How the Meaning of Pro-Style Offense Has Changed, Why Tom Brady’s Dominance Hasn’t, What the Eagles Did to Become the League’s Most Creative Offense, and What Two Top Five Scoring Defenses Can (and Can’t) Do to Stop Them
Tom Brady stands alone among all NFL players except one (Charles Haley) in possessing five Super Bowl rings. Now that only the Philadelphia Eagles stand in the way of Brady’s record sixth ring, it seems an apt moment to deconstruct the mythology surrounding his ascent.
No part of Brady’s career as the New England Patriots quarterback was predetermined. The popular myth that Belichick had favored second-year backup Brady all along over incumbent starter Drew Bledsoe was just that—a myth. If anything, the Patriots had come close to deciding that another backup quarterback, Damon Huard, would have been the one who went in the moment Jets linebacker Mo Lewis knocked Bledsoe out of that fateful Monday night.
“Oh no, no, no, no,” former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis said to Sports Illustrated of that popular tale, the one that has Brady, a Belichick draft pick, waiting in the wings behind owner Robert Kraft’s preferred leader, Bledsoe. “[Brady] wasn’t better than Bledsoe. In fact he wasn’t much better than [Huard]. Bledsoe was clearly the starter. The No. 2 spot, that’s where the competition was. We really could have flipped a coin to pick the second guy. We ended up picking Tommy—but it was really close.”
At the same time, the myth that the Patriots drafted Brady almost entirely due to luck is probably not true either. In reality, the Patriots spent considerable time discussing and evaluating Brady prior to the 2000 draft. Then-quarterbacks coach Dick Rehbein scouted the position’s prospects and told head coach Bill Belichick Brady was “the best fit for the system.”
“It’s not that we said we wanted to draft a tall, lanky quarterback that ran a 5.3 [time in the] 40 [yard dash]. Those weren’t the traits we were looking for,” current Bucs general manager and then-member of the Patriots personnel staff Jason Licht said at a press conference prior to the 2014 season. “But we were looking for the mental makeup … Belichick did a lot of homework on him, along with our staff, on his mental makeup. Watching the tape, he was the guy that would go in and lead [the University of Michigan] back to victory.”
The Patriots probably would have taken Brady higher, if not for a weird financial position they found themselves that offseason. “When we took over the 2000 team we had a roster of 42 players and were $10.5 million over the salary cap,” Pioli said on The Dan Patrick Show. “We had to get down to 39 players to get under the cap … We liked Brady a little bit. But the one thing we had with [just] 39 players on the roster was we had three quarterbacks.” In other words, the Patriots had to sign 14 players for cheap just to build a complete roster, but quarterback was one of the few positions where they had enough depth.
Sure, there was some luck in Brady sliding all of the way to the sixth round and the Patriots happening to rate him far higher than any remaining prospect. The fact is Belichick liked Brady enough to keep him around as the fourth-string quarterback when teams usually kept two or three. It seems far-fetched to believe Belichick foresaw Brady standing at the cusp of six Super Bowl rings, but he clearly saw something—the clichéd “It Factor”, if you will—in the Michigan quarterback.
That “It Factor” turned out to be mastery of the mental idiosyncrasies in the Patriots’ Erhardt-Perkins system. Weis’ version was a derivation of the scheme created by New England assistants Ron Erhardt and Ray Perkins back in the 1970s. Unlike West Coast offenses which have monstrous play-calls like “Scatter-Two Bunch-Right-Zip-Fire 2 Jet Texas Right-F Flat X-Q” or an Air Coryell system that uses a numeric route tree system, the Erhardt-Perkins system organizes plays by “concepts” like “Ghost/Tosser.” As Chris B. Brown puts it, “Each play has a name, and that name conjures up an image for both the quarterback and the other players on offense. And, most importantly, the concept can be called from almost any formation or set.”
When Weis left to become the Notre Dame head coach in 2005, he included 50 individual routes, 29 two-man routes, 11 three-man combinations, and 4 miscellaneous routes. The Patriots kept tacking on more route combinations when Josh McDaniels succeeded Weis, again when Bill O’Brien succeeded McDaniels, and again when McDaniels returned. O’Brien, for example, included 109 individual routes, 110 two-man combinations, 67 three-man concepts, and 44 miscellaneous routes in his first Texans playbook.
Where Brady surpasses other quarterbacks in Erhardt-Perkins offenses is how his responsibilities in this system go far beyond merely executing concepts. The “alert” system fuses two play-calls into one, where one play is the original call and another is an alternate that gets put into motion if the defense aligns a certain way. Brady has the authority to yell “Alert!” and make the switch. But the real complexity of the Patriots offense kicks in with the several kinds of route adjustments Brady and McDaniels assign their receivers, tight ends, and even running backs. On most plays, every eligible receiver is expected to adjust his route on the fly—sometimes after Brady already alerts to an alternate play.
“At times there are four decisions that a receiver needs to make after the snap,” Chad O’Shea, New England’s receivers coach since 2009, explained to Sports Illustrated in the lead-up to Super Bowl XLVI, a loss to the Giants. “That’s one advantage of our offense: We give players the flexibility to take what the defense gives.”
Sports Illustrated provided a succinct rundown of these four kinds of route modifications:
ROUTE CONVERSION: If a play is designed for, say, a comeback route (or a hitch) and the defender is playing in press man instead of the anticipated zone coverage, a receiver might convert his route to a fade down the sideline.
SIGHT ADJUSTMENT: If a receiver recognizes that his defender—usually a safety—is coming on a blitz, he’ll adjust his route. (Simply put: Conversions are based on coverage type, adjustments react to blitzing DBs.) A vertical route, for example, might adjust to a slant, getting the receiver open more quickly in the void the safety just created. This is different from a hot route, which most teams use to thwart front-seven blitzes and which are usually executed by tight ends or backs.
CHOICE ROUTE: Referred to by some teams as a “two-way go,” this usually occurs with a tight end or an outside receiver. In essence, if the defender plays you inside, you break outside. If there are two split safeties in the middle of the field (termed “middle of field open”), a receiver may split them; against one safety (“middle closed”), the receiver would stay in the seam.
OPTION ROUTE: This almost always involves the slot receiver playing off the defense. Against a zone, for example, he’ll sit down for a short pass. Against man coverage, he could break right, left or go deep depending on the positioning and the skills of the man in coverage.
In short, Brady demands his receivers to see what he is seeing. Needless to say, that is a tall order. That was a major reason why the eight wideouts the Patriots selected in the fifth round or higher between 2003 and 2013 flopped. That’s not even to mention the free agent busts like David Terrell, Joey Galloway, Chad Ochocinco, and Reggie Wayne.
It was a visit to Gainesville, Florida in the summer of 2005 that showed McDaniels, newly appointed as the Patriots play-caller, the path to maximizing the power of his quarterback’s other-worldly instincts. New Florida head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen recently moved from Utah where they had just produced the no. 1 overall draft pick in quarterback Alex Smith.
In the 2005 Fiesta Bowl against Pittsburgh, for example, Meyer showcased four-wide and Empty sets from the Shotgun that allowed Smith to shred man coverage. The answer “was one-on-one matchups, getting to get the defense to declare itself,” said Mullen, now the head coach at Florida. “Once you get the defense to declare as man before the play even happens, for the QB it’s easy.” Meyer and Mullen were using option routes and Hi-Lo concepts for years just like the Patriots were, but re-packaged them in a scheme that neutralizes complex coverages.
The key was for the Patriots to making this scheme work was to load up on extra receivers who could threaten the middle of the field. Belichick identified in Wes Welker the prototype who would alter not only his own offense, but every offense in the NFL. The 2007 Patriots were the first NFL team to run shotgun for a majority of plays; in 2016, NFL teams ran 79 percent of their pass plays from the shotgun.
“The 2007 Patriots were not the first team to put players in the slot, use shotgun, or spread out defenses, but they molded the modern NFL offense by doing it flawlessly and all at once,” Kevin Clark wrote. “They invented nothing but innovated everything.”
Welker had beaten double-coverage with the Dolphins against the Patriots in 2006, and would be deployed as a menace from New England’s slot the next season. That Welker would be joined by Randy Moss in this Spread Experiment made things totally unfair. These Patriots went on to outscore the 1999 Greatest Show on Turf Rams by four points per game. Brady hasn’t replicated the heights from that group yet, but it remains the schematic template he has deployed every game since then. He is more than capable of rekindling that explosiveness. The question now, in light of considerable evolution of the Spread since Brady first became acquainted with it, is whether
The Triumph of the Air Raid: How Sonny Dykes Shaped the Super Bowl Journeys of Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski, and Nick Foles
“I coached Wes Welker before he was Wes Welker,” Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, previously the Miami Dolphins’ offensive coordinator, said to The Ringer. “The thinking back then was, ‘What do you do with the guy?’ You’re going to have this personnel grouping for this little receiver? Do you have enough plays for the guy to make the team?”
Then-Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach and his receivers coach Sonny Dykes had an entirely different outlook on Welker. They were predisposed to have one because of their Air Raid philosophy, articulated by Leach’s old boss Hal Mumme as “throw the ball short to people who can score.” In the early 2000s, Leach unleashed Welker on shallow crossers, bubble screens, quick hitches, and jet sweeps. Welker’s college highlight reel (shown below) is like a vision into the future.
“A lot of the jet sweep stuff, we were running that stuff way back in the early 2000s at Texas Tech,” Dykes said to SBNation. “We saw a junior college run it, so we always called it the junior college sweep. I think the very first time we saw it, I think it was a JC out of Mississippi doing it. So we added some elements of that in our offense, and we had Wes Welker and Danny Amendola, because we thought it suited their skills really good.”
Not coincidentally, Amendola essentially succeeded Welker as the Patriots’ slot receiver when signed a deal as a free-agent in 2013. The nuances of the slot receiver position, especially in the Patriots’ sophisticated Erhardt-Perkins offense, require a particularly instinctive player that is common in Air Raid offenses. Leach and Dykes found that Amendola was a weapon against zone and man coverage alike, especially with Air Raid concepts stretch the defense thin.
Amendola’s combination of precise route-running and explosiveness allows him to create his own running lanes on short routes. Like other Air Raid schemes, Dykes’ depends on an efficient completion percentage on short routes to put together some sustained drives and an occasional big play due to yards after the catch. The shallow cross route shown above features Amendola using the umpire as his landmark which causes the defender to take a bad angle. The man coverage on the outside in a Cover 0 blitz backfires because Amendola gets to flash his straight-line speed for a touchdown.
A logical answer to preventing these types of breakdowns seems to be using zone coverage to limit Amendola’s yards after the catch. The problem with that was Amendola’s ability to cut at precise angles means he would get himself open even against zone. Operating from the slot on the right, Amendola takes advantage of the slot corner’s inside positioning by getting a free release toward the right, before planting squarely in front of the safety. He then cuts at a sharp right angle on a corner route where he freely goes up for the touchdown catch. Dykes’ play-call for a Snag concept with the halfback sucking in the outside cornerback underneath certainly helped set up Amendola too.
The traits Amendola possesses were made for the Air Raid revolution with four receiver sets. The one Dykes calls for above (a 3×1 look with Amendola as the no. 2 receiver) sets up a Four Verticals shot play. This particular variant includes a switch release where Amendola loops around the no. 3 receiver running a vertical slanted to the right. This was a lethal play-design by Dykes for a third-and-long situation where defenses usually play man coverage. The pick established by the no. 3 gaining outside leverage gives Amendola a landmark to aim for that the cornerback cannot reach. Consequently, he has room to take off and run for a big gain.
Now, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels routinely calls concepts that create picks to get Amendola a cushion in the open field. In the AFC Championship Game, tight end Dwayne Allen (no. 83) steps to the inside of the Jaguars’ hook defender, Myles Jack (no. 44). This creates a barrier between Jack and Amendola who is breaking on a shallow cross in this Levels concept. Amendola shows great patience in letting the pick develop before he goes full speed into his route and that test the Eagles defense.
McDaniels also utilizes Stack formations fairly often to get Amendola a free release against man coverage. In the example above, the Jaguars are actually in zone, but this still works to Amendola’s advantage. Both Amendola and Brandin Cooks (no. 14) begin with a vertical stem that forces defenders to anticipate either man breaking into their zone. This gives Amendola a cushion to plant his right foot 45 degrees left. In doing so, Amendola establishes an angle for him to create a throwing lane. Slot cornerback Aaron Colvin (no. 22) attempts to jam Amendola, but the speedy slot receiver uses his hands to disengage and make a contested catch.
Brady can afford to be arguably the most patient quarterbacks in the NFL, in large part because of Amendola’s prowess in navigating through traffic. This example shows Brady going through a coverage read where he scans the left-side against Cover 3. The single-high safety initially breaks toward Cooks on the pivot route. This sets up Amendola after he weaves through the curl-flat defender’s zone and then the hook defender’s zone untouched. With the safety’s attention on the left, Brady waits for Amendola to get around him before he facilitates a leaping touchdown catch.
A more conventional use of Gronkowski as an in-line tight end, the play above shows how his brute strength and knack for timing breaks in his route made him a formidable red-zone weapon before he even arrived to the NFL. The Arizona State defense goes man coverage across the board and a linebacker viciously jams Gronkowski. Gronkowski knows to keep outside leverage, so he can break into the comeback route on the right. With raw strength, he disengages and snatches the ball amidst contact.
