Jalen Hurts and the Eagles' Dynamic Run Game
NFL Super Bowl - The NFC Championship Game wasn't the contest we all hoped it would be. The San Francisco 49ers' feared offense never got off the ground thanks to a slew of quarterback injuries, dooming them to a slow, painful loss at the hands of the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles. The game devolved into a showcase of the Eagles' ability to sit on the ball and eat up the clock, and they did just that. Philadelphia's running game showed how draining it can be to play against a unit that can run any concept and bully any front seven.
By the basic box score, the Eagles' rushing attack didn't look too hot. They ran the ball 44 times for 148 yards, good for about 3.4 yards a pop. Four different Eagles players took at least five carries and none of them cracked the 4-yard average mark. Having the opportunity to run the ball 44 times means something must have gone right, but it's hard to find it in the raw box score.
The advanced numbers and film tell a different story, however. The Eagles run game more than did its part. In fact, the Eagles' 29.5% DVOA was their seventh-best rushing performance of the season. They were very efficient in high-leverage situations, and their stretches of successful rushing outweighed the lulls here and there.
On film, it was evident that Philadelphia's run game succeeded in large part because it evolved throughout the afternoon. The Eagles didn't walk in with a game plan and blindly stick to it. They saw how the 49ers were playing them, adjusted to it, and rinsed and repeated until the game ended. All year long, the Eagles have done an exceptional job at identifying what the defense wants to do at a given time and adjusting to it. Sunday's championship game was no exception.
Downhill running was the Eagles' first weapon of choice. I wrote in last week's All-32 column that San Francisco's interior outside of Arik Armstead is prone to getting hammered by elite offensive lines. They're all explosive types who want to penetrate the backfield, which doesn't carry over well to success against offensive lines that can generate consistent double-team movement. The Eagles have arguably the best run-blocking offensive line in the league, especially when it comes to getting vertical movement. They wasted no time flexing that muscle.
This was second-and-4 on the first drive of the game.
The 49ers were playing with fire by having no A gap (inside the guard) player, a setup that's typically reserved for clear passing downs. As they do, the Eagles crammed the ball right down the defense's throat, getting a ton of vertical push with both double teams. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw (57) could have triggered earlier to force the left guard (Landon Dickerson, 69) to come off the double team and climb to him, but even that may not have solved the problem. Left tackle Jordan Mailata (68) sent defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw (99) to a different dimension and cleared plenty of space for the runner regardless of what Greenlaw did.
The Eagles finished off that same drive with the same run.
Though technically the 49ers have an A-gap player this time, he's still playing a slightly wide alignment. Kinlaw (99) is playing a 2i technique on the left guard's inside shoulder, as opposed to a standard 1-technique alignment on the center's shoulder. It's a seemingly small difference, but when it comes to finding angles for double teams on a run through the middle, the 2i alignment makes everything so much easier for the Eagles. Dickerson (69) can step vertically right away to attack Kinlaw, while center Jason Kelce (62) gets a mini-runway to put some extra oomph into his collision and make sure the run hits behind him. When combined with a great combination block from right guard Isaac Seumalo (56) and right tackle Lane Johnson (65) on the other side, the result is a walk-in touchdown.
After a handful of slow drives to follow that touchdown, the Eagles started changing things up. Rather than seeking to just bully the 49ers downhill, the goal became to win by alignment. The Eagles started spamming 3x1 formations with the back to the strength of the formation to out-leverage the 49ers defense on runs to the weak side of the formation. That tactic almost single-handedly carried a touchdown drive.
In this example, the 49ers match the Eagles' tight 3x1 formation with a down safety (Talanoa Hufanga, 29) and the linebackers kicked over.
The 49ers defense is sacrificing leverage and bodies versus weak-side runs in exchange for defending quarterback runs or passes to the strength of the formation. When the Eagles snap the ball and run outside zone to the weak side, the 49ers just don't have their second-level defenders in a position to get outside of the runner and force the play back inside to traffic. Kelce's bludgeoning of Kinlaw (99) helps too, but even an ordinary block and climb from Kelce to Greenlaw (57) would have netted the Eagles a considerable gain because of the way the 49ers chose to align.
