Philadelphia Eagles and the Dangers of Disestablishing the Run
Establishing the run is a silly, outdated idea. The Philadelphia Eagles are trying to prove this year that disestablishing the run is even sillier.
If you have watched the Eagles at all this season, you know their offense consists of:
- Wide receiver screens.
- Deep shots along the sidelines, the most successful of which are often Jalen Hurts underthrows which result in pass interference.
- More wide receiver screens.
- Holding and false start penalties.
- RPOs, except with no "R," which means there is really no "O."
- Occasional read-options where Hurts almost always keeps the ball.
- Rare handoffs to Miles Sanders. The Lincoln Financial Field crowd responds to each one as if Bruce Springsteen just walked onto the field. And started calling plays.
To get an accurate sense of how rarely the Eagles run, I took their run-pass ratio from the first halves of games (they sat on the clock a bit against the Falcons and Panthers) and reclassified 11 Hurts scrambles as passing plays. I did the same for the whole league, of course. Here are the NFL's lowest true first-half run-pass ratios:
Walkthrough hereby proposes a hypothesis: if your team runs the ball less often than the teams with Patrick Mahomes or Tom Brady at quarterback, then you are not running the ball enough.
And here's the kicker: the Eagles rank third in rushing DVOA. They refuse to do the one thing they may be able to do as well as teams like the Browns.
One rationale for the Eagles' low run-pass ratio is that they use screens the way most teams use handoffs. But the Eagles' screen game has netted diminishing returns. Per Sports Info Solutions, the Eagles executed eight screens for just 17 yards against the Panthers and three screens for 10 yards against the Buccaneers. If we expand screens to the colloquial sense of "passes at or behind the line of scrimmage," the Eagles executed seven of them for 16 yards against the Buccaneers. The more a team noodles behind the line of scrimmage, the more likely the defense is to just hold back and tackle the receiver for a minimal gain.
Also, the Eagles have been flagged for having an ineligible receiver downfield six times. If you're trying to revolutionize the screen game, you'd better at least execute properly.
The Eagles use play-action on about 19% of their first-half snaps. Their adjusted net yards/attempt on play-action of 5.5 ranks 25th in the NFL. There is a ton of evidence that suggests there is no correlation between play-action success and rushing success, but that principle hasn't really been tested at such extreme tolerances. At some point, even the oldest-school defensive coordinator will watch the film of a team that only runs 24% of the time and say, "Fellas, ignore the run keys and just drop into coverage." Indeed, it looked as though Cowboys and Buccaneers defenders might have done just that when Sanders was finally given his second or third opportunity of the game and ripped off a few big runs.
There's a theoretical ideal NFL run-pass ratio range which depends on a team's personnel and the game situations they face. It may well hover below 30.0% for a team with Brady or Mahomes at quarterback, established playmakers across the skill positions, and Bruce Arians or Andy Reid supervising the game plans. The Eagles have novice coaches, a quarterback with 10 career starts, and speedy but inexperienced wide receivers. Even after the Zach Ertz trade, the strength of their offense is Sanders, the offensive line, and tight end. They need to be "balanced"—we're talking about running the ball at least one-third of the time in neutral situations here, not caveman stuff—if they hope to remain competitive and give Hurts a fair chance to develop.
There's a valid argument to be made that the Eagles' underlying problem isn't a low run-pass ratio, but the fact that Nick Sirianni and his coaches may have no idea what they are doing. That leads us directly into our next segment.
Leaderboard of the Week
Every Thursday, Walkthrough examines a random (and usually obscure) leaderboard from Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions, or elsewhere on the analytics Interwebs in search of deep truths and wisdom.
Let's investigate passes over the middle of the field. The data comes from Sports Info Solutions and only includes passes marked "middle" in their database, so we are essentially working between the hashmarks.