Arizona’s coaches discovered that a weapon as formidable as Gronkowski was especially potent when he was the only receiver on one side, opposite a Trips set on the other. This forces a defense with a 4-man rush to put itself in one of several uncomfortable positions: zone coverage where the quarterback can freely attack the seam, man coverage with a safety shaded toward the trips and a defender going one-on-one against Gronkowski, or man with the safety shaded away from the trips.
The defense in the example above opted for zone coverage and found themselves outmatched. Gronkowksi’s 34 ¼ inch arms and 6’7” height allow him to snatch the ball out of the air even in a narrow throwing lane. This Y Cross play, a classic Air Raid staple originally from BYU and modified by Leach, is an option route concept that allows him to run a simple fade or break inside on a post. Gronkowski sees the cornerback maintain outside leverage, so he opts for the in-breaking route.
Dykes really got creative in using Gronkowski whenever he aligned him in the slot. The example shown above is a pre-snap run-pass option where the quarterback reads the defense and chooses either the run or pass play based on their alignment. The bubble screen pass to Gronkowski allowed him to run north-south in space and pummel defenders through contact. This is arguably the best example that showcased how Gronkowski could transform a defense’s game-plan. When you leave him open with a wide running lane, you will pay.
“When Robby went to the Patriots, he said Josh McDaniels spent a lot of time asking him about, ‘OK, what’d you guys do here, and how’d they use you, and what was this, and what was that?’ and he said they put a lot of the stuff in,” Dykes said to SB Nation. “It was pretty similar to what we did. It’s the stuff the Patriots do well. It’s creating matchups.”
McDaniels replicated Dykes’ frequent tactic of using 3×1 receiver formations with Gronkowski isolated on one side. The difficult task of selecting a defender to defend Gronkowski man-to-man becomes compounded when the Patriots stress the defense on the other side so much. In the AFC Divisional Round, Titans assign Kevin Byard (no. 31) to go man-to-man, with “rat defender” Wesley Woodyard (no. 59) in range to break on a route over the middle. However, the play-action sucks in Woodyard and leaves Byard on an island.
Gronkowski seals this play’s fate with his footwork at the onset of the snap. A fake move to the inside gets Byard to try jamming him with outside leverage, only for Gronkowski to lunge right and rip with his left shoulder. At that point, Gronkowski can simply muscle his way to the ball for a touchdown.
NFL defenses including the Eagles have increasingly shifted to Cover 3 as the tactic of choice to contain Spread passing concepts. If the cornerbacks maintain outside leverage, they funnel all routes to the middle of the field where underneath defenders and the single-high safety can make a play on the ball.
But if there was going to ever be a perfect Cover 3 wrecking ball, it is undoubtedly Gronkowski. The weak spot of Cover 3 is simultaneously attacking both middle seams. A concept like Four Verticals is particularly apt against this coverage because the safety cannot possibly attack both middle seams unless he is a freak like Earl Thomas.
In the above example, Gronkowski simply rips past the Curl-Flat defender, while the high safety is cleared out right to contain Amendola and Cooks. Most NFL teams won’t have a high success rate in making a tight window throw, while exposing their tight end to powerful hits in mid-air. But most NFL teams don’t have the duo of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to fall back on.
Premium talent like Gronkowski can dictate extraordinary measures to contain him, but that is no guarantee of success. The Titans use a rat defender in the above example to drop back deep solely to hone in on Gronkowski behind the underneath man defender. Ideally, the underneath defender would maintain leverage on one shoulder and the rat would secure the opposite side.
Gronkowski’s deceptive route-running prowess, exemplified by the fake move to the right, foils that method. The slot cornerback bites on the fake move and loses inside leverage. Meanwhile, the swing route by Amendola creates a pick for Gronkowski to exploit by taking the proper angle. The box safety had been responsible for outside leverage, so the double-team is totally inadequate to cover Gronkowski’s post route.
It may be because of Brock Osweiler that the Philadelphia Eagles win their first Super Bowl. In 2012, Eagles quarterbacks coach Doug Pederson had planned to work out quarterback prospects including Osweiler prior to the upcoming draft. His boss, head coach Andy Reid, was something of a connoisseur for scouting quarterbacks. That same offseason, Reid met with Baylor’s Robert Griffin III at the Combine and considered making a push to sign Peyton Manning. The Eagles had always made the position a priority every year since they drafted Donovan McNabb in 1999, and 2012 was no exception.
But this story isn’t really about Osweiler. It’s about Nick Foles. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg had been watching Foles’ tape during his college career at Arizona and been impressed. Mornhinweg walked down to Reid’s office to alert him. “I said, ‘Have you seen this Foles kid?'” Mornhinweg said to The Inquirer. “So he watches him, likes what he’s watching and says, ‘Where’s Doug?'”
Pederson was on the road to evaluate prospects and was scheduled to be in Phoenix to visit Osweiler, the 6-foot-7 former Arizona State quarterback. Reid and Mornhinweg convinced Pederson to cancel on Osweiler and head over to Tuscon to see Foles instead.
Foles said Pederson’s workout had him out of breath immediately and he felt winded. Bad weather added to the challenge of catching Pederson’s attention. “There was probably like a 40-m.p.h. wind and it was cold,” Foles said. “And we threw straight into the wind all day and he was having me throw these crazy routes.”
The whole purpose of working out Foles had been to determine whether the flawed moments on his college tape were related to his ability or unfortunate circumstances. By Foles’ final college season, all of Arizona’s offensive linemen were freshmen and his head coach was fired midseason. Pederson’s conclusion?
“So I get Doug on the phone and my first question was, ‘How was the spiral?'” said Mornhinweg, now the Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator. “And Doug’s like, it’s great. And then I ask him about the accuracy. And Doug says, ‘Marty, he doesn’t miss a pass.’”
Reid was fired after Foles’ rookie season, but his choice to select the Arizona prospect in the third round has lasting consequences to this day. For one thing, Reid’s successor in Philadelphia, up-tempo savant Chip Kelly, had his eye on Foles even longer. Back in 2009, Foles showcased prolific accuracy and instincts against Kelly’s Oregon Ducks in a tense 44-41 overtime defeat.
Foles played under Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes’ fast-tempo version of the Air Raid offensive scheme, a pass-based offense that used multiple formations to create both horizontal and vertical stretches. It has a common influence with the West Coast offense dating back to Lavell Edwards’ BYU Cougars; Edwards’ assistants included West Coast gurus Reid and Mike Holmgren, along with Air Raid godfather Hal Mumme. Foles had initially lost the quarterback competition that season, but took over for struggling starter Matt Scott and didn’t give the job back.
Naturally, Arizona’s Shotgun Spread offense included West Coast staples like Slant-Flat concepts, such as the one shown above. Foles can tell in the first step of his three-step drop that he will have an easy throwing lane in the flat against off man coverage. Similar West Coast dropback concepts like Hi-Lo Crossers, Middle Read, and Tunnel Screens reveal anticipatory aptitude as well.
The advent of the four receiver set transformed football by allowing a combination of routes to pick apart any particular coverage. The outside fade, coupled with a quick hitch from the slot receiver and halfback flat route, sucked in the deep-half safety and gave Foles a small window toward the sideline. Even then, Foles showed a gutsy streak.
A feature of Air Raid offenses like Arizona’s that differs from traditional West Coast offenses is self-adjusting mechanisms like option routes. The renowned Four Verticals play like the one shown above includes an option for a receiver to break in his route at several different points, depending on the coverage. Foles immediately sees the slot corner blitz and knows there will be a seam around the hash marks against Oregon’s apparent quarters coverage.
Yet, Dykes is more sophisticated than Air Raid coaches typically get credited for being. The Wildcats used plenty of Under Center looks and personnel groups with multiple tight ends or running backs. The key to it was trusting Foles to use different footwork to execute the same concepts. The example above shows Foles taking a five-step drop and executing play-action for the same Four Verticals concept as the previous example. The way Foles goes through his progressions up to the fourth read as he plants his feet is stellar. He recognizes that the crab-walking cornerback sold out to stop the go route and connects with the receiver on a comeback option.
The Chip Kelly Effect: What the Eagles and Patriots Both Learned From the Up-Tempo Oregon Offense
The opposing Oregon offense, meanwhile, showcased some similar schematic features that night. Kelly had also been renowned for a fast-tempo, but used a smaller variety of formations and dropback passing concepts than the ones Foles did at Arizona. This scheme familiarity seemed to explain some of Foles’s extraordinary success with Kelly, and offer clues for Pederson to get the most out of Foles this postseason.
[Oregon Four Verticals Q2 13.20]
[Oregon Four Verticals]
Four Verticals, for one, has long been a critical Kelly staple. The first example shows how a variant with Trips formation attacks Arizona’s Cover 3 Buzz. Like Dykes and the Patriots’ offensive coaches, Kelly included option routes for his receivers to respond to given coverages. The second example provides a glimpse of how to attack off man coverage. The quarterback is in synch with the no. 2 receiver who executes a comeback route.
[Oregon Double Post-Wheel]
[Oregon PA Post-Wheel]
The Post-Wheel was a tactic Kelly used several times that night to get the ball to a tight end on a free release. The jet motion and play-action coming from opposite sides adds to the confusion that provides more space for the quarterback’s read of the half of the field where the play is designed.
In this light, it doesn’t actually seem too surprising that Foles had success in Kelly’s scheme during the 2013 season. But 27 touchdown passes and just 2 interception passes is outright video-gamish.
[Cooper 32 yards Four Verticals]
Another Four Verticals play that requires Foles to be accurate with the deep ball. It again exploits Cover 3 which suggests that Pederson may utilize something like it in the Super Bowl. After all, one of the Patriots’ top two coverages is Cover 3 and stopping two deep seam routes simultaneously would be a tough task for Devin McCourty or Duron Harmon.
[Jackson 26 yard Mesh]
[Jackson Backfield Mesh-Wheel 25 yards]
The wheel route was another staple Kelly brought with him to Philadelphia and it was often packaged with the classic Air Raid staple, Mesh. Kelly used this at Oregon too, but the versatility of LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson (Kelly thought both of them were, uh, replaceable in his offense) was realized in this concept. Jackson catches the ball out wide on a shallow crosser and then out of the backfield on a wheel route in the examples shown above.
With Foles at quarterback for most of the 2013 season, the Eagles finished 4th in total offense and set a new all-time NFL record with 99 plays of 20+ yards. Still, there were some hidden flaws even then in both Foles’s mechanics and the predictability of Kelly’s scheme. The dominance and health of the Eagles’ offensive line, the explosiveness of Jackson and McCoy, and the newness of Kelly’s tactics combined to produce a perfect storm for opposing defenses. The problem was that Foles was vulnerable to regression, if any of those variables changed.
Sure enough, the 2014 season featured a steep reversion to the mean by Foles when his interception rate jumped from 0.6% to a league-high 3.2%. It wasn’t all just because of injuries to the offensive line or Jackson’s absence, as this Bleacher Report piece details. Foles’ tendency to throw the ball off his back foot, not see open receivers, and failure to navigate the pocket dragged on the offense’s productivity. Of course, the decline of Kelly’s scheme in the NFL is a factor to consider.
After Kelly traded Foles to the Rams for whom he experienced an even worse season, Reid and Pederson retained interest. Sure enough, Foles spent the 2016 season as Alex Smith’s backup with the Chiefs before he returned to the Eagles this year. It seemed far-fetched back in 2015 that Foles would be the quarterback for the Eagles in their next Super Bowl, but there were clues back then that the right conditions could produce a run like the one the Eagles are on now.
The return of Foles to the Eagles is just one reason why Kelly matters this Super Bowl. Several of his offensive players including Sproles, Ertz, Celek, Burton, Peters, Kelce, and Johnson all were part of the journey this season. Their familiarity with Foles makes them adept at executing a no-huddle on occasion and still using Kelly staples like Mesh.
But Kelly matters because of his impact on the New England Patriots too. When Kelly visited Belichick back in 2011, it was mostly to discuss how he implemented a full-time no-huddle that used only one word to signify everything involved in a play: formation, blocking scheme, run or pass, shifts in formation, and snap count. All of it.
This wasn’t too much of a leap for Belichick. In the 1975 season—his very first in the NFL—as a special assistant for Ted Marchibroda’s Baltimore Colts, Belichick observed how coaches used “concepts” to put together a play-call with limited verbiage.
“You learn to make words that are easy to say, one syllable and distinct,” Belichick said to The Boston Globe. “At the Colts, all our strong-side patterns were score, strike, sting, smash. And the weak-side patterns were whirl, whisk, wheel. And it was one word, usually one syllable, told everybody what to do [he says as he snaps his finger].”
The Patriots didn’t go as far as Kelly did, but had a six play package that Brady would use sporadically whenever it was advantageous to prevent defensive substitutions. The 45-10 victory over the Denver Broncos was arguably the best example. In that game, the Patriots ran 33 no-huddle snaps, rushing for 7.3 yards per attempt with 21 first downs and four touchdowns from Brady, who completed 85 percent of his passes with 11.8 yards per attempt.