Later in that same drive is when the Eagles really started to feel themselves.
Again, the Eagles are in 3x1 formation with the back to the strength. This time, however, the Eagles run a play very few teams have the capacity to run: center-tackle counter. It takes a special kind of athlete at center to make that work, but there isn't a better athlete at the position than Kelce. What makes this play especially interesting is the 49ers sort of beat themselves in a wrong call, wrong time kind of way. On counter, the first puller coming around should block the defensive end, but the 49ers are running a twist to try to get penetration. Defensive end Samson Ebukam (56) takes himself inside on the twist, which gives the Eagles' pullers numbers out in space. Greenlaw (57) makes a hell of a play to limit the run to 5 yards—still a good play for the Eagles—but it could have been even worse.
On the very next play, the Eagles stuck to the same plan to punch the ball into the end zone.
The Eagles actually go back to the first 3x1 call from this drive: an RPO with outside zone as the run option and a Dallas Goedert (88) screen as the pass option. The difference this time is that the Eagles run a fold adjustment with the center and left guard because of the defensive tackle's alignment. With defensive tackle Kevin Givens (90) on the left guard's inside shoulder, it's tough to run true outside zone and ask Kelce to make it all the way over there. It's just too far. The Eagles adjust by having the left guard turn back and shield Givens from the run flow while Kelce loops outside of him, effectively swapping the guard and center's place in the zone run. The adjustment gets Kelce working out in front as a lead blocker and Greenlaw takes a greedy angle inside the block, giving Miles Sanders (26) another squeaky-clean touchdown run.
In the second half, the Eagles mixed it up again. Hurts became the focus of the rushing offense. Hurts ran the ball four times on non-sneak plays during the Eagles' third-quarter touchdown drive. Three of those runs were designed, either option or straight up.
This was Hurts' best run of the drive, a 12-yarder to cross midfield.
The Eagles are running quarterback power, but with a twist that gets Kelce more involved. Rather than sliding the left side of the line to handle all three threats and use the running back as the lead through the middle, the Eagles pinch the line inside and ask the running back to take the safety (Hufanga, 29) off the edge. That frees Kelce to loop around the left tackle as the lead blocker and get a great angle on Greenlaw (57). Hurts goes untouched for 10 yards before muscling out the final 2 yards, a testament to both the blocking scheme and his speed in the open field.
Ugly as the stat sheet looked by the end of the game, the Eagles rushing offense came to play. To bounce back from some of their lulls and rewire the core of their rushing offense on the fly, constantly changing drive by drive, is a testament to both the talent on the roster and how well the coaches are seeing the game right now.
Sunday's game was a reminder that when the Eagles get into their groove and find the defense's pain point, they hammer it like no other. That's true of both the rushing and passing attack, which is why their offense has been able to carry them all season. Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is a tough egg to crack in the postseason, but there should be little doubt that the Eagles offensive staff will have something ready for him.
5 comments, Last at 04 Feb 2023, 4:04pm
#1 by Pat // Feb 02, 2023 - 9:42am
The best thing about this year is just seeing people post clips of Kelce's hits just blowing guys off the ball (almost always with a "ahh, where did you come from!" reaction from the defender). I mean, he's been doing it for years, but he's finally getting the attention he's deserved.
Normally double-teams on the interior are just there to hold up the DT (who's typically got a ton of weight advantage on his side), but Kelce's been just destroying guys for years. It was always the guards who got the credit previously - Mathis, then Brooks, now Dickerson. And yeah, those guys were all good-to-great, absolutely.
But there's a reason Dick Vermeil called Jason Kelce the best damn football player he's ever seen.
#3 by IlluminatusUIUC // Feb 02, 2023 - 2:23pm
Again, the Eagles are in 3x1 formation with the back to the strength. This time, however, the Eagles run a play very few teams have the capacity to run: center-tackle counter.
This might be a terminology thing I don't understand. In this play the halfback doesn't reverse directions, he takes it and follows the pullers. Wouldn't that just be a sweep?