We'll start with the yardage leaders in passes over the middle of the field:
Sam Darnold likes to throw to DJ Moore out of the slot. Moore is 7-for-7 for 83 yards on passes over the middle, mostly quick slants and other in-breaking routes from the slot. Robbie Anderson, on the other hand, is just 1-for-4 for 7 yards and two drops over the middle, including a few incomplete bombs. Chuba Hubbard is 4-for-5 for 30 yards on passes clearly designed for Christian McCaffrey. As with all things Panthers-related, don't be surprised if their statistics dip once their early wins become diluted in the data.
Mark Andrews is 6-of-10 for 69 yards over the middle. Lamar Jackson has also gotten Sammy Watkins and Marquise Brown more involved on such passes: 9-of-13 for 168 combined. The big story with Jackson, of course, is that he is no longer relying exclusively on passes over the middle.
Christian Kirk is the middle man for the Cardinals: 9-of-10 for 141 yards. Maxx Williams caught six passes over the middle before his injury; Zach Ertz will soon assume that role. Cardinals receivers have very clearly defined roles: DeAndre Hopkins is the go-to guy, usually on the left side; Kirk works underneath between the numbers; A.J. Green the boundary (usually on the right side); Rondale Moore is Little Screens Dude; the tight ends do tight end stuff. It's possible that the roles are too clearly defined and that opponents will soon figure out countermeasures. That's part of what happened to the Cardinals last year, but they appear to have improved in a variety of areas this season.
Noah Fant is 7-for-7 for 60 yards in this category. Courtland Sutton is 4-for-4 for 90 yards. As the data suggests, the Broncos offense right now consists of Teddy Bridgewater waiting in a collapsing pocket for one of them to get open in the 5- to 15-yard window. Like the Panthers, the Broncos may be headed for a team-wide statistical cliff due to injuries and their creamy early schedule.
The Chiefs lead the NFL in attempts over the middle. Travis Kelce is 10-of-12 for 148 yards. Jet sweep passes are technically "passes over the middle," and Mecole Hardman has three glorified end-arounds for 33 yards in this category. The high interception rates of the Chiefs, Ravens, and Cardinals are likely the residue of their daring, unconventional offenses: throw a lot of passes into heavy traffic, and some of them are going to get picked off.
Now for some real fun: the teams with the fewest yards on passes over the middle.
Those Saints numbers are a big red flag for a team with playoff aspirations. They simply have no presence over the middle of the field, and there's no tight end or wide receiver on the active roster who looks like a potential weapon over the middle. Oh, and all three of the interceptions were by Jameis Winston, so we can't blame The Lovechild for this one.
The Bears offense is utterly dysfunctional in ways that become more mystifying every time we peel back a layer. The Jets are … you know. To ease back on the Carson Wentz snark for once, he has been working the sidelines fairly well while playing on bum ankles. The Colts aren't actively avoiding the middle of the field like the other teams on this list.
And then there are the Eagles, who have attempted the fewest passes over the middle of any team in the NFL. You know, the team that had Ertz until last Friday and still has Dallas Goedert at tight end? The team that only runs 23.8% of the time? The team with Miles Sand … forget it. And take a look at that ANY/A, which is higher than any team on the over-the-middle passing leaderboard. (The Seahawks lead the NFL in ANY/A for this category, though not for long).
So the Eagles appear to excel at rushing and at throwing over the middle. They also appear built to do both those things well, even with Ertz gone. Yet they do both of those things far less than any other team in the NFL.
That's a quality control issue. It's a coaching experience issue. It's a freakin' common sense issue.
Sirianni better figure out the obvious in a hurry, because his career, Hurts' career, and the future of the franchise depends on it.
Five to Watch
This week's edition of Five to Watch focuses on emerging stars and unheralded free-agent additions on defense.
Chidobe Awuzie, Cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals
Awuzie has been one of the Bengals' best players on either side of the ball this year. And it's not like he hasn't been tested: Awuzie shadowed Davante Adams for most of the Packers loss and battled him more or less to a draw. (Adams caught some passes, but Awuzie recorded an interception). Awuzie also took care of Justin Jefferson in Week 1.