Former Patriots tight end Ed Dickson also played for Kelly at Oregon, and compared the two teams’ methods in 2011:
Although the Patriots did not show it in the training camp practices open to the public, players remarked how the pace of practice quickened once sessions were closed to reporters. It’s not quite an Oregon practice, but for the NFL, the Patriots are practicing at break-neck speed to prepare for games.
“I think the Patriots do a great job,” Dickson said. “The key is getting up on the ball, getting set, getting the ref to spot the ball and getting the play called. The Patriots do a great job of keeping people unbalanced by getting on the ball and finding little dinks and dunks, inside routes and it kills teams. Those little 3-yard routes, you catch them, the defense has to run all over there, they’re going to be tired.”
The Patriots still have the right quarterback and the right verbiage system to play at a fast pace six seasons later. They aren’t quite as fast as they were when O’Brien implemented Kelly’s ideas (and certainly not as fast as Kelly’s own teams), but McDaniels still has them as the third-fastest team in football, according to ESPN writer Bill Barnwell. During the first half, when games were typically more competitive, the Patriots were even the fastest offense in football.
An example of how the Patriots gash defenses using the same personnel group over-and-over again came in the second quarter of the Divisional Round against the Titans. They begin with 11 personnel in a 2×2 set and Brady under center, but morph into other looks as the drive progresses.
[Bubble Screen Cooks 13 yards Man Coverage Q2 11.16]
This first play seems to be a run-pass option, a tactic the Patriots use sporadically (but one the Eagles major in—more on that later). This is a pre-snap run-pass option: Brady scans the defense and decides on the run play because he sees the slot cornerback angling himself toward the box. The offensive line executes a power-blocking scheme with right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle La’Adrian Waddle getting some push on a double-team. A bubble screen to Brandin Cooks (no. 14) is the right way to go because the cornerback is playing off coverage. Cooks uses his shifty footwork to evade contact and pick up 13 yards.
[Power Play-Fake Four Verticals Cover 2 Checkdown Lewis 8 yards Q2 11.01]
This next play consists of a 3×1 set where the Trips side is the field, giving receivers plenty of room to stretch the defense. The power-scheme play-action gets the middle linebacker to momentarily pause when he realizes there’s a fake. That actually frees up running back Dion Lewis (no. 33) to pick up yards after the catch on a flat route. This turns out to be valuable because left tackle Nate Solder (no. 77) gave up pressure in the inside gap—a tendency that the Eagles may exploit with some slants and T-E stunts. More to the point, this invaluable flat route is a common check-down for the Four Verticals concept that the Titans cover in zone fairly well.
[Inside Zone 2×1 2WR Left Lewis 9 yards Q2 10.36]
The no-huddle really starts affecting the Titans on this third play. Brady gets the Patriots aligned in a 2×2 set with two receivers in the field. The Patriots meanwhile have six blockers in the tackle box against the Titans’ five. The Titans find themselves vulnerable to the Patriots’ athleticism on reach-blocks. Solder excels when he can freely operate in space and he stunts the outside linebacker (no. 98). Left guard Joe Thuney (no. 62) and center David Andrews (no. 60) execute a double-team with perfect timing that creates a wall for Lewis to hit a nine yard gain. The play-design was also helpful for sleeker right guard Shaq Mason (no. 59) in getting a good angle on the three-technique, shaded away from the play-side.
[Inside Zone Lewis 5 yards Q2 10.14]
Sometimes, the exact same formation and play-call still proves too much for the exhausted Titans defense. The Inside Zone—another variant with the aim point in the left B-gap—allows Solder to essentially drive block the wide edge rusher, while the rest of the line steps left. Thuney in particular does a stellar job establishing his feet outside the defensive tackle, so he can create a run lane. The Titans do a better job at flowing to their run fit this time around, but Lewis still notches a solid five yard gain.
[CurlFlat-Y Stick White 7 yards Cover 1 Q2 9.41]
For the only time on this drive, McDaniels calls for a huddle to make a substitution change, swapping Lewis out for another versatile back in James White (no. 28). Amendola enters jet motion which causes the Titans to make a coverage rotation. One of the safeties enters the box to replace the slot cornerback who shadowed Amendola. The cornerbacks’ positioning tips Brady off to zone coverage, so the Patriots know White should have plenty of room in the flat beneath Cooks’ subtle pick on the curl-flat defender. This pick causes the defender to take a bad angle and allows White to gain 7 yards for a first down.
[Outside Zone Solder Seal Block Thuney Gronk Second Level White 6 yards Q9.27]
A different formation with two receivers tight to the tackle box is called on the final play of this drive. Solder’s prowess in reaching the outside of edge defenders again pays off on an Outside Zone play-call. Thuney immediately charges for the second-level and holds his block all of the way up to the one-yard line. Andrews does a good job getting around the nose tackle (no. 99), but lacks finish ability to wash him out entirely. Mason and Waddle show similar flaws on this play, but the blocking on the left-side is enough to get White a six-yard touchdown. This is the kind of finish that captures the elegant simplicity and the danger a no-huddle poses. For a Patriots team that is likely out-matched otherwise in the run game, it may behoove them to confront the Eagles with the ghost of their former selves.
The Second Red Scare: How Doug Pederson Evolved From Andy Reid and What Both Super Bowl Teams Can Learn from Big Red
Another ghost of the Eagles’ past came back to haunt both them and the Patriots in the two opening weeks of this season. Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs appeared to be the most dominant team in the NFL in the first month of the season, defeating New England 42-27 and Philadelphia 27-20. More than any other team in the league, the Chiefs should influence the strategies of both Super Bowl teams.
Pederson was a loyal right-hand man for Reid since his playing career as a backup quarterback for the Green Bay Packers where Reid was the quarterbacks coach. In that time, Reid and Pederson took part in Super Bowl XXXI against the New England Patriots for whom Belichick was the assistant head coach/defensive backs coach. When Reid became the Eagles head coach in 1999, Pederson followed him to be a temporary starter until McNabb was ready. After that season, Pederson filled a similar role with the Cleveland Browns for a year and then returned to Green Bay to backup Favre once again: “The two had grown so close that after a series, Favre would walk off the field and instead of going to his quarterbacks coach or offensive coordinator for advice, he would go to Pederson.”
Reid noticed that natural coaching ability Pederson had, and offered him the offensive quality control coordinator position in 2009. Two years later, Pederson got promoted to quarterbacks coach and would oversee Foles’ development as a rookie. When Reid got fired in 2012 and accepted the Chiefs job the next season, Pederson followed him and got the offensive coordinator position.
Together, Reid and Pederson decided elements of the Spread offense could mesh with the West Coast scheme they spent more than two decades executing. While BYU head coach Lavell Edwards and Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Holmgren (who was Edwards’ quarterback coach when Reid was a graduate assistant) were Reid’s first scheme influences, an idiosyncratic college coach filled their shoes in guiding the Chiefs coach through his scheme evolution. The person to help Reid install the Pistol was its inventor, longtime Nevada Wolfpack head coach Chris Ault. Reid offered Ault a job as a consultant for the Chiefs, and his impact remains tangible today. Today, it is easy to see the influences of other college offensive minds like Lincoln Riley, Gus Malzahn, Justin Fuente, and Matt Canada in Reid’s scheme.
Already possessing a unique knowledge of the NFL’s passing offenses, Reid found a way to successfully go further than his peers among NFL coaches in embracing the college brand of option football. Make no mistake. Reid’s passing game consisting of stick routes, slant-flats, curl-flats, hi-lo reads, and the widest variety of screens still is the core of his offense. He just found a way to make his existing formations, motions, and concepts compatible with the newest ideas from college-level Option football.
Pederson had two opportunities with the Chiefs to face the Patriots: a 41-14 blowout win in the 2014 regular season and a 27-20 loss in the 2015 Divisional Round. These two games are instructive in identifying what tactics may exploit unique vulnerabilities in the Patriots, and what tactics Belichick may use this time around.
[I Formation FB Motion Charles 17 yards Zone Lead]
The Patriots frequently move their personnel around before the snap, so Reid countered by doing the same exact thing on the opening drive. From an I formation, fullback Anthony Sherman (no. 42) shifts into an offset alignment before the Patriots can adjust. This sets him up for a clean attack on the SAM. The Eagles don’t typically use an I formation, but have done so sparingly with Trey Burton as the fullback. They could opt to use Burton, Ertz, or Celek as an H-back in a similar role to set up a block inside a gap when the Patriots deploy a similar wide even front.
[Stack Motion Hi-Lo Opposite Drive Kelce 9 yards]
This pre-snap motion on the same drive gets tight end/offensive weapon Travis Kelce aligned in a Stack formation (similar to the one popularized by college teams) to give him a free release. Ertz is a similar player to Kelce, so it would make a lot of sense for Pederson to use a similar look. The Patriots appear to be using a Cover 3 Buzz look (more on that later) where one defensive back drops from a two-high safety look into being an underneath defender.
Patricia probably had anticipated a crosser by Kelce, but did not account for a comeback route in this Drive concept by tight end Anthony Fasano (no. 80). It creates a subtle pick on cornerback Darrelle Revis (no. 24) that also diverts buzz defender Patrick Chung (no. 23). The Eagles may split Ertz wide and then motion him into the Stack, while Burton or Celek execute the comeback on another side. When the Patriots are in Base or even Nickel, the Patriots may not have the defensive backs who can attack this play.
[Reverse Motion Orbit Motion Even Front Davis 48 yards]
Reid generally uses a lot of motion to set up his run game for a number of reasons including getting a defender out of position and identifying whether the defense is in man coverage. If it is in man coverage as the Patriots defense is in the above example, receivers’ clearing routes can open a huge lane for the runner. The jet motion man (no. 82) shows that Revis is shadowing him, so running back Knile Davis (no. 24) knows he has an aim point near the numbers. The orbit motion from the slot receiver also drags a defender away from the play-side on this Inside Zone. The Patriots may be tempted to play press man to contain Agholor and Smith, so this would be a tactic Pederson may deploy again to burn them.
[Snag Off Man Kelce 33 yards]
Kelce again proved to be Reid’s weapon of choice in a Trips Bunch look where he is the no. 1 receiver. It is easy to create rub routes if the defense is playing off man which is exactly what happens here. The Snag concept sets up a free release for Kelce behind the in-line receiver running a corner route. Ertz shares Kelce’s change-of-direction ability which makes him dangerous on a similar kind of play. Pederson may want to motion into this look too, so Foles knows whether Ertz gets a similar release.
[Tunnel Screen Boundary Charles 5 yards]
That kind of motion proves helpful in setting up a touchdown in the next play. The motion in empty set from the slot receiver tips off man coverage prior to the execution of a tunnel screen in the boundary. This time, Charles is the one aligned wide against safety Devin McCourty (no. 32)—a matchup the Patriots may give him against Ajayi, Clement, or even Blount. It is easy to see Lane Johnson doing well in space and blocking the off-man defender who frantically runs behind a pick by the slot receiver.
[IZ-Bubble RPO Charles 8 yards]
[IZ-Bubble RPO Kelce 14 yards]
The Chiefs had dabbled in RPOs their first two seasons, but they had not gotten to the point they did this season in their creativity with them. Even so, the basic principle worked effectively in the first example where the Trips bubble screen action sucks in three defenders in zone out wide. That allowed Charles to find room behind his left tackle to execute the Inside Zone run. Similarly, the Patriots’ seven man box leaves them undermanned against the bubble screen which notches the Chiefs with 14 yards. The Patriots may have a multiple defense, but the Chiefs outmanned them in 2014 with their multiple offense.
The adjustments Belichick made by the 2015 matchup suggest there are some commonalities in how Pederson can attack his defenders. From the seventh game of the 2015 season onward, Reid called plays in the first half and Pederson took over in the second half. For purposes of this analysis, I will just look at Pederson’s plays. The Chiefs scored 6 points in the first half, but 14 in the second.
[Tunnel Screen Trips Man Conley 10 yards]
The single-back shotgun alignment in the play above shows that the Patriots had been containing a potential Zone Stretch or Sweep play, but that left them vulnerable in man coverage to a tunnel screen again. This seems to be another tactic the Chiefs used to target Chung. Pick plays targeting him may well be a common theme on Sunday.
[Jet Motion Man Coverage 2TE Left Inside Zone Davis 11 yards]
Jet motion again set up the Chiefs’ zone-running game with the help of Davis’ improvisation. Defensive lineman Malcolm Brown (no. 90) proved adept at two-gapping as a rookie and forced Davis outside. On the other hand, cornerback Malcolm Butler (no. 21) took a bad angle in run support which allowed a 11 yard gain to happen.
[B-Gap Blitz Incomplete]
The Patriots’ wide front influenced Pederson to call some slide protections to account for all of the down linemen. The problem with that is it leaves a wide lane for a linebacker to blitz through. Patricia called for exactly that: it appears the two linebackers communicate with each other and the one who is not on the side of the running back rushes. The Patriots, being a conservative blitzing team, naturally call for a zone blitz that successfully drops edge defender Rob Ninkovich (no. 50) over the middle. An adjustment Pederson can make to this is to use more Empty set.
The Chiefs managed to score 14 points in the second half, but poor clock management on Pederson’s part made their chances of winning negligible. In particular, a 5 minute, 16 second drive left the Chiefs down by one touchdown with only 1:13 remaining. The probability of winning became wholly contingent on converting an onside kick. Pederson has avoided these issues in his tenure with the Eagles, and will need to continue that trend on Sunday.
