The offense that torched opponents at will during the preseason has been unable to score points or generate first downs consistently. Chip Kelly's squad struggled mightily against the Atlanta Falconsand Dallas Cowboys in back-to-back losses to open the regular season. The Eagles' vaunted running game has mustered just 70 total yards (dead last in the NFL, by a wide margin) and DeMarco Murray looks nothing like the guy who led the NFL in rushing a season ago by nearly 500 yards. In addition, the Sam Bradford experiment looks quite suspect in the early goings, with the former No. 1 overall pick struggling to string together completions on the perimeter.
1) The Eagles can't run behind a leaky offensive line.
For all of the conversation about whether DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews are miscast in the Eagles' offense, the poor play of the offensive line has been the primary reason why the running game has looked so horrendous in 2015. The Eagles have been thoroughly whipped at the line of scrimmage by each of their opponents, exhibiting a lack of chemistry and continuity that is surprising for a unit featuring three Pro Bowl-caliber players (Jason Peters, Jason Kelce and Lane Johnson). One big issue: That trio has been hindered by the disappointing play of guards Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner.
The Eagles unceremoniously dismissed a pair of veteran starters on the interior (Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans) during the offseason, and their replacements have struggled with their assignments up front. Barbre and Gardner repeatedly have allowed penetration through the A-gaps, leading to disruption and chaos at the point of attack.
Given the inexperience of the duo -- prior to this season, each guy had made eight career starts in the NFL -- opponents successfully have targeted the middle of the Eagles' line to destroy the timing and rhythm of the zone-based running game. Coaches are instructing their defensive tackles to slant or angle through the A-gaps to blow up inside- and outside-zone runs. The quick lateral movement of the defensive tackle not only creates instant penetration against dive plays, but it allows linebackers to run unimpeded through gaps to meet runners in the hole. The tactic is also effective against outside runs when defensive tackles jump in the hip pocket of pullers at the line. This prevents the puller from getting around the corner and blocks the path of additional pullers on the backside.
Against the Falcons in Week 1, the interior penetration prevented Murray from finding running lanes on outside zone plays. In the play depicted below, the Eagles are aligned in a trix formation with Murray positioned on the left. He is instructed to take the handoff around the corner to the right with a pair of pullers in front (Kelce and Gardner). The Falcons' Jonathan Babineaux anticipates the snap and jumps through the A-gap. With Kelce and Gardner pulling around the corner, Babineaux's quick penetration destroys the timing of the play and forces Murray to bounce into the awaiting arms of O'Brien Schofield. This results in a 12-yard loss for the Eagles(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the fourth quarter of that game against the Falcons, on a critical third-and-1, the Eagles were unable to handle the penetration from the defensive line. As evidenced in the play breakdown below, the Falcons' defensive line executes a slant to the strong side. At the snap, Kroy Biermann dives through the A-gap, leaving an open lane for Paul Worrilow when Gardner steps down with Biermann. With a free run to the running back, Worrilow stops Mathews in the backfield and prevents the Eagles from moving the chains (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 2, the Eagles again failed to neutralize penetration at the point of attack. In the play below, Mathews is positioned as the dot back in a deuce formation on 2nd-and-8. The Cowboys are countering with a seven-man box, and Tyrone Crawford is instructed to slant into the A-gap at the snap. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive tackle gets a great jump on the snap and explodes through the hole, forcing Mathews to bounce to the outside. Cowboys safety Barry Church closes the door on the play and nails Mathews at the line of scrimmage for a minimal gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Eagles' offensive guards aren't the only underachievers along the line. Tight end Brent Celek has struggled sealing defensive ends; his inability to keep them at bay has resulted in a few negative runs. If the Eagles hope to rectify their running woes, they must get better play from their front-line personnel at the point of attack. Otherwise, Murray and Mathews will continue to run to darkness, and the Eagles' running game will remain a sore spot for Kelly. Of course, it doesn't help that Murray (hamstring) is now questionable for this Sunday's road game against the New York Jets.
2) Sam Bradford hasn't found his groove in Chip Kelly's offense.
When Kelly handpicked Bradford to direct his offense as the Eagles' new franchise quarterback -- sending last year's starter, Nick Foles, to St. Louis in the quarterback swap -- the move was met with much skepticism based on the veteran's extensive injury history. Bradford managed to play in just seven games over the past two seasons, thanks to back-to-back ACL injuries, and entered the season with 31 missed games in his five-year NFL career. Not to mention, he missed significant time at Oklahoma dealing with injuries to his throwing shoulder.
