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.