Reid’s team this season provides some clues for the Eagles and Patriots to steal when attacking each other.
[Pin and Pull Hunt 58 yards]
The Chiefs’ pin-and-pull scheme featuring a crack block on right end Deatrich Wise, Jr. (no. 91) was an adaptation to the Patriots’ late shifts. Linebacker Elandon Roberts (no. 52) got overmatched by left tackle Eric Fisher (no. 72), and either Johnson or Vaitai could be a similar mismatch for him. The Chiefs also got Kelce in space to take out Malcolm Butler (no. 21); the Eagles’ tight ends aren’t quite as good blockers, but Celek might be a decent fit from this look. The crack block would be a good tactic to attack either Trey Flowers or James Harrison if they give the Eagles some problems.
[Post Wheel Mesh 14 yards Hill]
Rub routes are a tactic that hurt the Patriots throughout the season, and the Chiefs had a stellar play-design that built in yards after the catch. The Trips bunch formation in the boundary gave Tyreek Hill (no. 14) a free release over the middle against man coverage. The Patriots happened to play man coverage the second-most proportion of snaps this season, so they are especially vulnerable to this look. Kyle Van Noy (no. 53) was the Patriots’ “rat” defender and the two intersecting crossers on Mesh froze him (yes, the same Mesh concept Kelly popularized in the NFL and Air Raid coaches did in college before). We also see McCourty get picked from off coverage against Kelce, so the Eagles may replicate this result with their tight ends.
[PA Y Cross 14 yards Kelce Topper]
Another Air Raid staple featured in Kelly’s play-action was Y Cross; sure enough, Reid stole his successor’s play for effective use against man coverage. Reid added his own twist for the Patriots by sending Kelce in motion against the odd front. Patricia calls for a rat defender from his edge rusher Nicholas Grigsby (no. 50), but that actually allows Kelce to rip inside and create a pick on the intermediate crosser. A big part of Pederson’s game-plan is likely to be responding to Patriots’ shifts (or lack thereof) and using Ertz as a chess-piece for that frequently.
[Post Wheel TD Hunt 78 yards]
Reid showed how he had been watching college football coaches this offseason, especially on this halfback go route that Lincoln Riley deployed for his Oklahoma Sooners offenses. The Patriots try throw the Chiefs off with a coverage shift in response to Hill’s motion—something Agholor may do—by moving Eric Rowe (no. 25) to center-field and Dime safety Duron Harmon (no. 30) assigned to Hill. Hunt being matched up against edge rusher Eric Lee (no. 55) was a giant mismatch. The intermediate crosser by Kelce diverts Rowe’s attention, leaving Lee on an island for Smith to connect on a deep touchdown pass.
The Eagles should be on alert for these shifts and plan on putting man defenders in conflict by overloading receivers in the boundary. The Patriots offense actually copied this play the very next week, so it’s not a stretch to think they will use it themselves either.
Smith’s (no. 11) adeptness at reading the defense made him well-suited to execute RPOs that involve multiple reads against the Eagles’ 4-3, Cover 3 base defense too. In the case of the Chiefs’ final touchdown of the game, Smith first reads backup safety Corey Graham (no. 24) to determine whether he is cheating toward defending the Inside Zone or the bubble screen. When Smith determines that Graham is opting for the latter, he then makes a second read on defensive end Chris Long (no. 56). With Long staying in his gap, Smith opts to give the ball to running back Kareem Hunt (no. 27).
The key blocks in the Inside Zone scheme come from right tackle Mitchell Schwartz (no. 71) smothering now-injured middle linebacker Jordan Hicks (no. 58), right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (no. 76) washing out defensive tackle Elijah Qualls (no. 98), and backup center Zach Fulton (no. 73) getting a good angle on strong-side linebacker Nigel Bradham (no. 53). Bradham will have to be on alert for Andrews in space when the play-call gives him a good angle. That movement leaves Hunt with room to plow ahead into the end-zone with brute force.
Reid went further by using RPOs that incorporate multiple passing options, along with a run option; this is a tactic the Eagles have also incorporated. The above example features a Trips Bunch formation to the right with 3 receivers drawing in 3 defenders. That tells Smith before the snap that there will be a better option elsewhere. With the Eagles using a single-high safety and a six man box, that leaves just cornerback Jaylen Watkins (no. 26) in off man coverage on beastly tight end Travis Kelce (no. 87).
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz likes to use off man to let his cornerbacks diagnose the route from a distance, but a downside is the cushion it gives receivers on underneath routes. When Smith sees defensive end Vinny Curry (no. 75) play the run, meaning there are six men in the box against five blockers, he knows that hitting Kelce on the quick out is the correct option. Thus, Smith hits Kelce at the numbers before Watkins even has a chance.
The Patriots may use some misdirection on plays where Gronkowski is aligned out wide. The Eagles’ choice of who to defend Gronkowski will play into how to attack. If it is not a safety, this play seems relevant for how to attack the Eagles.
Though Reid constructed most of his RPOs with the Inside Zone run scheme, he showed on Sunday that he can also do so with a Power run scheme. The RPO shown above features Smith reading weak-side linebacker Mychal Kendricks (no. 95) who must choose whether to defend the box or contain the flat. Smith determines before the snap that Kendricks is part of a seven man box, leaving just defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins (no. 27) and Rasul Douglas (no. 32) in off coverage to defend the bubble screen to Kelce, aligned as a wide receiver. Kelce’s hurdle over Douglas was awesome and he wasn’t that far off from keeping his footing.
A variation of the Power Read came from an unlikely source at the college level, then-TCU quarterback Andy Dalton under Horned Frogs offensive coordinator Justin Fuente (now the Virginia Tech head coach). With a concept that Chris B. Brown termed “Inverted Veer,” Fuente and Dalton carved up Clemson in an upset victory. Brown explains how this concept came to become a weapon in the arsenals of offensive masterminds like Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino, and Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead: “I coined this concept an ‘inverted veer’ because it took the old-school ‘veer option’ philosophy of sending the runner and the QB to the same side but inverted their paths: instead of the runningback inside and the quarterback going around edge, the runningback ran a sweep and the quarterback was effectively the dive player.”
In week one against the New England Patriots, Reid took Fuente’s idea and made it even weirder. He uses a pre-snap motion that switches Smith with Kelce as the quarterback in the Pistol. The option for Kelce to toss the ball to Tyreek Hill (no. 10) makes this play resemble a Speed Option, except the blocking scheme resembles Power O with inverted paths for the “quarterback” and Hill. Defensive end Trey Flowers (no. 98) freezes which gives Kelce an opportunity to take four easy yards up the middle.
That unorthodox formation was one creative method to reduce Smith’s exposure to hits and retain the option scheme. But the plays Reid could run with Kelce at quarterback are limited, so further tactics were necessary.
Reid took notice of another collegiate innovation that resulted in a touchdown against the Eagles, a tweak to the Power Read developed by current LSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada in his stint with the University of Pittsburgh. Canada ran the Inverted Veer with another player trailing as a pitch man, instead of giving the quarterback an option to keep. The idea of this Power Read Shovel concept, or Shovel Read Option, was to let fullback George Aston loose up the middle or running back James Conner alone on the perimeter, rather than expose quarterback Nate Peterman to contact.
The jet motion that Reid commonly uses before the snap stretches the defense particularly well on his version of the Power Read Shovel. Hill diverts cornerback Patrick Robinson (no. 21, in man coverage) and momentarily freezes Jenkins with the pre-snap motion in his direction, leaving just six more defenders in the box. Amendola will be a likely motion man and attempt to divert Robinson or Jenkins’ attention on Sunday. Smith’s give-keep decision in this concept occupies another defender, defensive end Derek Barnett (no. 96). Barnett has a tendency to sometimes lose contain, so run concepts may be designed accordingly.
The play-side on the offensive line consists of down-blocks: a double team by left tackle Eric Fisher (no. 72) and left guard Bryan Witzmann (no. 70) on three-technique Beau Allen (no. 94), and an effective one-on-one block on 2-i Fletcher Cox (no. 91) by Fulton. Schwartz seals Long. Duvernay-Tardif is tasked with taking out Bradham, while tight end Travis Kelce (no. 87) follows him, as if this is a Counter Trey.
The idea of this wave of gap-blocking option football is to let workhorse running backs operate in space, while retaining the mathematical advantage of reading a defender. Renowned for its use by the likes of Moorhead, former Baylor head coach Art Briles, and West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, the Sweep Read has the advantage of stressing a defense on both perimeters of the tackle box. The Patriots, of course, don’t use option run schemes, but they do have a variety of sweeps in their playbook that can be dressed with motions.
In the case of the one the Chiefs ran in the third quarter, Smith is tasked with reading defensive end Brandon Graham (no. 55). The play-side (play-side, in this case, refers to the side of the running back’s run lane, not the quarterback’s) gains a numbers advantage with Schwartz and center Mitch Morse (no. 61) pulling. Smith sees the subtleties in Graham’s movement to detect that he intends to crash down against Hunt. Meanwhile, receiver Albert Wilson (no. 12) manhandled Robinson. The execution of this play-design leaves plenty of space for Smith to hit the outside for a solid 12 yard gain.
The Chiefs play I was most amazed by was the one shown above. To be honest, I’m not sure I have seen another play-design quite like this one. The jet motion with Tyreek Hill (no. 10) sets up a shovel read option like the one Canada likes to use. However, a crucial difference with this play is the opposite path of the running back, De’Anthony Thomas (no. 13).
It appears to be a play that functions like a triple option: Smith first reads Robinson who had been following Hill in motion. Then, if Robinson crashed down, Smith would make a second read on the unblocked Graham like a true Inverted Veer. Instead, Smith throws a shovel pass amidst the misdirection, and Hill’s raw speed led to a pickup of 18 yards. This is getting into the weeds, but it’s possible McDaniels decides to use a personnel group of speedsters like some combination of Cooks, Amendola, White, and Lewis to create a similar conflict for the Eagles’ force defenders. The Eagles and Patriots both boast a staff of creative minds, so it’s fair to say the path to victory ran through Kansas City.
The Hybrid Offense and the Holy Grail: The Eagles’ College Influence and Carson Wentz’s Rise to Stardom
The holy grail of the NFL may be a quarterback who ran spread plays at the college level that can be easily imported to the pro level. According to Chiefs assistant head coach Brad Childress, that player is real and it is the Eagles’ injured franchise quarterback, Carson Wentz.
Wentz’s college team, North Dakota State, still uses a multiple-style offense that incorporates spread concepts and won the FCS Championship with them. Former Bison offensive coordinator (now Iowa running backs coach) Tim Polasek tasked Wentz with playing under center and in the shotgun to execute throws at various depths from many formations. Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman has described the North Dakota State system as “a pro-style concept that hints at where the sport is going.”
To shape the Eagles offensive scheme, many people have input. Head coach Doug Pederson learned a massive amount of three, five, and seven step drops, screens, play-fakes, run-pass options, and motions as a player and an assistant coach for Andy Reid. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich executed the no-huddle K-gun offense as Jim Kelly’s backup, served as the Colts quarterbacks coach while Peyton Manning mastered the audibles holding together a concept-based Erhardt-Perkins system, and called the plays for the Chargers’ own Erhardt-Perkins offense. Quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo has catered to the unique traits of an eclectic array of quarterbacks: Josh McCown, JaMarcus Russell, Mark Sanchez, Carson Palmer, Terrelle Pryor, Derek Carr, and Johnny Manziel.
There are plenty of West Coast staples like Slant-Flat, Double Slant, Curl-Flat, Drive, and Y Stick. Pederson has brought a big part of Andy Reid’s classic variant of the Hi-Lo series as well. Reich liked using a lot of shot plays like Dagger and Three-Level stretches in San Diego, and the Eagles have incorporated this tendency too. The number of screens the Eagles deploy is rivaled by few other teams, and many of those should be used to make the Patriots’ linebackers and safeties less aggressive. In general, the scheme has extensive professional origins, especially compared to Chip Kelly’s Tecmo Bowl-sized playbook that seemingly shrunk every season.
But the clever twist on the Eagles scheme is this: the coaches aren’t the only ones who make it. All three members of the offense triumvirate listen to Wentz and give him remarkable control for a young quarterback.
North Dakota State’s Dig-Pivot-Flat Route Combination
Play-calling changes considerably in the red zone because defenders have less space they need to cover. Passing lanes can shrink, so it is crucial that concepts manipulate a receiver open. Jon Gruden said he counted 15 times North Dakota State ran one particular passing concept inside the 5-yard line with Wentz.
The play consists of combination of three receivers’ routes to the strong-side. One receiver will run a pivot route, one will run into the flat, and another can run a dig, seam, or post behind the pivot. “When we run pivot and dig, you hardly ever throw the pivot,” Villanova receivers coach Brian Flinn told The Athletic. “The pivot’s there to hold down the under coverage so you can run the dig behind it. I think when you add the back there in the flat, it expands the field if it’s zone coverage and gives the two inside guys a little more room to work.”
When an underneath defender cheats to stop the flat route, there is a lot of space for Wentz to hit the receiver on the in-breaking route away from a defensive back. Wentz identified that tendency by FCS defenses and knew exactly where his throwing lane would open.