Despite those concerns, I thought Bradford was a nice fit in Kelly's quick-rhythm system, based on his judgment, anticipation and accuracy. When healthy, Bradford consistently delivers the ball on target and his keen sense of timing allows him to throw to open receivers down the field. Also, Bradford had exhibited sound judgment as a pocket passer in the NFL, as evidenced by his 59:38 touchdown-to-interception ratio prior to the season.
But looking at the All-22 tape of Bradford's play during the first two weeks, I see a veteran passer attempting to shake off the rust while re-adjusting to the speed of the NFL game. Bradford's timing and mechanics are out of sync in the pocket, resulting in errant throws and misfires on short and intermediate routes. In addition, Bradford is still trying to regain his comfort while throwing with bodies around him in the pocket. Suffering multiple knee injuries can make a pocket passer jittery under duress. Thus, it is not surprising to see Bradford failing to consistently step into his throws with rushers in close proximity. When he becomes more comfortable and confident in his knee, he will take a full stride into each of his throws to achieve maximum velocity. Moreover, he will deliver accurate tosses well within the receiver's strike zone.
If I had to cite a concern about Bradford's game after studying the tape, I would point to his judgment under duress. The former Heisman Trophy winner has been a solid decision maker throughout his football career, eschewing risky throws for checkdowns in most instances. In Philadelphia, however, he hasn't shown discipline and restraint as a passer. He has attempted to fit balls into tight windows; these contested passes have resulted in him having twice as many interceptions (4) as TD strikes (2).
Against the Cowboys, Bradford's lack of patience and discipline resulted in a pair of costly interceptions, including a red-zone pick that kept the Eagles from closing the gap in the third quarter. On the play, as you can see just below, the Eagles are running a mesh route with multiple short crossers and a deep-middle hook between the hashes. Bradford is instructed to check out the running back on the swing before looking at the shallow cross and hook over the middle. The Cowboys have the play perfectly defended, which should lead Bradford to throw the ball away. Instead, he attempts to make a hero throw to tight end Zach Ertz despite Sean Lee's fine coverage. The instinctive linebacker steps in front of Ertz and steals a pick on a poor decision by Bradford (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Bradford has hardly justified the surprising deal that landed him in Philadelphia, but Eagles fans should hold out hope that the veteran passer will turn it around. He has shown flashes of stringing together completions with a deft touch (see: second half of the Atlanta game), but he must reduce his turnovers and miscues to keep Philly in these highly competitive contests. If he can regain his confidence and rhythm as a thrower, Bradford should be able to help the Eagles dig out of their slump. Of course, the quarterback also needs to get some help from his pass catchers ...
3) The Eagles lack star power at wide receiver.
It is a not a prerequisite for an elite NFL offense to feature a top-five talent on the perimeter, but it is harder to field a dominant attack with complementary weapons occupying key roles in the passing game. When Kelly arrived in Philadelphia, the Eagles had electric playmakers in DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Each player was capable of delivering explosive plays as a vertical threat, but also showed the elusiveness, wiggle and burst to turn short passes into big gains. With both players now plying their trades elsewhere, the Eagles lack a dynamic weapon on the perimeter with game-changing potential. Thus, Philadelphia is forced to play "connect the dots" from the pocket, which is tough to do against elite defenses in critical games.
Looking at the All-22 film, I don't believe the Eagles have a legitimate home-run threat in the receiving corps. Miles Austin and Riley Cooper are pedestrian pass catchers with limited impact potential as playmakers. Zach Ertz and Brent Celek are capable "MOF" (middle of the field) chain movers, but neither has provided enough impact plays to become a focal point of a game plan. Thus, the Eagles are forced to count on their young players -- second-year pro Jordan Matthews and rookie Nelson Agholor -- to carry the passing game with their skills on the perimeter.
Frankly, I've been disappointed with the play of both youngsters to this point. Neither has performed like a WR1; the Eagles' passing game has been grounded due to their inability to win against elite corners. This was apparent in each of Philadelphia's losses, with the duo failing to come through with big plays when the games hung in the balance. While Matthews racked up respectable numbers in both contests, he failed to make the kind of impact plays that alter the way opponents direct their coverage. Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli was comfortable playing Cover 1 (man-free) for most of last Sunday's game without using a bracket or double-team on the Eagles' leading pass catcher.
Agholor has been a major disappointment with only four receptions for 36 yards and zero touchdowns on the season. The Eagles' first-round draft pick has struggled to create separation from defenders down the field; his inability to get space has encouraged opponents to use more bump-and-run tactics on the outside to suffocate the passing game. Granted, Agholor is a rookie still adjusting to the nuances of the pro game, but the Eagles were counting on him to deliver some of the explosive plays routinely provided by Maclin and Jackson in previous seasons. Without a credible deep threat on the field, the Eagles will continue to see opponents crowding the box to stop the run and daring Bradford to take his shots in the passing game.