Revolution not evolution: How and why the Eagles ditched their offensive philosophy
Film Room Five: The Eagles offense; a big week for Joe Brady; here come the Chiefs; more
A programming note: Due to the length of this piece (I know, I know) it has been split into two. This is Part I.
And we’re back… It’s been a while since we’ve had a Film Room Five. So, it’s time for a sojourn around the league. Including, a revolution in Philadelphia, warning signs in Green Bay, and the rise of the Chiefs.
1 - Out with the old; in with what works
It’s rare that you see an offense commit to a wholesale switch in philosophy at the mid-point of a season. The best and brightest typically pair down as the season goes along. They figure out what works (and what doesn’t) and find new and creative ways to get the good stuff through different presentations.
Not the Eagles. Nick Sirianni’s preseason pitch (as much as anyone could decipher it) was fairly simple: He would run a greatest hits edition of the wide-zone, Shanahan-style offense and pair that with a from-the-gun, spread-out passing game. It was intended to look, one supposes, like the next evolution of the McVay system – the one McVay himself has embraced with Matthew Stafford at the wheel.
It didn’t work. Rather than flowing from one idea to the other, a symphony of systems, the offense bogged down. It was predictable. There wasn’t enough stylistic crossover between the two styles. It was easy for defenses to get a beat on what was coming.
Worse: Sirianni and his staff coached scared of their own quarterback. The team’s redzone offense was borderline embarrassing. What should have been the strength of the team, powered by a dual-threat quarterback, Jalen Hurts, became a weakness. Sirianni and co. designed passing concepts without an option in the middle of the field, so fearful were they of their quarterback lobbing an interception in the red area.
That all changed after week eleven. The Eagles took off the handbrake. The o-line, one of the most talented in the league, individually and collectively, got healthy.
They started to maul fools. The difference in style and output has been striking:
Together, Jason Kelce, Lane Johnson, and Jordan Mailata are as strong a building block as anywhere in the league. As noted by Friend of the Pod and O-Line guru Brandon Thorn, the Eagles’ line is among the best interior combo blocking lines in the league. Few can seal and climb like center Jason Kelce. And even as he ages, Kelce’s ability to seal-and-flip on simplistic trap and power designs against the best of the best opens up avenues for Philly’s ground game that are unavailable to the vast majority of the league’s offenses. Kelce takes pedestrian whiteboard designs and creates magic.
(Fear not: the weird ass-wafting silent count remains!)
The Eagles have embraced a boom or bust style since week eight. They have shifted from a wide-zone-then-boot-then-spread offense into a pure power-spread system, in every sense of the word. Their use of 11 personnel spread sets has plummeted. Two tight end and three tight end groupings are on the rise – and this after the team traded Zach Ertz to the Cardinals. They’ve incorporated more sophisticated run-game concepts — and the RPO possibilities that build off such concepts.
As the Eagles have gotten bigger bodies on the field, their run-game numbers have soared. The team’s much-ballyhooed RPO designs have been more effective from two tight-end sets than in the more traditional 11 personnel groupings. The threat of the run is real. The threat of Hurts taking off himself as a runner is real. It’s no longer a during-the-week possibility. Defenses are seeing it – feeling it – during gameday. The impact has been immediate and lasting:
The eyes there are on Hurts. The threat of him pulling the ball, as runner or thrower, forces both Saints linebackers to initially shuffle to their left. It’s just one beat – but that’s enough. It’s a snazzy counter design from a nubbed formation, a favored design of power-spread coaches everywhere. The two tight ends and left guard wall off the perimeter; the center wraps all the way across the line; the left tackle kicks out and leads the way, one-on-one against a corner.
Keep your eyes on Kelce, the center. Watch the big man rumble. The skip-step is *chefs kiss*. Then he plays mop-up duty at the second level, sending Saints linebacker Pete Warner into out-of-space as he fights and tussles with a tight end. Finally, Kelce climbs all the way into the secondary, shoving the down safety out of the way to clear a path for his back.
That. Is. Not. Normal.
Everything is clicking – one element of the offense amplifying the other.
Philosophically, the make-up is similar to the Ravens. They thump the ball into the line of scrimmage from big personnel groupings, force defenses to settle in their base package, force defenses to commit extra resources to the backfield, and then take deep shots down the field. Philly is no longer trying to string together a succession of pretty, rhythm-based passing designs. That’s not Hurts’ game. But, damn, can he throw the deep ball.
If you’re going to dropback 20-times a game, why bother spending more than half of them on underneath guff? That’s the idea. The Eagles have stripped out a bunch of the quick-hitting nonsense and instead focused on thumping between-the-tackles (runs tagged with a quarterback option) to churn out the easy yards before taking to the sky with shot plays that can add chunk yardage deep down the field.
Deep shots already subsumed the bulk of the Eagles’ passing game – having DeVonta Smith will do that for you. Jalen Hurts averaged 6 passing attempts of 20-yards or more per game during the first seven weeks of the seven. But that figure has held firm even as his overall number of dropbacks has fallen over the past month. He’s throwing less, but he’s targetting deep down the field just as much.
It’s a similar story with play-action. Philly was running as many as 16 play-action dropbacks a game during the early portion of the season – some 33 percent of passing dropbacks. Against the Bucs in week six, the Eagles ran play-action on an unholy 40 percent of snaps.
Who doesn’t love play-action? It’s a cheat code. But if it’s all you’re relying on, it can lose some of its effectiveness, particularly if defenses can settle in and defend the run from slender personnel packages – from there, defensive coordinators can be more creative in how they defend play-action.
Since week seven, the Eagles have redefined their relationship to play-action. It remains the key to shot plays, but it’s no longer a down-to-down go-to to help the side move the chains. Play-action still subsumes 33 percent of Hurts’ dropbacks but given that Hurts is dropping back at a reduced rate, defenses are seeing it less and less. And they’re seeing it from big-bodied, run-based groupings rather than spread-out passing formations. They’re focusing on the run-game and then – THWACK – there’s the play-action shot. They can no longer sit on play-action and fit the run secondarily. Now, they must fit the run first, and then, wha’ d’ya know, there goes a play-action pass fizzing past their helmet. There has been a better balance between flash fakes and turn-the-back, play-action compositions, too.
Sirianni and his crew deserve credit. They figured out what they had at quarterback and lent into all of Hurts’ strengths rather than panicking about his weaknesses. They ditched dogma in favor of what worked – that’s laudable. The base elements of whatever Sirianni-ness is are still in there. Only now it’s delivered in a more complimentary package. To be able to so radically shift mid-season, without a bye, is impressive.
Left on the Eagles’ schedule: Two games against the Giants; two games against Washington; a game against the Jets; a game against the Cowboys. They should be favored in all but one of those games. A nine-win season is in play. The playoffs are in play.
In the rush to try to figure out whether Hurts is The Guy, some have missed the journey. And the journey is fun.
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