Because of that horizontal stretch, this play burns defenses for blitzing off the edge. A linebacker typically has to cover the underneath zone when a cornerback blitzes, so he is in conflict against the flat and dig routes simultaneously. In the below example, Wentz sees the outside linebacker widen to the flat. That movement and the pivot route’s manipulation of the middle linebacker toward the middle of the field leave Wentz room to hit the dig receiver away from the sideline.
Sometimes the defense will execute solid coverage technique on the strong-side and leave Wentz with no viable options on this boundary concept. Wentz’s ability to go through a full-field progression bailed North Dakota State out in the below example. The single-high safety took away the boundary concept, but that left two defenders against man-to-man coverage in the field. When Wentz’s eyes moved from right to left, he saw the outside cornerback turned his body toward the sideline and knew the receiver would be open on the post.
“I had to call NDSU, get the old film out so I could show them what’s going on and then run it in practice and convince them on it,” Wentz said to the Athletic. “It’s cool to have that relationship, that dynamic with Coach Reich, with Coach Pederson that they respect my opinion when I bring them things like that. It’s a great play, obviously. It’s been effective for us. But I just love that relationship that we can bring up those ideas.”
Wentz said the Eagles installed the play early this season and practiced it for a few weeks before using it. In Week 3 against the Giants, Pederson called the play around the goal-line. The Giants’ strong-side linebacker got lured into the flat, while Ertz was open in the end-zone. Unfortunately, Ertz dropped the slightly overthrown pass.
According to The Athletic, “NFL Films had Wentz mic’d up that day and caught him yelling to the sideline, ‘Again! Again!’” Pederson listened to his young quarterback and his trust paid off. On the next play, the Eagles motioned Ertz, changing their formation from Trips Left to Two Tight End Unbalanced Right. The Giants’ Cover 3 was better suited to handle the Trips Left, as the single-high safety remained on the left. The strong-side linebacker again got sucked into the flat, while the MIKE got lured in by the pivot route. That left a huge seam in the middle of the field between the safety and cornerback for Wentz to hit Ertz.
The Eagles used the exact same motion to execute this play against Washington on Week 7, but Wentz had a different defensive look to diagnose. The tight end motion and defender (no. 36) shadowing Ertz across the formation signaled man coverage. With a 5-man blitz overloaded on the boundary side, Wentz eluded the pressure. The boundary-side linebacker blitzing tipped him off to who would be open.
“If you’re that tight to the goal line, if you get pressure, a lot of times, the back’s unaccounted for,” Flinn said. “You can throw it out there for a cheap touchdown.” Corey Clement followed his scramble drill rules by running upfield and Wentz connected with him on an incredible throw.
Wentz’s collaboration with the Eagles offensive coaches on this concept was apparent in his final game of the season against the Rams. Though the Eagles had carbon-copied the Bison’s play-design from Two Tight End Unbalanced formation, they ran this play from different formations as well. The example below shows it executed from a Trips Bunch Right formation, after receiver Mack Hollins (no. 10) motioned inside and revealed man coverage. When Wentz sees the five-man rush, he knows there will be an opening on the right. The middle linebacker (no. 52) turns his back from the flat to seal off Trey Burton (no. 88), while the cornerback (no. 21) hones in on Hollins. That leaves Celek uncovered in the flat for an easy touchdown.
On Wentz’s final drive of the season, the Eagles got really creative with this play. They begin with Stack formation in the boundary and Trips Right outside the right hash-marks. Lined up behind Alshon Jeffery (mo. 17) Nelson Agholor (no. 13) initiates jet motion to the right, while his man shadows him from five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Like the play against Washington, Wentz is alerted to man coverage.
The play-design on the right creates a lot of traffic for the defensive back (no. 23) to navigate through. The innermost receiver on the right, Corey Clement lures a linebacker over the middle. The receiver furthest to the right, Torrey Smith runs the dig which occupies a cornerback (no. 32). Unlike the other variants of the plays shown previously, this version includes a clearing route by an extra slot receiver, Burton. The Rams limit Agholor’s gain to 6 yards, but the play-design manufactured that gain remarkably well.
On the same drive, Wentz’s last play of the season—a fourth down situation after he already tore his ACL!—required him to use this concept to beat 8-man coverage. The Rams had five defenders ready to cover the three receivers executing the Pivot-Dig-Flat route combination from a Singleback Spread formation. Wentz again had to move his eyes from right to left. There were two defenders waiting for Alshon Jeffery to execute the backside Dig. In this case, Wentz patiently waited for someone to emerge open on the Scramble drill rules. He anticipated Jeffery shedding the smaller defender (no. 20) and delivered a strike between two defenders.
The Shotgun Spread concepts Wentz grew comfortable with at North Dakota State worked in a variety of situations. The Dig-Pivot-Flat route combination was adept in manufacturing a throwing lane for a short completion. As we saw in the final example of this play against the Rams, defenses eventually catch on to how to navigate concepts that create traffic for high defenders. A necessary counter-punch is to stretch defenses horizontally and vertically at the same time.
The Slot Fade
One tactic pro and college offenses often use from the Shotgun Spread formation to accomplish this is the Slot Fade concept. The vertical stretch comes from the slot receiver running a fade, as the name suggests. This concept usually comes from a Trips set because the outside receiver and another slot receiver can run underneath routes—hitch, pivot, sit, or smoke routes are common examples. These in-breaking routes keeps underneath defenders isolated from the fade and are well-suited for a completion to the inside of an underneath zone defender. The Slot Fade works best on the field because it gives the fade receiver a bigger cushion away from the sideline.
“When you run a fade from the inside like this, I always loved it because it gives you more room for error,” former NFL quarterback J.T. O’Sullivan told PhillyMag. “Normally you’d run a go route (with the outside receiver) just in a straight line, but because you run it with the inside receiver, he has more area against the sideline to throw it. The space is bigger, plus you can pick your matchup, like if you want your No. 1 receiver versus whichever cornerback is in the slot. And so that in and of itself will make a young guy feel good.”
The empty set that North Dakota State used with this play put stress on single-high safety looks. The below example shows how the in-breaking route, a pivot by the innermost slot receiver on the right against Cover 1, lured the safety’s eyes in the opposite direction from the fade by the middle slot receiver. That left a one-on-one matchup between the middle slot receiver and the cornerback. The latter allowed the former to gain outside leverage—free reign to make the catch toward the sideline. The coverage was tight, but there was still a big enough window for Wentz to drop it in with superb touch.
The advantage of the West Coast verbiage used by the Eagles and, in condensed form, by North Dakota State is its malleable terminology. Erhardt-Perkins offenses are “concept-based” which means a half-field combination of routes has a one-word name—if one route changes, the name of the entire concept must change. The West Coast play-call is longer, but only one or two parts of it has to change if an extra pass protector is needed or a route should be altered. An audible keeps the rest of the play-call intact.
When defenses show an eight-man box, the offense must be prepared for an all-out blitz. An adjustment when the play-call is Slot Fade is to keep the tight end in for pass protection, while keeping the routes of the two other strong-side receivers intact. The below example is another one where the slot receiver gains body position toward the sideline and provides a narrow window for Wentz to connect. This particular example was the clutch 3rd-and-10 play that set up the championship-winning score for the 2014 season.
Pre-snap jet motion is conducive to generating gains with this play as well. The motion-man (no. 20) in the below example causes the defense to shift the SAM linebacker all the way beyond the hash-marks in an underneath zone, while the power play-fake draws in the MIKE. The tight end (no. 44) runs a deep sit route and the defensive shift creates a throwing lane for him over the middle, instead of the slot receiver. Accordingly, Wentz lets the misdirection run its course until his throwing lane develops.
The next example is a play-design Wentz not only is comfortable executing as part of a scripted game-plan, but an audible in two-minute situations. Quarterbacks tend to have a select few plays they trust in when they diagnose the defense before the snap. The game-winning drive against Northern Iowa in 2015 culminated in a play that showed off his command of the concept and incredible touch simultaneously. Everything again hinged on the slot receiver (no. 20) beating the cornerback toward the sideline because the outside defensive back peeled off into double coverage.
“I called, I believe our Z Drive play and I had a shake route called initially to these two receivers on the left,” Wentz told SportsIllustrated’s Andy Benoit. “So a shake would have been: outside receiver’s running a hitch, inside receiver’s running a corner-post. But I saw this safety roll to the middle of the field and I knew that shake route would be dead against that. So I called out for this smash concept vs. 1-high coverage to be converted to a slot fade. And then right at the snap, I saw the cornerback go from zone alignment and he turned his hips and was now square on man. I knew I was going to that slot fade right away. The kid made a heck of a catch.”
After Pederson surprisingly named Wentz his starting quarterback nine days before the opener of his rookie season, he eased him in with familiar concepts like Slot Fade. In fact, the rookie’s first career touchdown pass occurred with this concept.
The play-design below attacked the single-high safety with an in-breaking sit route by Zach Ertz, aligned as the innermost slot receiver to the left. This left slot receiver Jordan Matthews (no. 81) one-on-one against man coverage. Wentz anticipated Matthews getting in front of his man and delivered a perfect strike for a touchdown that looked easy. This variant included a second slot fade on the right with an outside hitch, but the field side was more favorable because of how much more space Matthews could use.
Like North Dakota State, the Eagles developed two-receiver variants of this concept. The slant by Torrey Smith shown below cleverly diverts the cornerback in off man coverage toward the middle of the field, leaving the physical Alshon Jeffery isolated. The slot cornerback kept up with Jeffery until the receiver did a double-move back to the ball around the end-zone. More experienced in his second season, Wentz anticipated this adjustment and provided superb ball placement that enabled this touchdown catch.
The Eagles signing of Jeffery the previous offseason was pivotal for many reasons, one of them being he would attract extra attention on the weak-side and give strong-side receivers more space to operate from. One play against the Chargers shows how a single-high safety kept his eyes on Jeffery and moved toward him before the snap, leaving a slot cornerback on his own to seal off a window when Nelson Agholor executed the fade. As a result, Wentz delivered a throw toward the sideline where only Agholor could make the catch and netted him some yards after the catch in the red zone.
Ertz had been prolific all season in the red zone for the Eagles too, so much that he gained a single-high safety’s attention on the weak-side on a play against the Cardinals. Backup Trey Burton proved capable of winning outside leverage in the slot as well. Wentz even began his delivery when Burton had gotten his hands on the slot cornerback.
The quarterback coaching trio of Pederson, Reich, and DeFilippo has done a good job of letting Wentz help shape their offensive scheme, instead of dictating it to him. They achieved a superb evolution from using concepts Wentz had familiarity with and tweaking them with new motions and formations. As Wentz becomes even more familiar with pro-level blitz and coverage schemes, he will deploy an even more advanced array of adjustments to them. I expect the Dig-Pivot-Flat route combination and Slot Fade concept will often be frequent examples of those adjustments. The Eagles brass wisely coveted using Wentz’s instincts as a resource and they should trust him to consistently win with tactics he has mastered for several years.
Three Level Stretch
North Dakota State had one more frequent concept that seems tailor-made for the Shotgun Spread era. Three Level stretches have been around for decades, but the number of ways they can be executed has never been greater. This is a great way to attack man coverage because it stretches the offense horizontally and vertically at the same time. The Eagles’ offensive masterminds—Pederson, Reich, and DeFilippo—all had experience using three-level stretches from different looks. In working together with Wentz and now Foles, they have made this concept even more versatile since their initial use of it.
The Flood concept is a three-level stretch which works best when the defense overloads the box. John DeFilippo’s use of it above as the Cleveland offensive coordinator strategically uses two tight ends lined up next to each other (notice a pattern here). The Jets’ Cover 3 look with Darrelle Revis (no. 24) in zone effectively shuts down the go route on the right. Meanwhile, the Jets send six defenders rush the passer, leaving only linebacker Demario Davis (no. 56) to cover both Barnidge in the flat and tight end Jim Gray (no. 81) on an intermediate out route. Quarterback Josh McCown (no. 13) identifies a wide open Barnidge and the decision is easy.
[San Diego Flood]
Three-level stretch concepts like Flood worked best for Reich in San Diego with receivers prolific at running deep routes (i.e. go or deep post). Dontrelle Inman (no. 15) once ran a 4.47 40-yard dash and is the outside receiver on the right. The Bears align with two deep safeties and show a Cover 2 look after the snap. Green and the slot receiver run crossers underneath Inman’s deep post. The Bears are forced to defend the play well in multiple one-on-one man matchups, so Rivers hits the slot receiver as soon as he breaks on the intermediate out route. The Bears sold out to defend Inman on deep routes, but in doing so, they left the slot cornerback and the inside linebacker on an island against the underneath routes. When executed properly by the quarterback, the Flood concept is a potent weapon against man coverage.
[Three Level Stretch] NDSU
[Trips Three Level Stretch] NDSU
[Under Center Power PA Three-Level Stretch] NDSU
Three-level stretches are more potent than ever in the age of Multiple Offenses. This is because the three routes in this concept can come from any part of the field in a four-wide or empty set. On the other hand, they can also come from a two-back set in the I-formation when the fullback releases into the flat.
