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Eagle Eye: Previewing The New Offense

Posted Feb 4, 2016

After a long road trip that included stops in St. Petersburg, Florida for the East-West Shrine Game and in Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl, it was fun to get back in the office this week and really get into breaking down what the Eagles' offense could potentially look like in 2016 with Doug Pederson and Frank Reich at the helm. I know a lot of people have some preconceived notions as to what the scheme will look like, but I can tell you that there’s a lot more than meets the eye when you watch both the Kansas City Chiefs' and the San Diego Chargers' offenses over the last three years.

One of my favorite comments from Pederson’s opening press conference was by describing his offense as "West Coast-ish." Back in the 80s and 90s, and even into the early 2000s, teams employed a certain offensive scheme with, typically, very little variety or wiggle room. You were a "West Coast" offense, or a "Run and Shoot" team or maybe you ran the "Air Coryell" system, but every offense had an identity, and they stuck to it. Those days, for the most part, are long gone.

Now, college football and the NFL are a melting pot of schemes and terminology on both sides of the ball. Coaches work year-round to find plays that will help their teams win football games, and as coaches travel from place to place and team to team, they pick up certain concepts along the way that they really like and save them for future use. Pair that with the growth in coaching clinics as well as the ease of which coaches can now share and watch film of other successful coaches, the "copy-cat league" term has never been more true.

That’s what makes Pederson’s arrival in Philadelphia as both a head coach and as a playcaller so exciting for me. It will be his first opportunity to deploy plays that he has seen throughout his career as both a player and a coach and put them into practice with his overall vision. So when he says that his offense is "West Coast-ish," what he means is that, sure, there are some West Coast offense concepts and quick-game route combinations in there, but there’s a hodge podge of screen plays, shot calls and even read-option elements in there as well. Let me show you what I mean.

One of the most basic of all West Coast offense plays (Chris Brown of Smart Football wrote a couple of great pieces about the scheme here) is the "Stick" concept. You have the No. 1 receiver running a vertical route, almost always with an outside release. The No. 2 receiver runs an out-breaking route, typically some kind of a speed out. Lastly, the No. 3 receiver runs the "Stick" or option route inside, with the ability to sit down in the soft spot of a zone or run away toward the sideline against man coverage.

This is a great, safe play for the quarterback, because it has elements of both a vertical and horizontal stretch play. It’s typically a quick throw, and I would venture to guess that every team in the league runs it.

On this play, quarterback Alex Smith drops back and likes his matchup with the No. 2 receiver, tight end Travis Kelce, running a speed out against a safety. The ball comes out quick and on target, and Kelce takes off for a 29-yard gain and a first down.

We’re going to get into this later, but as you’re reading this piece keep in mind that one of themes you’ll notice in this offense is the ability to take advantage of matchup advantages with tight ends and running backs. Both Pederson and Reich have a great history on tape of being able to do just that.

One of the other plays you’ll see often in Kansas City is the "Drive" route, and this is a concept we’ve been talking about here in Philadelphia for a while because it’s a play that the Eagles ran a lot of over the past few years. When you really break it down to its simplest form (because there are lots of variations throughout the football world), the Drive concept essentially is a two-man route concept. You have the shallow cross underneath, and some kind of curl or hitch route in the middle of the field. Depending on how the underneath defenders react, the ball will go to either one of those two players.

Kansas City catches Houston in man coverage on this Drive call, as the safety charged with defending Kelce is unable to run through the traffic inside caused by the hitch route. As a result, the athletic tight end takes off for a 16-yard gain and a first down. This is another example of a West Coast staple and quick-hitting pass play that fans could potentially see in the Eagles' offense this year.

One of the most basic pass plays in football is the Slant-Flat route concept, another combination that is an easy read for the quarterback to make. It’s meant for the ball to get out quickly.

All Smith is doing there is reading the flat area, and with the window opening up thanks to the linebacker flaring out to the flat to defend the running back, Smith is able to hit Albert Wilson for a 44-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown.

There are a lot of other three-step and five-step passing plays that aren’t necessarily always considered "West Coast" concepts. One of them is a play that quarterback Peyton Manning has been using to carve up opposing defenses for years, called Levels.

With two in-breaking routes over the ball, the quarterback has a quick high-low read inside. The Chiefs run this out of 13 personnel with three tight ends on the field. The Broncos have a busted coverage, allowing James O’Schaunessy to break free for a 39-yard pickup.

One of the things a lot of people remember about the Andy Reid era here in Philadelphia was the success of the screen game. Whether it was Duce Staley, Brian Westbrook, LeSean McCoy, Correll Buckhalter or any of the Eagles' backs, Reid was always good at getting them out in space with a convoy in front of them. That’s certainly something we can expect with Pederson as well, but this screen attack isn’t your father’s screen game. Kansas City was very good with creating different opportunities to get playmakers the ball in space over the last three years, and they did it in a lot of different ways.

