by Cian Fahey
It never takes long for the panic to set in when it comes to the NFL.
Just 12 months ago, Aaron Rodgers was forced to emphasize five letters -- "R-E-L-A-X" -- when confronted with uncomfortable questions after a 1-2 start. Rodgers went on to win the MVP award, while the Packers finished one onside kick recovery away from a trip to the Super Bowl.
Around the same time that Rodgers had told Green Bay fans to chill, the Indianapolis Colts had begun their season with an 0-2 record. The Colts lost to a team that didn't make the playoffs at home, and the Denver Broncos on the road. They ultimately beat the Broncos in Denver to get to the AFC Championship Game, where they lost to the New England Patriots -- a Patriots team that had been widely written off after a Week 4 demolishing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles find themselves in a similar situation this season. Kelly's team has begun the year with consecutive losses, in Atlanta against the Falcons and at home to the Dallas Cowboys. Having re-tooled his offense during the offseason, Kelly was always going to face more scrutiny if his team didn't win. His team isn't winning, but that's not the extent of the issues. That re-tooled offense has produced less than anyone expected. The Eagles rank 25th in yards and 28th in points scored through two weeks. Sam Bradford is second in the league with four interceptions, while DeMarco Murray has incredulously run for just 11 yards on 21 carries.
Kelly doesn't believe that he needs to make radical changes. Speaking after the loss to the Cowboys, Kelly said "The personnel is good enough. The execution isn't. ... We're not putting together a plan that's good enough for us to execute offensively.” Saying that the personnel is good enough but the execution isn't, or hasn't been as it was meant in this context, is not a conflicting statement. The Eagles have players who have proven to be talented and effective in different sample sizes but simply haven't played to their established standards to this point in the season. This is most evident in the running game, where the blocking has been nothing short of catastrophic. Kelly went into great detail to explain why his offense is breaking down so badly:
I think people are defending us to not allow us to throw the ball over the top. It starts with the running game. You've got to establish the run so that they have to commit more people to the run. Right now, we haven't done anything in the running game. We're seeing single-high or two-high safeties, and those safeties are not involved in the running game at all because they don't have to be. It kind of goes hand in hand. When you start to run the football well, they need to now take people from deep and start to move them up closer to the line of scrimmage. Now you have the opportunity to throw the ball over the top.
For all the nuances of Kelly's offense, the underlying foundation has been exactly what he described in the above quote. The Eagles offense has actively and aggressively looked to establish the run before taking deep shots downfield or to specific intermediate routes that complement play action. In 2013, the Eagles ranked first in rushing DVOA by a huge margin. In 2014, they ranked 13th in rushing DVOA but still ran the ball 29.6 times per game. Kelly's release of Evan Mathis, trade of LeSean McCoy, and lack of interest in retaining Todd Herremans reflected his frustration with the inefficiency of his rushing attack. Investing so much money in Murray and Ryan Mathews reinforced that frustration.
Through two games this year, the Eagles running game has been awful because of their run blocking. It's hard to argue that they miss Mathis and Herremans on the offensive line, because both players are proving to be liabilities with their new teams in Denver and Indianapolis respectively, but the lack of continuity up front appears to be an issue. Kelly himself has admitted that the running backs aren't being given a chance because of the poor blocking, but it's statistically evident too. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Murray has been hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on 10 of his 21 carries.
Though it's not a good thing, the Eagles can take some solace in the fact that their blocking hasn't simply collapsed because their new guards aren't good enough to play at this level. Their blocking has been a problem because there have been blown assignments up front from those guards, but also because established players have been playing uncharacteristically poorly.
Cohesion is extremely important on the offensive line. It only takes one blocker to miss his assignment or not understand how his teammates are going to adjust on the fly to give a defender an unblocked route to the football. With two new starting guards, the Eagles were always likely to suffer early on in this sense. Kelly needs to take much of the blame for how he ran the ball against the Falcons in Week 1. He didn't take pressure off his new starting guards by repeatedly running behind the obvious matchup advantage the team had with Jason Peters going against rookie Vic Beasley.
Instead, Kelly called very few running plays, and when he did he worked away from Peters towards the other side of the field.
This is a common play for the Eagles' running game. Bradford is in the shotgun with Murray next to him. It's an inside zone run as Murray is initially directed towards the inside of his right tackle, who has pushed outside to engage the edge defender. While the tackle works to the outside, the tight end to his side of the field advances downfield. This part of the play is executed perfectly and would have created a huge running lane for Murray to run through. Murray never reaches that point in the play though, because his left guard blows an assignment on the backside of the play.
Allen Barbre is that left guard. He is responsible for the space in front of him, but there is initially nobody there before the ball is snapped. Linebacker Paul Worrilow advances towards the line of scrimmage just as the ball is snapped. Barbre watches Worrilow and initially looks set to engage him, but hesitates and turns to help left tackle Jason Peters in a double team instead. This gives Worrilow a clear lane to Murray as he receives the ball.
Murray breaks Worrilow's attempted tackle, but the time it takes him to get past the linebacker allows the defense to close the running lane that had previously been opened outside. Murray was met at the line of scrimmage and gained just 2 yards because of that.