North Dakota State designed this route combination from an unusual number of formations for a college team. This play-design still gave Wentz repetitions at aiming for the same target while avoiding predictability. In each of the three examples, Wentz connects with the intermediate out route. The other two routes—the go route by the wide receiver and a flat route by either a fullback, tight end, or flanker—usually create a throwing lane for that no. 2 progression. The flat route is a horizontal stretch and the go is a vertical stretch, both of which spread the defender against the intermediate out.
[Trips Bunch Flood Jeffery 19 yards NYG]
Wentz’s familiarity with this concept made it natural for him to throw on target to the no. 2 receiver in crunch-time with the Eagles. This particular example came at the end of the Week 3 Giants game where the Eagles needed a chunk play with little remaining time to set up the game-winning field goal. The Trips Bunch set does a good job disguising which receivers will run the specific routes. Wentz waits for the fade route to clear a defender and aim for the narrow window to connect with Jeffery.
[Agholor 72 yard TD ARI Three Level Stretch]
The Eagles seemed to use more route combinations for three-level stretches than North Dakota State. For instance, this one uses two underneath in-breaking routes and a deep fade by No. 3 receiver Agholor. When the Cardinals engage in a 7-man blitz, Wentz knows Agholor will have room to run free on one of the two sides. Accordingly, Wentz throws the ball in his arms for easy yards after the catch.
[Smith Backside Flood 22 yards]
Even when defenses play stout man coverage against the Three Level Stretch, Pederson incorporates effective backside routes. He noticed that the Chiefs sold out to establish inside leverage in man coverage, so a Deep Post by Smith created a wide throwing lane for Wentz to hit.
[Three Level Stretch-X Fade Man Coverage T-E Stunt Kelce Pickup Pocket Jeffery TD Q2 1.18] MIN
These back-side options were vital in Pederson’s use of the Three Level Stretch with Foles. The Eagles like to isolate Jeffery in 3×1 sets because they know he has the physicality to win one-on-one battles. The Flood action lures the safeties’ attention, allowing Foles to connect deep with him after escaping pressure.
[Three Level Stretch-X Fade Boundary Jeffery 21 yards Double Move Man Coverage 3rd-8 Q3 2.54] ATL
Similarly, this example in the Falcons game shows the safety cheating to the Trips side. Again, Jeffery wins the one-on-one battle with his hands and by taking the correct angle. The key to any offensive concept is repetitions and variations. Across college and pro football, the evolution of the Flood concept produced a reliable calling card for the Eagles with Wentz early this season and now with Foles too.
Run-Pass Options: The Role of Option Constraints in the Eagles Offense
Option concepts are one kind of constraint play, a tactic that punishes defenders who penetrate gaps too quickly or abandon their zones. They are an effective change-up for a team’s base run schemes. North Dakota State did not use them much until Wentz became their starter. “We didn’t have to run a thousand things for Carson to understand it,” Tim Polasek, his NDSU offensive coordinator and now Iowa’s line coach, said. “For us, we were introducing the RPO stuff to him at NDSU, but most certainly, it’s not like NDSU’s an RPO team. Or we never were. But he got introduced to that stuff and a little bit the mixture of what college offense has become.”
[Split Zone Action Zone Read DB Keep TD]
[Jet Action Power Read Keep Illinois St Big Run Lane]
[Power Read Keep 27 yard TD]
[Jet Action Power Read Keep Illinois St]
[Jet Action Power Read Keep Illinois St 5 yards]
[Power Jet Read Give Urzendowski First Down]
[QB Counter Trey Read]
[QB Counter Trey TD]
[QB Pin and Pull]
[Pin and Pull Fake QB Run TD]
[QB Pin and Pull C-G Lead TD]
[QB G Lead]
[QB G lead TD 2014 FCS Champ GW]
[CG Lead-Bubble RPO]
[Dart-Double Bubble RPO Give]
[Sweep Read-Bubble-Go RPO Wentz Keep]
As you might expect, the Philadelphia Eagles who led the league in RPOs as of Week 9 (with 98 RPO plays, compared to the second-highest team with 65) are the foremost NFL innovator in them. The Eagles use all of their major run schemes as part of their RPO package, allowing them to attack a defense at all kinds of different angles.
[Speed Option Clement 2 yard TD alt] DEN
Pederson typically included a QB keep option only with standard zone reads, but he made an exception against the Denver Broncos shown above. The Speed Option from the Pistol was a creative play-design to neutralize Von Miller without even blocking him! Wentz pitches to Clement when Miller crashes down. The second-level blocks by Jason Kelce and backup tackle Isaac Seumalo provided an easy path to the endzone.
[RPO Inside Zone Fade Jeffery TD] DEN
Still, the Eagles package Inside Zone with quick-hitting pass plays often. This Jeffery touchdown against the Broncos actually was a broken play where Wentz kept the ball and had to elude Miller. Jeffery’s assignment was a bubble screen, but he opts to run a fade when he sees cornerback Aqib Talib has his eyes fixed in the backfield.
[Inside Zone-Double Slant RPO Agholor 6 yards 2nd-11 Q2 3.00] ATL
[Inside Zone-Double Slant RPO Agholor 8 yards 2nd-12 Q3 12.36] ATL
Considering that Foles got extensive experience using RPOs under Kelly, it’s not surprising Pederson turned to them for the playoff stretch. In both of the above examples, Foles reads the hook defender and knows there will be a seam to throw the double slant to Agholor.
[Midline Zone-Slant Pick RPO Jeffery 10 yards] MIN
Pederson got more creative with RPOs against the Vikings. The play above is one where the run blocking scheme is the same, but Agholor creates a pick on the Vikings’ off man coverage to free up Jeffery for a first down. In the meantime, Foles takes a hard hit from the blitzing linebacker and releases the ball on time anyway.
[TE Wham-Outs RPO Hollins 9 yards Q4 9.59 1st-10] ATL
The Eagles incorporated a Wham variant of Inside Zone upon Pederson’s arrival, the same run-scheme the Patriots use with Gronkowski. The idea is to have zone-blocking in opposite directions between a trap block by the tight end. Pederson will use this in play-action too, but we know the above example is an RPO because of how far down the field Wisniewski is. Foles is reading the box safety (no. 22) who is unblocked and follows Celek. The Falcons likely had scouted the Eagles’ regular Wham schemes and emphasized flowing to run fits when the tight end pulls.
Instead, Foles has a variety of routes on both sides to hit against this Cover 3. Agholor and Jeffery run a curl-flat combination from Stack, while Mack Hollins runs a quick out underneath the deep zone for an easy 9 yard gain.
[Giants Week 3: 2Q 5.04 Power-Bubble Smallwood 14 yards]
[Giants Week 3: 2Q 5.04 Power-Bubble Smallwood 14 yards alt]
Gap-blocking schemes and RPOs have a similar underlying idea to Wham when defenses have just six man boxes. The Eagles’ bruising linemen like right tackle (and, on this play, back-side blocker Lane Johnson (no. 65) thrive one-on-one in the matchups provided by this scheme. In the first play below, Johnson uses a club move to pin the Giants defensive end (no. 72) face-first into the grass. Left tackle Jason Peters (no. 71) uses fluid footwork to redirect from a double-team block to get his shoulders square on the linebacker (no. 52), while pulling right guard Brandon Brooks (no. 79) pops the other linebacker (no. 57) with his shoulder to open up a big hole.
Meanwhile, a quarterback experienced in option concepts like Wentz can see that there is a 3-on-2 matchup in the defense’s favor on the bubble or slant when a safety plays outside the hash marks. Conversely, he can see there is a 7-on-6 matchup in the defense’s favor against the run when they use a single-high safety. The key is for Wentz to identify the option where the numbers are in the offense’s favor and make his decision accordingly.
[Cardinals: 2Q 1.15 Power-Slant-Bubble Johnson 6 yards]
[Cardinals: 2Q 1.15 Power-Slant-Bubble Johnson 6 yards alt]
The most creative RPOs are ones that include passing options on both sides of the formation, like the quick slant and bubble screen options in the play above. The Eagles tend to run the bubble on the strong-side because one of the receivers can block for the other. The 7-man box the Cardinals use gives Eagles receiver Marcus Johnson (no. 14) room to potentially pick up yards after the catch on a quick slant. The Eagles’ effectiveness in executing power schemes from Shotgun was what drove the Cardinals to sell out against the run. Meanwhile, the cornerback actually did a good job one-on-one to limit Johnson’s gain to 6 yards, but that doesn’t take away from the decision Wentz made here. The safety cheating to the strong side was Wentz’s pre-snap read that alerted him to throw the quick slant on the weak-side instead of the strong-side bubble.
[49ers Week 8: 1Q 1.33 Power-Bubble Blount 7 yards]
[49ers Week 8: 1Q 1.33 Power-Bubble Blount 7 yards alt]
The Eagles will also use Tackle Over formations that are similar to the Wildcat formation when the Shotgun is included. The idea in running Power O from this formation is to have an extra blocker on the play-side than a balanced line would provide. Johnson got shed by 49ers defensive lineman Earl Mitchell (no. 90) and Brooks took the wrong angle at the linebacker. Yet, running back LeGarrette Blount (no. 29) picks up 7 yards anyway because the 49ers leave just six men in the box. The weakside slant and strongside bubble threats again proved conducive to spreading the defense thin.
[Cardinals: 4Q 6.36 Dart-Bubble Clement 5 yards]
[Cardinals: 4Q 6.36 Dart-Bubble Clement 5 yards alt]
[Cardinals: 1Q 4.39 Dart-Bubble Barner 4 yards]
[Cardinals: 1Q 4.39 Dart-Bubble Barner 4 yards alt]
A similar concept, a Dart-Bubble Screen RPO, is a useful variation to use when defenses deploy an even front with an Over alignment. The purpose of this change-up is to create better blocking angles. This means a backside guard can back-block a three-technique, while the backside tackle pulls to the play-side. The alignment of the play-side defensive tackle can help give an agile left tackle like Peters a clean path to the second level. The Eagles used this play twice against the Cardinals with a Trips set on the right side. The effect of doing so can be to lure the single-high safety away from the box, or at least force him to scan the bubble screen action.
[Dart-SlantFlat-PickFlat RPO Ajayi 10 yards Q1 2.12 1st-10]
In the example above, the Falcons deploy a Bear front (three down linemen inside the tackles) similar to what the Patriots tend to use. It can be effective in shutting down the inside run lanes and pair it with off man coverage. The Dart run scheme, however, is effective at creating a run lane off tackle, exactly where the defense’s weak spot is found. The Eagles’ left side of Vaitai, Wisniewski, and Kelce creates a massive wall that lets Johnson shove the edge rusher (no. 59) out of the way, while Ajayi picks up 10 yards.
The passing part of the packaged play is truly creative aspect. Four receivers (counting Ertz who is an in-line tight end) attack the curl-flat areas with a flat route on each side, one flat route serving as the pick and the other being freed by another pick. The Falcons doubled down on protecting the flats, so Foles opted to handoff to Ajayi. But the play-design shows how Pederson has gone beyond simple slants or bubble screens in RPOs.
[Chiefs Week 2: 3Q 5.41 Counter-Slant Smallwood 8 yards]
[Chiefs Week 2: 3Q 5.41 Counter-Slant Smallwood 8 yards alt]
[Giants Week 3: 4Q 10.47 Counter-Bubble Clement 7 yards]
[Giants Week 3: 4Q 10.47 Counter-Bubble Clement 7 yards alt]
The Counter run scheme is more conducive to pulling two blockers (backside tight end and guard) to the play-side from a Shotgun look than Power or Dart. Of course, the key to making that blocking matchup work is to clear out the box with a plausible passing threat. The Eagles’ tactic of choice for RPOs with counter run schemes is to use a Stack formation. The close alignment of the receivers opens up a quick slant through a rub route, or a bubble screen with a blocker. Defenses with two deep safeties tend to have one cheat toward the Stack, opening up possibilities in the run game.
[Redskins Week 7: 3Q 13.49 Sweep Double Slant Agholor 10 yards]
[Redskins Week 7: 3Q 13.49 Sweep Double Slant Agholor 10 yards alt]
[Panthers: 3Q 9.59 Sweep-Double Slant Barner 6 yards]
[Panthers: 3Q 9.59 Sweep-Double Slant Barner 6 yards alt]
[Chargers: 4Q 13.42 Sweep-Double Slant Clement 4 yards]
[Chargers: 4Q 13.42 Sweep-Double Slant Clement 4 yards alt]
[Chargers: 1Q 10.20 Sweep-Bubble Clement 2 yards]
[Chargers: 1Q 10.20 Sweep-Bubble Clement 2 yards alt]
[Redskins Week 7: 1Q 2.19 Sweep-Bubble Smallwood 2 yards]
[Redskins Week 7: 1Q 2.19 Sweep-Bubble Smallwood 2 yards alt]
Along with the defensive alignment, the geographic constraints of the football field dictate the viability of particular plays. The Eagles design RPOs with the Sweep run scheme flowing to the boundary (the narrow side), and either Double Slant routes or a Bubble Screen on the field (wide side). The idea is to overload a narrow space with a swarm of blockers, while leaving as much space as possible for a receiver to pick up yards after the catch (YAC). The Eagles will always have the run action in this RPO flow to the strong side behind a tight end (or two). Brent Celek (no. 87) and Zach Ertz (no. 86) must make crucial back-blocks on the play-side, so the two pulling linemen—usually center Jason Kelce (no. 62) and one of the guards—have room to take the proper angle against the second-level defenders.