Remember back when the Eagles played the Chiefs in Reid’s return to Philadelphia in 2013 on Thursday Night Football? Remember wide receiver Donnie Avery running free on what felt like every third-down play? Those may not have seemed like it because of where he was on the field, but they were screen plays. Instead of offensive linemen running out on a delayed release to block for him, Avery had other eligible receivers blocking at the second and third levels. The offensive line and quarterback all kept the look of a normal dropback pass, keeping the front seven from thinking screen and retracing into the secondary to help, which is why I call these plays "Dropback Screens."

Here’s a very similar concept back in Week 3 of this past season against Green Bay. Look at the two receivers on the outside. Their main purpose is to block for Kelce. Smith puts the ball on the outside, leading Kelce toward the sideline. He slips the blocks and rumbles 20 yards for a first down.

The Chiefs have had success with every screen play in the book, whether it’s your basic Base Screen, Jailbreak Screens, Bubble Screens or those Dropback Screens. You name it. They’ve run it. But what is most interesting is that they do a great job of incorporating misdirection into their screen attack with the use of double-screen plays. The point with those is that you’re trying to generate defensive flow to one side of the field, even if it means holding a defender’s eyes for a split second, just to bring the ball back to the other side of the field with blockers out in front.

On this play back in Week 1 against Houston, the Chiefs fake a Smoke Screen to Wilson to the left, only to come back to the right and throw a Swing Screen to running back Jamaal Charles for a 17-yard gain. Did you see a ton of Texans defenders flow toward the Smoke Screen? No, but just a split second of hesitation helps to give the Kansas City blockers the time they need to get in position to set up the play. Notice the center get up to the second level, by the way. That could definitely be something Jason Kelce can excel at this fall.

This week on the Eagle Eye in the Sky Podcast, I talked with Nick Jacobs, who does as good a job as anyone in Kansas City breaking down the Chiefs from an All-22 perspective. It’s something that is definitely worth listening to if you want to learn more about what the Eagles could look like on offense this fall. One of the things I was most anxious to hear about from Nick was regarding the idea that the Chiefs were a "dink and dunk" offense that rarely took shots downfield. Was that a reflection of Pederson as an offensive coordinator? Was it playing to their personnel? Was it a mix of both? Jacobs felt like it was more of a personnel issue, especially during the 2014 season, and cited this past year as an example of how the Chiefs were more willing to stretch the field with Maclin and third-round pick Chris Conley on the roster.

This is also where the addition of Reich becomes exciting to me. The Chargers have been a successful downfield passing team over the last few years with Philip Rivers under center. They attacked teams on the back end with a number of different schemes, but most notably with the use of the three-level stretch.

The three-level stretch, or "Flood" concept is one of the more popular shot plays in football because it’s not often that a defense can cover three receivers at all three levels on the same side of the field. San Diego burns the Ravens in their Quarters coverage on this play, as Malcom Floyd runs to the post and goes untouched for a 71-yard touchdown strike.

There were plenty of other popular "shot-play" concepts as I continued to watch both teams. One in particular that was very successful for Kansas City was the "Dagger" play.

With the "Dagger" concept, the idea is to get the inside receiver running a clear-out route, creating space for the outside receiver’s deep dig into the middle of the field. That works to perfection on this play as Smith hits Maclin for a 31-yard completion against the Packers. "Dagger" is a great way to pick up large chunks of yardage at a time, and it was very effective for the Chiefs in 2015.

There were a lot of other "shot" plays that popped up on tape when watching both of these teams. Whether it was "Post-Cross" or "Switch" or "Topper," both the Chargers and Chiefs did a good job attacking the deep area of the field. One last play that I saw both teams run multiple times, and one that we’ve seen the Eagles run in the past, is one I’ve always called the "Scissors" concept.

Here’s Kansas City running the concept, which is a two-man route with an outside receiver running a post and an inside receiver running a corner route at similar depths, crossing over one another. Kelce runs away from the coverage in the Houston game and gains 48 yards in the Wild Card game last month.

Here’s the same exact play from the Chargers back in Week 5, this time a 32-yard gain to Floyd. The "Scissors" concept works well because of the natural rub element downfield, helping that outside receiver break free in the middle of the field.

Creating space for playmakers to work is a staple of what both Kansas City and San Diego have been able to do over the last few years, and they do it in a number of different ways. One of my favorite things that they do, however, is dictate matchups by personnel to create favorable matchups in the open field. What do I mean by that?

This is a play that Jacobs mentioned in the podcast, and I came across the same play in my study. It’s third-and-1, and the Chiefs come out in 23 personnel, with two running backs and three tight ends. If you’re the Raiders here, you have to expect in the huddle that this will be a run play to move the chains, but Pederson and the Chiefs flip the script here.

