A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
17 Sep 2013
by Mike Ridley
And just like that, the luster is gone.
After pummeling Washington on Monday Night Football, Chip Kelly's Eagles appeared to be a playoff contender with speed throughout the offense and a game plan that was being described as "brilliant." On Sunday, National Jump to Conclusions Week claimed another victim as the flaws in Kelly's plan were exposed -- namely, you need the ball for it to work.
Kelly disregards the notion that controlling the clock is a key to winning football games. What's most important is making your opponent's defense face more snaps then your own defense. Part of the reason Kelly's scheme was so successful at Oregon was his defense's ability to provide stops and turnovers. During Kelly's last three seasons in Eugene, his Ducks never ranked below 16th in interceptions forced. Producing stops and turnovers allowed Oregon to overcome large time difference disparities. Once such instance happened against UCLA in 2010. Despite Oregon losing the time of possession battle 38:31 to 21:29, Oregon still managed to run more plays in a lopsided 60-13 victory over the Bruins.
Suffice it to say that Kelly doesn't have that luxury with the Eagles. Or at least, he certainly didn't this Sunday.
On Sunday, San Diego had their way with Philadelphia's defense, efficiently cranking out 539 yards on 79 plays and effectively limiting Kelly's explosive offense. They controlled the clock and won the time of possession battle by better than a 2-to-1 ratio thanks to two 11-play drives yielding touchdowns and a 17-play, field goal-producing drive that knocked nearly nine minutes off the clock. More importantly, they won the "plays of possession battle" as well, restricting the Eagles to only 59 plays just one week after they reeled off 77, despite running plays nearly five seconds faster than their Week 1 pace.
The Chargers were able to exploit one of the Eagles' biggest weaknesses: the inability to stop receivers out of the slot. Including the three-touchdown performance by Eddie Royal (yes, that same Eddie Royal), Philadelphia has allowed opposing slot receivers to rack up 168 yards on 15 catches for five touchdowns on just 20 targets. Those numbers translate to a quarterback rating of 139.2, a rating similar to Peyton Manning's Week 1 performance.
Rivers is coming off arguably his best game in the last two-and-a-half seasons, eclipsing the 400-yard mark for just the fourth time in his career. What may be more impressive is that Rivers took only one sack and didn't commit a turnover, a result directly tied to the quick drops Mike McCoy's offense has instituted. The three- and five-step drops McCoy's system stresses has allowed Rivers to stay upright and deliver quick, high-percentage passes, rather than the deep drops he often used under Norv Turner.
If there were ever any doubts about the effectiveness of this new system, they remain no longer. Rivers finished Week 2 rated third in DYAR for the season, behind only Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. His total of 282 DYAR is already twice the amount he finished the 2012 season with (138). Despite the quick drops frequently used, Rivers has accumulated his DYAR through more aggressive, downfield throws. In 2012, Rivers targeted running backs on over 27 percent of his passes. That number currently stands at 21 percent -- though small sample caveats apply, of course. What's more telling is that Rivers is among the league leaders in deep ball accuracy. He trails only Rodgers in passes completed 20 yards or more downfield.
Watching this team on film, you see a quick-hitting, efficient offense that is decisive and well-run. Rivers is mastering his pre-snap reads, allowing him to get the ball out quickly. He's also avoiding costly sacks and, more importantly, limiting turnovers. And as an extra bonus, the Chargers avoided one of those dreaded "10:00 am on our body clocks" losses that Pacific Time Zone teams worry so much about.
San Diego may have won the game, but VOA sides with the Eagles.
|Dewey Defeats VOA|
|Team||Off. VOA||Def. VOA||Special Teams VOA||Total VOA|
Again, this is where Philadelphia's inability to run enough plays became a big problem. The Eagles actually gained 8.8 yards per play compared to just 6.8 for the Chargers. That's better efficiency per play, and thus better VOA -- but not enough yardage to win. Costly penalties were also a huge issue. Lane Johnson's illegal formation penalty wiped away a 37-yard touchdown, Patrick Chung's defensive holding helped keep a field goal-producing drive alive and DeSean Jackson's unnecessary roughness after an Eagles' touchdown helped the Chargers start their drive at the Eagles' 42-yard line on a key drive.
Speaking of which ...
With a little more than seven minutes remaining in the game, the Eagles scored the go-ahead touchdown, taking hold of the "momentum" (if you believe in such a thing) and the "win expectancy odds" (if you don't). Another fourth-quarter loss for the Chargers seemed even more certain when Fozzy Whittaker fielded Alex Henery’s kick at the 11-yard line (courtesy of Jackson’s penalty) and took it up the right hash where he was sandwiched between Brandon Graham and Colt Anderson, pinching the ball out directly towards Henery. As Chargers fans collectively prepared to bang their head into the closest brick wall, the unthinkable happened; the ball caromed off Henery’s elbow, and after four Eagles failed to fall on the ball, the Chargers’ Darrell Stuckey miraculously grabbed it. San Diego would go on to score a crucial touchdown seven plays later.
The Eagles put on a performance Sunday that was truly one-of-a-kind. Below are a few nuggets to help you win free beer at your favorite neighborhood watering hole:
One doesn’t have to search hard to find articles and commentary detailing Philip Rivers' decline as a player. In Norv Turner’s system, Rivers was constantly roughed up thanks to deep drops behind a sub-par line. As a result, he threw 15 picks and was sacked a career-high 49 times in 2012. McCoy has designed a system that not only plays to Rivers' strengths, but also those of the players around him. The short drops take advantage of Rivers' keen pre-snap reads while also limiting the liability of his still-shaky line. The spread system allows the Chargers to use their depth at receiver while covering up their running game weaknesses. Additionally, the use of no-huddle limits the substitutions the defense can make, giving Rivers more vanilla looks to diagnose.
The results through two games are promising. While Rivers is unlikely to maintain his pace of 56 touchdowns and just eight interceptions, his outlook is positive. If he can continue to cut his sack rate and limit his interceptions, he has the ability to put numbers on the board. Given what the Chargers have shown on defense, every point will be needed.
41 comments, Last at 21 Oct 2013, 12:48am by newquynh