Awuzie has been shadowing No. 1 receivers frequently this season and may draw Marquise Brown this week against the Ravens. He will also likely be tested as a run defender and in second-stage coverage when Lamar Jackson does his thing. One thing is certain: Mike Nolan should not be allowed within 500 feet of even a Pop Warner field after making a Cowboys defense with Awuzie and Trevon Diggs look ridiculous last year.
Rashan Gary, ER, Green Bay Packers
Gary developed slowly in the shadows of Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith for two years after the Packers made him the 12th overall pick in the 2019 draft. But Gary has stepped up in Za'Darius' absence with three hurries against the Bengals in Week 5 and four against the Bears in Week 6 (per Sports Info Solutions).
The Packers face a Washington Football Team that does a pretty good job defending their quarterback (if nothing else). Gary must convert some of those hurries into sacks before the playoff race heats up. Sunday is as good a time as any to start.
Terrell Lewis, ER, Los Angeles Rams
Lewis could barely get on the field after the Rams drafted him in the third round last year. Stepping up in relief of injured Justin Hollins, Lewis now has a sack in three straight games and nearly intercepted a pass against the Giants.
Lewis left Alabama as a size/speed project with a raw game and injury concerns. With their top-heavy payroll, the Rams need mid-round picks like Lewis to pay off in a big way, not necessarily to beat the Lions, but to keep up with the Buccaneers and (it still feels so strange to type) the Cardinals.
Elijah Molden, DB, Tennessee Titans
Speaking of teams that need young players to step up, the Titans need all the help they can get if they hope to turn Monday night's win over the Bills into more than a one-game blip. Molden, a third-round pick out of Washington, was billed as a versatile, pint-sized Budda Baker-type over the middle of the field, but he delivered more big whiffs than knockout blows early in the season. Molden is now coming around: he forced a fumble against the Jaguars, then both stuck his nose into run defense and held his own against Cole Beasley (who beat other Titans defenders for big plays) against the Bills.
— Titans Radio (@titansradio) October 10, 2021
The Titans face the Chiefs this week, and both cornerback Kristian Fulton and first-round pick Caleb Farley are injured. You can fill in the rest.
Bobby Okereke, Linebacker, Indianapolis Colts
Okereke had an awful game against the Ravens in Week 5, but unheralded third-year linebackers are bound to have awful games when forced to cover Mark Andrews all night. Okereke bounced back with 14 total tackles against the Texans last week. Like Darius Leonard, Okereke rarely leaves the field and gets tasked with some tricky coverage assignments.
Okereke and Leonard will catch a break with George Kittle on IR this week. Still, the 49ers will do lots of things to stress the Colts linebackers, from lining Deebo Samuel up in the slot or the backfield to designing some runs for Trey Lance (either as a starter or a Wildcat). If Okereke keeps playing like he has for most of this season, the Colts just might be able to crawl back into the playoff picture.
Thursday Night Sportsbook: Denver Broncos (+2) at Cleveland Browns
This spread has bounced around all week, going as high as Broncos +4.5. That will happen when both injury reports require a six-minute download. It plunged to +2 within an hour of Baker Mayfield getting ruled out on Wednesday afternoon and could fall lower by kickoff. (It actually dropped a half-point during copy editing).
Walkthrough normally loves a veteran backup like Case Keenum in his first start of the season, but the Browns will also be without Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Tackles Jed Wills and Jack Conklin have not been ruled out, nor has Odell Beckham, and Jarvis Landry is expected back soon. There might be some wisdom to the Browns just resting all of them on Thursday night, taking one on the chin, and returning from the mini-bye closer to full strength. If that's what they are thinking, you don't want to be the one who wagered on them, even if the line slips closer to even odds.
Walkthrough also has little faith in the Broncos, so we're going to pass on them as less-than-field-goal favorites. But since TNF always needs a little action, we'll take the Broncos to score over 20.5 points at +100. The Browns will likely go three-and-out a lot, giving Broncos field position that their local-train-to-nowhere offense can at least convert into multiple field goals.