After bringing a tight end in motion before the snap, the Chiefs fake a perimeter run before running a Post-Wheel concept with the tight end running a deep post and Charles running a wheel route. One of the most electric backs in the NFL, Charles is a complete mismatch for a linebacker with a head of steam, as the defender is unable to stay on top of the route. The safety is held in the middle of the field because of the post route coming right at him, and Smith hits Charles for a 71-yard touchdown. This play came from the Chiefs’ great understanding of matchups, how the defense would react to their deployment of 23 personnel and then leveraging the skill sets of their best playmakers. Plays like this make me really excited about this offense moving forward.

The use of the rub element is apparent while watching both offenses as well. I mentioned that above pertaining to the "Scissors" concept, but it popped up in other spots as well. Both offenses, in fact, had specific plays designed solely to free up a specific receiver early in the down to get him in the open field. That’s not something we’ve seen here over the last two to three seasons in Philadelphia, but plays like that were commonplace for these two offenses.

With this subtle in-and-out combination, the Chargers free up slot receiver Stevie Johnson for a 23-yard gain and a first down. The slot corner over Johnson overplayed the in-breaking route and was unable to work back over the top to defend him when he worked back outside thanks to the route run by tight end John Phillips. This is a legal play, there’s nothing dirty about it, but it’s a subtle way of creating interference for a receiver to get open. It's a well-designed play. Everyone knows that these types of plays are great in the red zone as well, and unless it is defended perfectly (see Malcolm Butler in last year’s Super Bowl), these types of plays are really tough to stop.

Here’s a similar look from the Chiefs back in Week 12 of this season, this time with the use of a Texas route out of the backfield with Charcandrick West. With Maclin lined up tight to the formation running a vertical route, the linebacker over West has to get on top of him so he doesn’t get beaten by the wheel route (remember what happened on that Post-Wheel with Charles), but by working over the top of Maclin, he is in no position to defend the Texas route as West cuts back inside for a 47-yard gain. This play is designed with West as the primary target and is just another example of taking advantage of a player’s skill set in space.

Here’s another similar concept, and one of my favorites. It’s something I’ve known as the "Follow" concept. Here, you see the Chargers run it out of a bunch set, but sometimes you’ll see the intended receiver coming out of the backfield as well. Basic premise? Send a shallow crossing route underneath to eat up the hole defender and carry him away from the actual target, who is entering the void right behind him. Here, the Chargers get Keenan Allen in space for a 29-yard gain on third down to move the sticks. I love that play, and keep in mind it’s all about getting your playmakers wide open in the middle of the field. Here, it happened to be Keenan Allen, but in the Eagles' case that could be Darren Sproles, Trey Burton, Josh Huff or Nelson Agholor. There are lots of combinations in play here, that’s what makes this fun to watch.

In the run game, I think Eagles fans everywhere are anxious to see how Pederson and Reich deploy DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Sproles. If you look back last year at Kansas City, you’ll see how well that staff adapted to the loss of Charles and what they had to do to get going with West, Spencer Ware and company. The Carolina Panthers get a lot of credit for how diverse their run game is, but Kansas City’s isn’t too far off from that. There are a lot of things going on in that backfield, and part of that comes from a concept that Eagles fans are far too familiar with by now, the zone read.

Here, Alex Smith reads the backside defensive end of the Lions and hands the ball off to West for a 37-yard gain. He sees that the end is in no position to make a play on the runner. If the defender crashed harder on the running back, Smith likely would have tucked it and ran.

Here’s that same play from the sideline angle, and you can see the Bubble Screen to the field. Smith had the option to not just tuck the ball and run, but also throw the Bubble Screen on the outside. These types of "packaged" plays are common throughout the NFL now, and Pederson and the Chiefs used them often.

Lastly, there’s the use of the "Pistol" formation, something that a lot of fans in the Philadelphia area have been clamoring for over the last few years. The Chiefs have been at the forefront of that in the NFL, mainly because Chris Ault (considered by most to be the father of the Pistol offense at the college level after having lots of success with Colin Kaepernick) was a consultant with Kansas City for two years while Pederson was there, and his influence was evident. So what is the pistol, exactly?

With the "Pistol" formation, the quarterback is in the backfield like he would be in the shotgun, but the running back is 3-to-4 yards behind him as if he was under center. This gives both players the benefits of being in the shotgun as well as the benefits of being under center. With the use of read-option plays, it makes it harder for the defense to key in on what direction a play will go before the snap since the running back is aligned directly behind the quarterback (as opposed to in the shotgun, where he would be on either side). As you can see above, the Chiefs have dabbled with the "Pistol" formation as well. Could we see that in Philadelphia this season? We’ll have to wait until the summer to find out.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.


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