The Eagles consistently ran double slant routes for this concept when two receivers were on the weak side, but executed bubble screen action when they used a Trips set there. These tendencies seem rational. The two tight end looks tend to get defenses into an Over front. This means the Sweep action can lure the WILL to shadow Kelce and leave a wide throwing lane over the middle—usually to slot receiver Nelson Agholor (no. 13). The bubble screen, meanwhile, tends to work best in space when there are two blockers who create a “sidewalk” and “alley” for the target to run through. This action can clear out a box safety or linebacker because the defense must account for a threat in the flat, while the sweep action moves the opposite side.
[C Wham-Double Slant RPO Jeffery 13 yards Q3 4.41 1st-10] ATL
The C Lead blocking scheme is an effective change-up in RPOs that allows Kelce to get to the second level. The seal forms from the guard down-blocking a defensive tackle, with Kelce pulling behind him. The flow of the linebackers into their run fits leaves room for Foles to connect with Jeffery again on the slant against off man coverage.
The fundamental reason why the Eagles’ options work is because they are natural derivations of their base run game to begin with. The Eagles will run all of the same run schemes from Under Center and motion the linemen similarly on play-action pass protection schemes. It is crucial against a hybrid front like the Patriots’ to manufacture good angles and throwing lanes, and RPOs accomplish both.
How to Compress the Spread: An Overview of Defensive Personnel and Strategy for the Eagles and Patriots
The broad characterization of the NFL as “a passing league” seems to make Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s self-described “attack scheme” a sensible approach. Schwartz goes out of his way to get favorable coverage matchups by relying primarily on four penetrating one-gapping linemen, complemented by seven defenders in coverage against five receivers.
Yet, Schwartz attributes the origins of his renowned wide nine technique to game-planning against run offenses instead. While he was the Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator in the early 2000s, Schwartz found himself desperate for an answer against the Indianapolis Colts’ stretch run, or outside zone, plays. He found it on game-film featuring his former boss, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. At the time, Belichick ran a 3-4 base defense which allowed two edge rushers from wide alignments to squeeze the running back into the tackle box. Belichick still uses 3-4 fronts frequently with the superb two-gapper Malcolm Brown (no. 90) aligned as the nose and Lawrence Guy (no. 93) and Ricky Jean-Francois (no. 94) frequently aligned as the ends.
“We took that, and we said, ‘Sh-t, New England never has to play the stretch. It’s all inside zone. That’s all they run,’” Schwartz said at a coaching clinic, where he recalled the origin of the wide nine. “They eliminated a lot of runs, and we said, ‘What if there’s a way we can somehow play 3-4 principles in a 4-3?’”
Since then, Belichick has evolved his front seven away from a more conventional 3-4 personnel group toward a hybrid 3-4/4-3 front. Against teams that use multiple tight ends and/or two-back sets, the Patriots will often align two two-gapping defensive tackles over the guards, two five-technique ends, and two outside linebackers in two-point stances. This grouping combines one-gapping and two-gapping principles to preserve the penetration by the ends, while using the 2-technique tackles to let the MIKE and “Star” player flow sideline-to-sideline.
The high volume of passing makes it imperative for Belichick to prioritize his Nickel and Dime personnel more than two-gapping behemoths, but it is still useful to have a few of them around. Brown and Guy will two-gap, one-gap, or get tasked with outside contain, depending on the personnel Belichick believes he needs in coverage. These tackles typically end up being the fill defenders, but the force defender can be any number of players. It can be defensive ends Trey Flowers or Deatrich Wise, linebackers Kyle Van Noy or James Harrison, or “Star” (hybrid linebacker-safety) Patrick Chung. It really depends on the offense’s personnel and formations, along with the Patriots’ coverage needs.
Schwartz’s four-man front, as opposed to Belichick’s old five-man fronts, is more favorable than it had been in the past because there are typically fewer run lanes on a given play against a Shotgun Spread offense. The Shotgun also creates a more natural run lane from the mesh point to outside the line of scrimmage—the running back has to move horizontally to receive the handoff and has a harder time staying in stride if he has to run north. This is one reason why Schwartz prefers to funnel his opponents’ run game to the inside.
To be sure, Belichick will be using a four-man front (sometimes accompanied by a two-point linebacker on the edge) against teams in 11 personnel too. Flowers especially plays a variety of roles, and one of them is containing the edge against these lighter offensive formations.
The fundamental idea of Schwartz’s defensive scheme is to force offenses to shrink the width of the football field the offense can attack. Schwartz wants an opponent to try to win by running the ball between a perimeter no greater than the width of the offensive line. He makes his bet on Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan’s unique prowess at overcoming double-teams and trap blocks, preferring that risk over having to defend the full width of the field. Behind them, a second wave consisting of fast-flow linebackers Nigel Bradham and Mychal Kendricks fills the remaining gaps. The injured middle linebacker Jordan Hicks had been adept in adjusting the run lane assignments on the fly, but Bradham and base MIKE Dannell Ellerbee have made up for his absence.
“That was what we needed to do to funnel things back to guys like Albert Haynesworth, to guys like Ndamukong Suh, to guys like Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams,” Schwartz once told the Eagles’ website. “Our philosophy was we’re going to eliminate something that you do – we’re not going to let you run outside, so come on slug it out inside with us.”
“If we didn’t get sacks on Sunday, by the time I got to work on Monday morning, I had a list of every pass thrown on my desk and how fast it was thrown,” Schwartz said. “1.2 seconds. 1.3 seconds. 1.1 seconds. .78 seconds. We don’t have a chance. We can’t get a sack. The ball’s coming out too fast. Well, rather than keep b-tching about that, we started trying to develop a system to say, ‘Okay, well look, we got to do something about it.’
“So in establishing our rush plan, that’s where we started. We started with the quarterback. Where can he escape? Is he a step-up-in-the-pocket guy? Is he an escape guy? Where do we need to keep contain? Because we didn’t keep contain on both sides.
“We wanted to give our guys free reign to make inside moves, particularly the right defensive end working that left tackle. Most right-handed quarterbacks have a hard time escaping out to the [defense’s] right side. We said, ‘Look, we want him out there.’”
The Eagles’ wide-nine is, in some ways, a defensive parallel to the spread offense. It forces the offensive line to account for more space which can trigger deficient technique. For instance, an offensive tackle has to account for a speed rush, a speed-to-power move, and an inside counter move all at the same time. If the tackle weakens his base or lowers his hands while trying to guess the end’s move, he leaves the quarterback vulnerable with a wide rush lane.
In turn, the defensive tackles also enjoy much more space to attack their gap. Slide protections can neutralize the threat from one tackle, but they inherently leave a wide rush lane for the other in a one-on-one matchup. Cox and Jernigan naturally have the shortest path to the quarterback, so the wide fronts ease their path to pressuring the quarterback.
The Rain Blitz that Belichick used against the Titans is interesting for this reason too: the Patriots align seven defenders in the line of scrimmage with the Star and MIKE in the B-gaps. They both read the center and the defender in the direction the center steps retreats. An old staple, the Patriots’ Cross Blitz, is another tactic that attacks running backs with some misdirection. Belichick aligns two three-techniques who will occupy the guards, while one linebacker loops from A-gap to the other to occupy the center. Then, the other linebacker executes a delayed blitz, while looping from his A-gap to the other one too. The running back is the only blocker remaining.
Stunts also add to the hesitation of offensive tackles in space. Sometimes, these coaches will do something as simple as slanting an end and tackle on the same side to flush a right-handed quarterback to his left (or vice versa). T-E stunts, or Me stunts, involve a tackle penetrating into the B-gap, while the end loops from the C-gap all the way into the A-gap. The defensive tackle’s penetration and offensive tackle’s quick retreat leave plenty of room for the ends to shift gears on this stunt. This T-E stunt can be executed simultaneously on both sides of the line in a 4-man stunt too. On the other hand, the Twist stunt loops a three-technique from the B-gap on one side to the other, while the nose tackle occupies a guard and center. The Nut stunt reverses the roles, but accomplishes the same objective.
Though the point of the four-man rush is to free up seven defenders, these defensive masterminds will make some calculated risks in the form of blitzes. Schwartz will call some zone blitzes that still only rush four, but drop a lineman in place of a blitzing linebacker. This season, Schwartz has been more aggressive in calling for Cover 0 blitzes—a six-man rush with the remaining five defenders in man coverage. This stresses all of the defenders in coverage (think Seattle’s touchdown), but the 6-on-5 blocking mismatch (in the defense’s favor) can pay off as it did in Week 1 against Washington.
A five-man blitz that Schwartz likes is to send Rodney McLeod off the edge, with one of the ends slanting inside. That one was crucial in the victory over Atlanta.
The key to executing risky Cover Zero blitzes is to execute them from multiple formations. The Patriots have a blitz where a linebacker penetrates the edge, while a deep safety (McCourty) rotates down to bracket a receiver. The Rush formation aligns six defenders at the line of scrimmage—the blitzer aligns outside the wide receiver and his man-to-man defender in the boundary. Meanwhile, the Diamond formation aligns the blitzer between the first and second man-to-man defenders in the boundary.
Basketball on Grass: The Evolution of Coverage for Jim Schwartz and Bill Belichick’s Defenses in the Spread Era
Similarly, Schwartz predicates his run defense and pass-rush on giving his defensive backs flexibility in the kinds of coverage shells to execute. A 4-man rush means 7 defenders in coverage against (at most) five receivers. That numbers advantage allows him to shift between man and zone coverages, depending on the game-plan. Schwartz had once favored Cover 2 in the past as the Titans defensive coordinator and Lions head coach, but evolved when changing offensive schemes dictated him to do so.
Like the Jaguars did against the Patriots, the Eagles primarily use Cover 3 shells—albeit not quite to that same extent—because they funnel an offense’s routes into a narrower area of the field where their linebackers, Bradham and Kendricks, and surprisingly productive nickel cornerback Patrick Robinson can close the throwing lane. Cornerbacks Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills aren’t as adept at mirroring receivers as Ramsey and Buoye, but they do have a physical streak to their game that helps secure outside leverage. That physicality is further harnessed in Cover 1 shells—especially late in the game or in favorable down-and-distances like third-and-long.
When he uses a single-high look, Schwartz will move the other safety around as a chess piece and this is where he distinguishes the Eagles’ scheme. McLeod will often appear just outside an end in the tackle box as a threat to blitz, spy on a mobile quarterback, contain the flat, or be the force defender against the run. Their other safety, Malcolm Jenkins, sometimes gets these tasks too, but he has many more responsibilities.
The Eagles often go to man-to-man with Cover 1 or hybrid coverages (zone on one side, man on the other) when he wants to neutralize a specific skill player, and Jenkins is usually the player Schwartz turns to for those specific matchups. Jenkins often becomes the Robber in Cover 1 shells who can provide instant help during a coverage breakdown. He will also be the Swiss army knife who goes man-to-man out wide against freakish tight ends like Travis Kelce, in the slot against agile receivers like Larry Fitzgerald, or aligned as a Dime linebacker against shifty backs like Devonta Freeman. The former Saint will also help a cornerback against an elite receiver in bracket coverage—the best example of this was the Steelers game in 2016 where he contained Antonio Brown.
I would argue taking deep shots against the Eagles is worthwhile because Mills especially tends to get too aggressive with his hands in those situations. Darby at least has solid footspeed to keep up on vertical routes, but Mills’ 40 time is his Achilles heel. Getting Cooks on Mills could be a difficult matchup for the Eagles in man-to-man. Additionally, identifying zone coverage is crucial to manipulate favorable matchups. For instance, Danny Amendola could be a mismatch in the slot—not necessarily against Robinson, but McLeod or even Jenkins could make sense as a target. Of course, Gronkowski poses the most strenuous challenge of all for the defense, and the Eagles will likely struggle to find even one defender who can keep up with that beast. Even so, Schwartz has some counter-moves that he developed in watching the NFL evolve.
Schwartz’s mentor, Belichick, underwent an even more drastic evolution toward versatile coverage schemes. Belichick had been a Cover 2 Zone stalwart in his tenure as the New York Giants defensive coordinator. His tenure as the Cleveland Browns head coach sparked his tactical shift, in large part because of then-Browns defensive coordinator (now-six-time national championship-winning Alabama head coach) Nick Saban’s preference for man-to-man coverage. Their collaboration on the Browns staff was where Cover 3 Rip-Liz Match—a Cover 3 variant of pattern-matching—came to be. Jenny Vrentas’s feature in Sports Illustrated goes into great detail to elaborate how both coaching giants fed off this relationship and used it to change their schemes when necessary.
