Want to see what good middle linebacker play looks like? Watch this Alabama prospect work.
27 Sep 2013
by Ben Muth
We’re three weeks into the Chip Kelly in the NFL experiment and the early results have been mixed. Everyone agrees the offense is exciting and different, but the Eagles are 1-2 and people are quick to point out potential flaws. (The main one: that limited roster size compared to college could be a problem.) I’m still in a wait-and-see mode before I make any final declarations, but I am willing to commit to one thing right now: This is a heck of run offense, and I for one like that.
The Eagles are rushing for over 200 yards a game in an era where everyone else is struggling to run the football. There are a bunch of reasons for the Eagles success on the ground: LeSean McCoy is really good, the left side of their line is also really good, they play at a blistering pace to keep defenses winded and on the field, and Michael Vick is the best running quarterback in NFL history. That’s a lot for a running game to have going for it, but the thing that stands out to me schematically is how much Chip Kelly’s offense slows down second-level players.
As I was watching the tape from last week it was clear that Kansas City linebackers were very slow filling on run plays. Linebackers were freezing at the snap, staring in the backfield, and getting to their gaps late. This allowed the Eagles offensive line to stay on down linemen much longer than teams typically do. I’m not saying the Chiefs linebackers were wrong with how they were playing -- I assume they were slow-playing everything to take away pop passes on run-pass packaged plays -- but the way they were playing will lead to a lot of big days for McCoy. A perfect example of this was McCoy’s 41-yard touchdown run.
This is just a straight inside zone play from a shotgun formation. One thing that caught me off-guard is how little zone read the Eagles actually run. There are a lot of shotgun runs that, from the blocking, look like straight halfback runs where Vick just fakes a read option. Here, unless they are reading the safety, is an example of one of those plays.
The area the Eagles have to win at is the combo block by the right guard and tackle on the three-technique. That’s the only spot on the line they have a double team and they need to get some push there to create a big gain.
As the play develops, a couple of things stand out. First, center Jason Kelce gets a heck of a block on Dontari Poe. (A rare example of Poe not playing well in this game.) Kelce did a nice job of getting his helmet to Poe’s playside number and then immediately shot-putting him with his backhand when Poe fought to regain his original leverage. This got Kelce a yard of lateral movement right off the snap, which was key, because he didn’t move Poe any further once the big man had regained his leverage and anchored down.
The other notable thing is how little Derrick Johnson moves as the play develops. He’s basically right where he started despite every possible key on earth telling him he needs to flow with the play. That allows the right guard to fight back into the double team as opposed to having to climb vertically to try to blow up the three-technique’s shoulder. Notice how Todd Herremans has his playside hand engaged on the block. That’s usually a big no-no on this combination, because if you turn your shoulders into the defensive tackle it’s too hard to come off on the linebacker scraping over the top. That’s not a concern though when the linebacker is doing more snoozing than scraping.
There’s the hole a slow-playing linebacker creates. I’m pretty sure Johnson actually had the backside A-gap on this play, but he was just way too slow getting there. Herremans probably could have stayed on the defensive tackle a hair longer, because even with an early release McCoy still has a hole there. When you watch a good player like Johnson play like that, you can’t help but be jealous of how much easier it would be to block in a scheme where linebackers are staring at a mesh point instead of watching the guards for keys.
I said I was surprised how little read option Philly actually ran, but they obviously run it enough to give defenses something to think about. One thing I did like about how the Eagles run the read option is that it seems like they can adjust who the read man is going to be based on the defense’s look at the line. I saw both Jason Peters and Lane Johnson make hand signals on plays where the defense moved around late and the Eagles were running read option. Let’s take a look at a time when Peters did it.
The Chiefs shifted to a Bear front (a nose and two three-techniques) and Peters immediately began shaking his inside hand back and forth like he was working a shake weight. Then, at the snap, instead of blocking straight inside zone like the rest of line, he fans out and blocks the outside linebacker. With Peters fanning out, Vick’s read has gone from the outside linebacker to the three-technique. The nice thing about this adjustment is that it can be made quickly with little communication since it only affects two guys: Peters, who is making the call, and Vick, who is looking that way anyway.
Now Vick just has to make the right read on three-technique Mike DeVito, who had a rough game. Look at all that space. Peters seals outside linebacker Tamba Hali and the rest of the defensive line flows with the blocking of the play. The result is an absolute canyon of a hole with only the worst athlete on the defense left to fill it.
DeVito chose Bryce Brown -- although the hole was so big I really believe Vick couldn’t have been wrong -- and Vick keeps it for what turned out to be a huge gain. It was all possible because Chip Kelly allows his players to make decisions on the fly. That may seem like a basic concept, but you’d be shocked how many times as a player you know you’re running into a buzz saw and you have to do it anyway because that’s what the play calls for.
Instead of having to try to reach a three-technique with basically no help (a tough assignment), Peters can just shake his fist and make a really easy kickout block. It’s just a better way to block this play against that defense, and Kelly allows his guys to get to it when they need to.
Obviously the Eagles lost so it wasn’t all 40-plus yard runs from Philly. Aside from the turnovers, the other big concern has to be pass protection. I’m not going to get into Lane Johnson’s struggles too deeply except to say that he leans forward way too much, and that Justin Houston is a better pass rusher than Johnson is a pass blocker at this stage in their careers. I didn’t love what Johnson did out there, but he’s a young guy that should improve, especially considering he won’t have to block Houston every week.
Poe also gave the Eagles (particularly Herremans) problems, but I think that’s more Poe than the Eagles. Poe has looked absolutely unblockable early this year and he may be having the nose tackle version of the season J.J. Watt had last year. Travis Frederick should thank his lucky stars I didn’t cover the game he was matched up with Poe.
The guy I do want to focus on is Jason Peters. Peters played fine, and he’s moving great for someone coming off his Achilles injury. My biggest concern for him right now is his hands. I didn’t think about it at the time, but it makes sense that not playing football for a year would really affect your punch. A pass-protection punch is such an unnatural thing to do (there’s a reason the two-handed open palm strike to the chest hasn’t taken MMA by storm) that not practicing it at game speed for a year could really set you back.
Here’s a little comic strip from a sack Peters gave up in the second quarter. He tries to jump set Hali here (attack him quickly off the line without giving much ground vertically) and actually does a very nice job of getting width at the snap. He looked exceptionally quick from a footwork standpoint and was in great shape in the second frame there.
Then, in frame three, it all falls apart. Look at how wide Peters' hands are there. Instead of shooting them out like a jab, he winds them both up like haymakers. As a result Hali has time to react (and Peters surprised him with how quick he got out there initially) and just rolls his near shoulder away from Peters’ punch. Peters still gets a piece of Hali, but instead of jolting Hali off-balance and out of his rush lane, he barely nudges him. (Look at how little Hali moved between frames four and five.) Now it’s a foot race. Obviously, Hali wins the race and sacks Vick.
On the next drive Peters took another big windup punch and got his hands swiped by Hali for a pressure. After getting beat with his hands twice in about three dropbacks it looked like Peters lost faith in his punch for a bit. It’s pretty common for tackles to lose faith in their punch when they keep losing with it. (The theory being: he can’t knock my hands down if I don’t throw them.) But now you’re vulnerable to a bull rush and you generally make the pocket too mushy because you aren’t knocking rushers out of their lanes. Peters rebounded a bit in the second half, but with a rookie on the right side, the Eagles really need Peters to get his hands right this season.
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