Word of Muth: Eagle Twists

Word of Muth: Eagle Twists

by Ben Muth

When I picked the teams I was going to cover in this space at the beginning of the year, the team I was most excited for was the Philadelphia Eagles. They had a head coach with an innovative offensive mind entering his first year in the NFL. They had an interesting collection of players on the offensive line: a former All-Pro returning from a serious injury, a top-five pick, and someone who many considered the best guard in football. On paper, the Eagles seemed to be a slam dunk for this column.

But Internet sport columns aren’t written on paper. As I’ve watched Philly this season, it feels like I always have a hard time figuring out what I’m going to write about. I think the biggest issue is that the scheme that makes the offense effective is exactly what makes it weird to write about on a week-to-week basis. The offense is very simple, particularly the running game. Because Philly has so many packaged passing concepts tacked on to their running game, they end up running very simple zone concepts that work because they simply outnumber the defense in the box. It’s worked very well for them (which is probably Chip Kelly’s goal), but if I drew up shotgun inside zones where the Eagles had a 7-on-6 or 8-on-7 advantage in the box every week, even the most hardcore fan would get sick of it.

The Eagles are still a very fun team to watch every week. They still do enough funky stuff that there will always be something to write about -- Lane Johnson lining up in the slot didn’t even make the cut this week -- but they aren’t the absolute slam dunk of never-ending run game discussion and theory I hoped they would be. That’s why this week I’m going to focus on just a couple of pass plays where we look at some things the Eagles have done well this year, like individual technique, and some things they haven’t done as well, like working in combination with each other.

One thing I’ve really enjoyed is watching how Lane Johnson has progressed over the season. Johnson has improved from week to week and has gone from an early-season liability to at least a league average right tackle. That may not sound like a huge compliment, but considering how some of the other rookie offensive tackles played and the fact that Johnson is just scratching the surface of his talent, it should leave Philly fans optimistic. Not only does it look like Johnson will be a long-time stalwart up front for them, it shows that first-year offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has been an effective teacher.

One area Johnson has really improved on is using his hands in pass protection. At Oklahoma, Johnson would too often lead with his head while using his hands to "catch" rushers (which makes sense considering he’s a converted defensive lineman). This left him off-balance and scrambling to recover late. That habit was exposed when Justin Houston absolutely destroyed him earlier in the year, but ever since you can tell that Johnson has made a real effort to start punching at the top of his set.

Here’s a play from the third quarter. Johnson does a really nice job of throwing his hands straight and fast, without any wasted movement or wind-up. They go straight from his hips in the first frame to the pass rusher's inside number in the second. You can see not only is his punch straight, it’s powerful. Johnson bows the rusher back until he buckles and falls to his knees. That’s impressive power from the fourth-overall pick.

And yes, Johnson’s hands got a little high and may have grazed John Abraham’s facemask. But that never gets called as long as it’s just the initial punch. It’s when an offensive lineman grabs and holds the facemask that he gets called for hands to the face. This is just physical play up front and really encouraging to see from Johnson.

On the whole, I think the Eagles looked pretty good when they were matched up with the Cardinals one on one last week. It was when they had to work together that Arizona’s front seven started to give them issues. This was prevalent on outside zone plays, where there were some messy attempts to pass off stunts that ended with way too much penetration, but there were some pass plays where it became an issue as well.

This is from the fourth quarter, when the Eagles were trying to pick up a first down and run out the clock. The Cardinals are running a simple twist stunt and the Eagles are in man protection on that side of the line. Remember when I talked about how Johnson was leading with his head less and how that was a good thing? This play is a nice example of why that is such an important bad habit to break. You can see that Evan Mathis is lunging at Calais Campbell right at the start and that there is absolutely no distance between himself and the defender. Because Campbell doesn’t run right where Mathis expected (meaning straight ahead), Mathis is off-balance almost immediately.

Now, Mathis is in scramble mode. If he took a better set initially he would be able to feel that Campbell was rushing wider than normal and he would be expecting a twist. But because he lunged right at the snap, he just assumed he missed his target, and turns and starts to chase Campbell outside. In case you didn’t know: you never want an offensive guard to do a 180. As the diagram illustrates, it is "Not Good."

The rare double X of Great Shame. Jason Peters probably gets a bum rap here, but this is just too Keystone Cops not to recognize both guys. You have two linemen chasing someone they aren’t going to be able to catch, while another defender also goes unblocked. The result is two guys hitting the quarterback instead of one.

As bad as this looks, it just shows how quickly things can snowball due to a bad initial set from one guy. Mathis lunged out of his stance and missed Campbell, who was rushing wider than normal. Because he was off-balance Mathis panicked and chased Campbell, and now Peters had no one to pass the looping rusher off to. So Peters tried to stay on his original man, but he got picked by Mathis. It was at that moment that he may have actually realized what was happening, and only then did he try to pass it off like he was supposed to originally. This went as poorly as it could’ve gone from the Eagles perspective, and the other side of line might have been even uglier.

