The Philadelphia Eagles’ 0-2 start has been one of the most surprising developments early in the NFL season.
Much of their struggle has been concentrated on the offensive side of the ball where they currently rank 26th in Football Outsider’s Offensive DVOA.
There’s no shortage of problems: Chip Kelly’s offence is too simplistic, the offensive line is getting demolished, and the Eagles’ two most important additions, Sam Bradford and DeMarco Murray, are yet to jell.
Former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer noted an important aspect lacking in the Eagles offence to Philly Mag’s Tim McManus — the Eagles’ inability to go deep.
Bradford likes to throw quick, short passes for small gains in rapid succession — a nice feature for the Eagles’ quick offence. However, his tendency to never go deep, creates other problems. Dilfer explained to McManus that there needs to be space, or “air,” as he calls it, between the front four lineman, the linebackers, and the safeties. Without it, the offence gets jammed up — there’s no space to run the ball.
Of all of the Eagles’ offensive woes, their rushing game has been the most problematic. They rank 31st in rushing according to Football Outsiders, and they had negative rushing yardage in the first half of Week 2.
The poor run game has been affected by the lack of deep threats, because defences don’t have to play back and respect deep passes. Dilfer said:
“I think [Bradford not going deep] is an issue, personally. I think Sam has always been a guy that likes to get the ball out quick, doesn’t want a real cluttered pocket, and wants to throw that intermediate-short stuff and he’s very, very good at it. This offence I believe has to have the element of fear in it with the passing game, especially off play-action where there is always the chance they are going to throw the deep ball. If we [as a defence] get too close to the line of scrimmage, if we get too nosy in there, they’re going to strike us over the top.”
Of course, the ability to go deep is also tied to the Eagles’ ability to run the ball. Like Dilfer notes, if defences get sucked closer to the line of scrimmage to stop the run, thus pulling linebackers and safeties in closer, then suddenly, there’s more open field for deep throws. Chip Kelly also acknowledged this, saying:
“When you start to run the football well, you need to now take people from deep and bring them up closer to the line of scrimmage. When that happens, now you have an opportunity to throw the ball over the top. We haven’t had the opportunity to throw the ball over the top because we haven’t established a run game and blocked well against a 4‑2 box.”
This ties back to Bradford and Murray. Bradford thus far is averaging 6.2 yards per pass attempt, 26th in the NFL, and 9.5 yards per completion. For comparison, Nick Foles, who Bradford replaced in Philadelphia, is averaging 7.5 yards per attempt and 12.8 yards per completion. Foles is getting first downs on completions, while Bradford isn’t quite there.
Meanwhile, the Eagles running backs aren’t giving Bradford the space he needs to air it out. Murray, last year’s rushing champion, has just 11 yards on 21 carries. Ryan Matthews and Darren Sproles only have ten combined rushes, which is perhaps both a fault in the scheme, and a result of playing behind in their two games so far.
There is no singular problem or fix for the Eagles, which is perhaps the more concerning part of their struggles. To throw deeper, Bradford and the receivers need more space. To get more space, they need a better run game. To create a more potent run game, they need better blocking.
It will be interesting to monitor whether some of these issues iron themselves out on their own as the team gets more experience, or whether this is a faulty scheme with overmatched personnel that Kelly mismanaged.
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