rookie pass catcher, who weaves through traffic on his way to his eighth touchdown of the season. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
RB DARREN SPROLES
The Eagles acquired Sproles in a trade with New Orleans last year to be an explosive weapon used out of the backfield in the passing game. While he was expected to contribute some as a runner on draws and delays, Sproles primarily does his damage as a dangerous playmaker on option routes and screen passes on the perimeter. The diminutive all-purpose back remains one of the toughest matchups for linebackers around the league; Kelly frequently clears the middle of the field to allow Sproles to work his magic between the hashes. With a lineup that suddenly features three talented running backs with receiving skills and a pair of explosive tight ends, Kelly can use a variety of formations and personnel groupings to target the opponent's weakest link in the middle of the field.
Consider the play depicted below, from the Eagles' Week 2 win over the Indianapolis Colts, in which Kelly uses Sproles to take advantage of an overmatched linebacker in the middle. Prior to the snap, Sproles is aligned at halfback in a spread formation. He circles out of the backfield to execute an option route that exploits the leverage of the defender. When the linebacker plays heavy on Sproles' outside shoulder, Sproles breaks off the route to the inside, giving Foles an easy target to spot between the hashes. Foles delivers the ball on time and on target, allowing Sproles to run away from the defense for a 57-yard gain. (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
These are the kinds of passing concepts Kelly will use to take advantage of the defense between the hashes while also giving Bradford a chance to keep the offense on schedule.
3) The Eagles' offense is now built for playoff success.
There is no doubt Kelly's offensive scheme is effective at the NFL level, but the unit has struggled when forced to play "playoff" football in the late stages of the season, as evidenced by Kelly's 0-1 playoff record. To win in the postseason, offenses must be able to move the ball against elite defenses. This requires a level of physicality at the line of scrimmage and on the perimeter that allows the unit to run the ball consistently throughout the game. In addition, the offense must be able to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals in the red zone. Most pass-happy offenses can operate swiftly between the 20s, but the teams that can run effectively are better equipped to post six points from close up, due to their ability to punch it in from run-heavy sets or use the threat of the run to score off a variety of play-action passes.
For all of the Eagles' success as one of the NFL's most explosive offenses, the unit ranked 23rd in red zone efficiency in 2014, scoring touchdowns on just 49.2 percent of their red-zone chances. That number represents a slight drop from the 52.3 percent mark they registered in 2013, when they led the NFL in explosive plays but ranked 13th in red-zone conversions. Philly needed to re-examine its offensive approach and figure out a way to score consistently against stout opposition.
The Eagles certainly have one of the best offensive lines in football, with four Pro Bowl-caliber players -- Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis and Lane Johnson -- excelling at the point of attack. Even if Mathis, whom the team is shopping, is moved, the presence of several elite players along the frontline will allow Philly to play the rough and rugged style required to win in the postseason. The unit is talented enough to dominate the point of attack, particularly with a new cast of downhill runners adept at splitting seams on a variety of zone runs.
From a passing perspective, the shift away from an explosive approach to something that is more of a ball-control attack should lead to better efficiency against the rugged defenses that force postseason slugfests. With the NFC governed by the premier defenses in football (Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers), Kelly needed an answer for the bully tactics used by opponents to snuff out his playmakers on the outside. By stockpiling the lineup with tight ends and running backs, the Eagles can shift the passing game from the edges to the middle of the field. Kelly can thus force linebackers and safeties to win in coverage instead of throwing the ball outside the numbers against some of the top corners in football. Given the challenges of moving the ball in the playoffs, the Eagles' attempt to diversify the offense could reap dividends in January.