That’s your starting tight end getting pancaked by an undersized nickel back with a bad haircut. That makes this the first play to receive the "XXX of Great Shame" rating, meaning it is unsuitable for small children and automatically ends the column.


23 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2014, 1:19am

6 Re: Word of Muth: Eagle Twists

I haven't watched the Eagles a ton, but it seems to me that asking a qb who is a pedestrian runner to run that offense puts the qb at a higher risk of injury, compared to a qb who runs the ball well. I know the coach doesn't ask Foles to do what he might ask another qb to do, at least not nearly as often, but whenever I see a guy not athletically suited to be a ball carrier getting that assignment, except in the sense of "Peyton Manning shocks the world with a bootleg", I start looking for the next qb.

8 Re: Word of Muth: Eagle Twists

Because he's not attempting to set the world on fire with his runs and because he's not supposed to run except into a wide open space, he slides the vast majority of the time without any risk of even being touched on the play. I haven't seen Foles take a single shot on a read-option as hard as RG III, Luck and Wilson take with regularity because they are more mobile and attempt to make plays with their feet. Foles in the read-option is: 1) see if there's a big empty space with no defenders in it. 2) Run into that space. 3) Slide the moment anyone is near you. The only place it gets tricky is inside the five where he's struggling to fight over the goal-line with less margin for error - but he's huge and it's almost no difference between what he does there and what, say, Cam Newton does on his goal-line attempts. It should be obvious that a little dude who tries to make plays with his legs (like, I don't know, Michael Vick) might be the one who really gets hammered over and over with the read option, not the lanky guy who takes 8 yards and slides the moment anyone is within five yards of him. So, Foles is athletically suited to be a ballcarrier, if the idea is to get 8 yards and slide to the ground untouched.

9 Re: Word of Muth: Eagle Twists

But to concede one thing that highlights one of Kelly's worst qualities as a coach, this becomes a problem when trying to run the clock out and the defense puts everybody in the box and has them key in on the read-option and feign coverage but 100% play the run. Kelly just needs to stop calling the read-option in that situation because that's where you end up with a LB and S flying in at Foles immediately because they know he's not even considering throwing the ball. But Kelly has no idea how to manage his offense once he builds a big lead in the 3rd quarter, so maybe asking him to at least stop putting the QB's health at risk is too much. Just live with McCoy getting 2 yards or Bryce Brown getting -7 and leave Foles out of it.

21 Re: Word of Muth: Eagle Twists

I'm really hoping Chip will take some of the running plays he was forced to use in the snow against the Lions today and start to use them more in situations when the Eagles have built a good lead. That game showed that these players are capable of running the ball successfully even when running out of more traditional sets and not just the read option style play calls.

11 Re: Word of Muth: Eagle Twists

No intelligence required: run into a big empty space or hand the ball off, period. The only hits I've seen him take all year are when Lane Johnson blows a block and he gets hammered at almost the same time the snap reaches him or he finishes his drop-back. I've seen Wilson makes more moves to avoid defenders and risk getting hit than Foles, who I have never seen risk contact on anything other than on those hopeless clock-killing plays (although Wilson's obviously the smartest about avoiding hits of all of the "running" QB's in the league.)

13 Re: Word of Muth: Eagle Twists

Well, that's the thing - Vick would do the read correctly, but then try to make the first guy miss or beat a tackle for a really big gain and frequently get walloped. And he did that because he could get 20 or 30 yards occasionally by making a spectacular play. I've seen RGIII do a lot of that, too. Vick would go head first into guys full speed because he's diving for a little crack of daylight between two converging defenders. And he'd just get crumpled into a heap. I don't know exactly what Cutler is thinking pretending he's a running back on some of those plays. But he is #3 in rush DVOA, so he's not entirely delusional.

Foles just takes what's there, basically between 4 and 12 yards and slides before anyone can even lay a hand on him - if that's "intelligence" then, yes, Foles has it. And he has a decent rushing DVOA - just not Vick's #1 rush DVOA. In the long run I'll take Foles #2 passing DVOA and #9 rushing DVOA (and lower injury risk) over Vick's #1 rush and #32 pass ranking.

18 Re: Word of Muth: Eagle Twists

I think rodgers would be the ultimate. On the other hand, he doesn't need a gimmick system to dominate. I think there's evidence foles is a really excellent qb, but I'm not sure the kelly system isn't on some level a gimmick. If you can reduce its dimensions in any way, it just goes to crap.

22 Re: Word of Muth: Eagle Twists

Still laughing.

Keystone Cops XXX blocking!

Thanks for the great columns, Ben.

Could we get a future column (perhaps on the Bengals who are so good individually and together), where you go through one on one blocking for Guards, then Tackles, then a twist. I think a number of your other readers could use a refresher for how its supposed to be done: set, punch, positioning, mirroring the defender, and switching off guys on stunts.

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