Zone-blocking schemes require offensive linemen to be intelligent in how they read the actions of the defenders in front of them. For the blocking to work effectively, those blockers also have to be in tune with the blockers immediately to their left and their right. On this outside zone stretch to the left, the Eagles are running against a light box. There are three defenders on the front side of the play highlighted with red numbers and three to the backside highlighted with green numbers. The Eagles offensive line must essentially create a moving wall as they slide to the left. Their actions from that point will be determined by what they saw before the snap and how the play develops after the snap.
The problem area for the Eagles on this play is on the left side, with Peters at left tackle and Barbre at left guard. At the snap, Jeremy Mincey, the defensive end to that side, aligns so wide that Barbre likely is expecting to advance onto the linebacker without even considering the defensive end. Understanding the low box count, Barbre must read the linebacker, who will either crash the line or stay deeper and look to move with the offensive line.
When the ball is snapped, Peters and Barbre appear to be have read the defense differently. As Barbre is immediately drawn to the linebacker who doesn't crash the line of scrimmage, Peters oversets to the outside as if he were expecting Barbre to follow him to create a combo block before one of them advanced onto the linebacker. Because Peters oversets against Mincey without the help inside to balance off the block, the defensive end is able to brush him aside and meet Murray in the backfield.
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As Peters climbs downfield and picks up the linebacker, Barbre is left alone and Mincey takes Murray down for a loss. Had the left tackle-left guard combination executed their assignments cohesively, Murray would have had a chance at a huge gain, potentially a touchdown, because he had strong blocking wide receivers downfield with only a free safety unaccounted for to beat in space. Instead, he lost 5 yards on the play without ever having an opportunity to advance to the line of scrimmage.
"Correctable" is a term that is recklessly applied to too many situations in the NFL today. What is too often ignored is how rational it is to expect something to be corrected, because most issues a team has are correctable. For the Eagles, expecting the offensive line to develop greater cohesion as they play more games together isn't irrational. It's similarly rational to expect players who have previously played consistent, effective football to return to form over a larger sample size. If they don't, Kelly can still look to scheme around their deficiencies or turn to other personnel options. Two players who have disappointed so far are center Jason Kelce and tight end Brent Celek.
Kelce is more likely to return to form. He hasn't played as poorly as Celek, and the Eagles don't have a viable replacement for him. Therefore it's the tight end who falls into the spotlight.
Celek lines up as the tight end to the right on this play. He is carrying out a key role as the Eagles will look to pull two offensive linemen behind him and sweep to the outside. While his block is key, it's not an exceptionally difficult assignment. Celek is going against defensive end Demarcus Lawrence in space, but he doesn't need to take him on in a true one-on-one situation. He only needs to set to the outside and slow Lawrence down enough while using his momentum to push him infield and out of the play when Murray gets to the outside.
From the beginning of the play, it's clear that Celek is unsure of his assignment. His feet move more than they should and he advances into a position that gives Lawrence a leverage advantage over him. Instead of establishing a base and engaging the defensive end's outside shoulder, Celek indecisively moves towards him before turning to look downfield at another defender and eventually letting Lawrence go free. Once Lawrence has gone past him Celek realizes his mistake, but it's too late to prevent Murray from being taken down in the backfield again.
This play was a blown assignment by the tight end, but Celek has also impacted many plays negatively by losing physically against contact.
On this play, Celek is expected to carry out a similar block as the Eagles attempt to run the same play to the other side of the field. This time he is lined up in a more confined space and immediately engages the edge defender. He is easily pushed backwards into the backfield once the ball is snapped, though. Celek is knocked back so far that his penetration prevents Murray from getting to the outside and forces the running back to run horizontally towards the sideline before running out of bounds for a loss.
There are a number of ways in which the Eagles can help Celek or replace him. Zach Ertz hasn't necessarily outperformed him, but he is another option at tight end. Instead of replacing Celek with a tight end, they could look to use more six-man offensive lines by making a backup tackle or guard eligible. The most prudent fix would seemingly be to adjust the play-calling and look to spread the field by alignment instead of asking Celek to line up tight to the formation and account for defensive ends in any capacity. The Eagles offense has excelled at taking advantage of space in the past, using read-option plays and alignments to hold unblocked backside defenders while the offensive line gets to work with an extra blocker inside.
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That strategy would require exposing Bradford to more hits. While you never want to let your quarterback get hit a lot, Bradford can't be treated like a china doll if he is going to get the most out of this offense. Using him on option plays intelligently can help your running game without overexposing him to free hits from the defense. Bradford would simply need to make quick decisions so he could protect himself before the defender has a chance to close and hit him. Using more of those plays will also help the passing game as Bradford will be able to throw quickly outside to screens or downfield routes that expose the defense's reaction to the running look.
It's way too early for the Eagles to panic. Their issues are mostly minor. It's not like Bradford has torn an ACL or played horrendous football. His statistical output has been muted by a significant number of drops from his receivers and the absence of his running game. It's been very similar to his time in St. Louis so far but with two clear differences. The Eagles have dramatically more talent than the Rams ever did on offense, and they also have a coaching staff that understands offense better than most across the whole league.
So while our default setting in today's world is to overreact to everything happening in front of us, we should remember Aaron Rodgers' words...or rather, his letters. R-E-L-A-X.