Not surprisingly, the Patriots undergo even more drastic game-plan changes throughout the season than the Eagles do. Against the Titans, New England primarily relied on a Cover 3 shell to provide run support against a run-heavy offense. Additionally, the deep thirds manned by cornerbacks Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore and safety Devin McCourty took away sideline throws away from Marcus Mariota’s arsenal. James Light mentioned that the Patriots used some Cover 6—similar to Cover 3, but the deep zone defenders rotate away from the formation strength— in this game. This left Star defender (safety/linebacker hybrid) Patrick Chung, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts, and other underneath zone defenders
In Week 15 against the Steelers, the Patriots mostly used various forms of man coverage—standard Cover 1, Cover 1 Robber, Cover 2 Man Under, some bracket coverages—to contain Antonio Brown and the Steelers’ other potent skill players. This was similar to their approach to covering Julio Jones in Super Bowl LI. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia often shifted McCourty closer to Brown’s side of the field to provide quick help, if Butler failed to keep pace. Sometimes Dime package safety Duron Harmon would align in a two-safety look before the snap, only to become a “Robber” player after the snap.
Sometimes, Patricia cycles through a variety of coverage shells within a game, as he did in Week 2 against the Saints. The Patriots began the game by using a lot of press man coverage on first and second downs to seal off the throwing lanes available to Drew Brees. They feared Brees enough that they deployed Cover 2 Man Under in the red zone and Quarters shells outside of third-and-long situations. In general, they used their Dime package frequently. Light noted the Patriots’ use of a Dime package wrinkle called Cover 1 Cross in this game. Cover 1 Cross tasks the strong safety (McCourty) with aligning in a deep-half and then reading the “No. 2 receivers” to double-cover a slant, post, or crossing route over the middle.
Belichick and Patricia also knew the Saints had a tendency to run some man-beaters like Mesh-Wheel, so they included another Dime package coverage shell that has Cover 1 principles. Cover 1 Double is a hybrid coverage shell designed for the Trips Bunch 3×1 sets: the zone aspect of the shell comes with the division of the deep zone into thirds; only the single-high safety (Harmon) is playing standard zone coverage though. McCourty is aligned over the top of the weak-side receiver and bracketing him—Michael Thomas in this situation. The strong-side cornerback (Butler) and slot cornerback (now-injured Jonathan Jones) pattern-match the two receivers aligned behind the line of scrimmage.
More than any other team, the Patriots tailor their defensive game-plan to the qualities of their offensive opponent. Still, their weakness is that they have some issues defending rub concepts because their defenders get caught in traffic. The Eagles should tailor their game-plan to creating picks with crossing routes, triangle reads, and rub routes. This is a major reason why the Patriots ranked 30th in passing yards allowed (but they still tighten up dramatically in the red-zone). I also expect a lot of screen plays and RPOs that manipulate safeties and linebackers away from throwing lanes.
Yet, Belichick has plenty of counter-punches like Cover 1 Cross and Cover 1 Double up his sleeves that are designed specifically to target a particular skill player. It is exceedingly difficult to find players who have the versatility to execute the Patriots’ variety of schemes, but Belichick manages to find them. He typically has the smallest big board—a ranking of college prospects he is willing to draft—because he is so selective.
After earning five Super Bowl rings, it’s hard to argue with Belichick’s methods. But if the Patriots defense gets gashed by the Eagles, it may be fair to question whether one outlier—Tom Brady, the outlier of all outliers—skews the results for the entire franchise.
So Who’s Going to Win?
On one hand, I was reluctant to finish this piece with a prediction, out of fear that the work I put in for the rest of it gets tarnished if I am wrong. On the other hand, I looked at that thought as a cop-out, considering this whole piece consists of a bunch of micro-predictions. Based on those micro-predictions, I should be capable of picking a winner.
The simplest heuristic is that the Patriots have the all-time greatest quarterback and head coach who are both still performing exceptionally well. Therefore, under this heuristic, it should be foolish to ever consider picking against them. This feels equivalent to a carry trade in finance which may allow you to pick up nickels, but in front of a steamroller. That steamroller in this analogy is the long odds the Eagles have of actually winning the game. To be sure, Brady and Belichick win most of their games, but not all of them. Therefore, it is illogical to claim the heuristic is sufficient basis for a prediction.
The example that peers tend to cite most often in discussing how to beat the Patriots is the Giants’ two Super Bowl victories over them in 2008 and 2012. There is some logic to this idea and some reason to think the Eagles could replicate the style of those Giants’ teams.
The Eagles’ front four could outmatch the Patriots offensive line just as badly as the Giants’ did in those Super Bowls. It’s also difficult to imagine the Patriots run game achieving much success when the Eagles’ force players are so quick to their run fits. Solder could be vulnerable to conceding inside pressure to Curry and Barnett, while Waddle lets Graham and Long move Brady off his spot. Cox and Jernigan, along with backups Allen and Vaeao, will be formidable matchups against the Patriots’ interior line. If the Patriots do get into pass-heavy formations, the Eagles can respond with wide fronts that set up one-on-ones with Cox and one of the ends kicked inside in their nickel package. Mason especially had a hard time against Cox in the 2015 matchup. Meanwhile, I advise Schwartz to blitz only sparingly, but when he does, a blitz from McLeod or Jenkins off the edge from Big Nickel or Dime may be the best tactic.
One thing that bears mentioning of Schwartz’s history coaching defenses against an offense quarterbacked by Brady. The results, frankly, aren’t pretty.
REST OF NFL
In the 2014 game, Schwartz’s defense held the Patriots to just 50 rushing yards, but struggled covering Gronkowski in particular. Schwartz mainly shadowed him with cornerbacks or slot cornerbacks. However, he has changed tactics against similar players since then.
Another thing that bears mentioning is that, while the Eagles are outstanding at recording pressures, they are less productive in actually finishing sacks. Brady isn’t Russell Wilson, so this isn’t as big of a deal, but any extra time Brady may get could be all of the difference. The Eagles’ focus in coverage will surely be on Gronkowski, but other teams have thrown the kitchen sink at him and still failed. It probably does make sense to have Jenkins shadow Gronkowski for a large part of the game (and perhaps Corey Graham at times too). But this should not bring assurance that the Eagles have him contained. The Patriots will likely use 3×1 sets with Gronkowski isolated frequently. He is especially dangerous if the Trips side is on the boundary, and he has the whole field to work with one-on-one. But that’s not the only area where Gronkowski can wreak havoc. Gronkowski has shown the ability to beat double coverage in the slot, snatch jump balls along the sideline, and work the seams versus zone coverage.
The other weapon who should scare the Eagles is Amendola, especially if he is aligned next to Gronkowski. If they are aligned on opposite sides, I could at least steal Cover 1 Cross from Belichick and task Corey Graham with cutting off a crosser or slant over the middle from either of them. Otherwise, that creates an issue where you can’t simultaneously funnel both of them into your linebackers. Speaking of which, Kendricks and Bradham will have a hard time shutting down the Patriots’ backs in space. But I would rather Brady try to beat the Eagles five yards at a time than, say, twenty.
Along those lines, Cooks may burn Darby at some points. That could very well set up a Patriots’ score. I think Darby will hold up for most of the game though because Cooks’ variety in routes is rather limited. Mills could have some speed deficiency issues if he finds himself aligned on Cooks, which is why Schwartz should keep him on Chris Hogan. Hogan, in turn, would give Darby problems because he’s a natural route-runner and could execute fakes.
With all of that said, I suspect the model the Eagles need to emulate is not just those Giants’ teams necessarily, but the Spread offenses that gave the Patriots a hard time this year: the Chiefs, the Texans, and the Panthers. The Patriots especially had a hard time defending RPOs against the Jaguars in the AFC Championship game, and the Eagles’ playbook of RPOs appears far more sophisticated than Jacksonville’s. On top of the option constraint plays, the Eagles have a package of screen and play-action passes that rival anyone else’s. Getting the ball to Ajayi on screens in particular could stress the linebackers. Belichick and Patricia are likely to prioritize stopping these constraints with scrape exchanges, zone blitzes, and extra men in the box. Roberts, Van Noy, and Chung must be disciplined with their eyes.
In turn, that could open up some run lanes for Blount, Ajayi, and Clement up the middle, behind pulling linemen. The Eagles’ offensive line is outstanding, but there are some matchups that may work to the Patriots’ favor. Though Vaitai shut down Everson Griffen in the NFC Championship, he may be more vulnerable to a less conventional pass rush. The Patriots could align Harrison and Flowers on the same side to attack Vaitai and Wisniewski, the Eagles’ two weaker linemen. The Seahawks gave those two a hard time with stunts and blitzes, and I suspect Patricia challenges them there. The Patriots may also exploit Blount and Ajayi’s poor pass-blocking by sending interior blitzers when Clement—the Eagles’ best pass-protecting back—is not on the field. For that reason, Clement should be the Eagles’ top third-down back.
Brown may also give Kelce a hard fight with two-gapping, and allow the Patriots to focus on the B and C gaps. I think the Eagles can adjust fairly well by down-blocking Brown with Brooks or Wisniewski frequently. On the other hand, Ertz (and even Celek) is a weak point for the run game, so Harrison or Flowers may just shut down the run game there. The Eagles still can respond by double-teaming them on zone stretches with Johnson or Vaitai, or crack-blocking them.
The passing game matchups are perhaps the most interesting between these two units. Similar to how the Eagles will hone in on Gronkowski, the Patriots will likely hone in on Ertz. That means McCourty, instead of Chung, should be the defender aligned on him. The Patriots may opt to shade Dime safety Harmon toward Ertz when the Eagles are in 3×1, but risk speedsters Agholor and Smith beating Butler or Rowe with Slot Fade or Three-Level stretches. That’s a major reason why I can foresee the Patriots wanting to play zone against this look. When the Eagles aren’t in this look, they may want to jam Agholor and Smith, both of whom are susceptible to that. But in essence, their bet will be that Foles’ deep pass productivity in the NFC Championship Game was merely a fluke—not an entirely unreasonable bet, considering his career arc.
Jeffery then becomes a vital weapon for the Eagles in his likely matchup against Gilmore. He can also be a weapon aligned alone in 3×1 sets, especially on in-breaking routes. Still, Jeffery’s wingspan makes him a threat on fade routes too. Gilmore certainly improved as the season advanced, but he had struggles against Kansas City and Houston in particular. The Eagles’ similar offense—the misdirection, the hi-lo stretches, the rub routes—may work to their advantage in this matchup.
I get that it seems dubious to think Foles will replicate his NFC Championship Game performance. I don’t think he will and I don’t think he has to. The Eagles offense should perform well enough on the ground and in the flat to keep his workload fairly reasonable. When appropriate, Pederson will take his shots downfield, but I expect several long methodical drives that will result in an Eagles’ win.
There are some statistics that jump out to me in Barnwell’s column, and they are ultimately what made up my mind to pick the Eagles:
The average defense in 2017 had to face just over 17 possessions that began on its own side of the field. The Patriots went up against just five of those possessions, and two of them were the Chiefs and Dolphins kneeling at the end of their victories. (If we remove drives in the final two minutes to get rid of kneel-downs, the Patriots faced three, and the league average was 15.5.)
During the Brady-Belichick era (2001-2017), the average defense has faced just under 368 short fields. Every team besides the Patriots has faced a minimum of 311 possessions beginning on their side of the field. Belichick’s defenses have needed to defend only 227 short fields. The second-place Falcons are closer to the Ravens in 24th than they are to the Patriots. This has been a huge competitive advantage for the Pats.
It’s not a huge surprise, then, that the Patriots’ defense hasn’t lived up to its regular-season numbers when playing against top-tier competition in the Super Bowl. If we use New England’s raw scoring averages from the regular season, we would have expected them to allow 121.8 points across their seven Super Bowls. Instead, the Pats have allowed 157 points. The only times the Patriots have held opposing Super Bowl offenses below their defensive average were against the Giants in 2007 (17 points versus an average of 17.1 points allowed) and 2011 (21 points versus an average of 21.4 points allowed). Of course, they lost both games.
In other words, everything rides on Brady and the rest of the Patriots offense—something we already knew, but not necessarily its implications. If the Eagles manage to get some three-and-outs or contain the Patriots to short drives for even just part of the game, the Patriots defense no longer enjoys the luxury of defending longer fields routinely. In essence, the Patriots’ high scoring defense ranking is inflated by the productivity of its offense. If the Patriots offense performs below its lofty average—a realistic possibility against this above-average Eagles defense—then that has the potential to create a doom loop in the Eagles favor.
The Patriots’ offense can always fall back on Brady, but he will have to execute a nearly one-dimensional attack to keep his defense from defending short fields. The Eagles run defense badly overmatches the Patriots’ run offense. Brady can try to take deep shots—which the Eagles admittedly aren’t stellar at defending—but runs the risk of exposing himself to the Eagles’ absurdly high total of pressures. That seems like a high-variance strategy. The one attack he can routinely take is what the Giants did in their two matchups with the Eagles—quick slants, pick plays, and sluggos—to pick up six yards at a time and hope the cornerbacks get faked out into giving up yards after the catch. I’m certain Brady will lead some successful drives this way and keep the Patriots in the thick of it the whole game.
The problem for the Patriots is that the Eagles can make up for it with their pass rush and run defense, both parts of their team that are far better than those of Atlanta’s team last year. Nick Foles won’t look quite as good as he did against Minnesota, but he’ll be efficient even if unspectacular. The likes of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount, Zach Ertz, Alshon Jeffery, and the star-studded offensive line will do most of the work for him anyway. If Wentz was playing, I would predict a stunning Philadelphia rout. Instead, I’m predicting a nail-biting Eagles win of 34-31 on Sunday, ushering in the beginning of a budding Philadelphia dynasty that will resemble its New England predecessor.