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Eagle Eye: Run Game Effective Vs. Vikings

Posted Oct 25, 2016

The Eagles' defense was simply dominant in its performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday afternoon. Going up against the No. 1 defense in the league (statistically), the unit matched the Vikings turnover for turnover as the offense worked to get into a rhythm.

Going up against that aggressive front seven and opportunistic secondary, quarterback Carson Wentz and the offense certainly had their share of issues to start the game. There were two things that stood out to me in the performance by the Eagles' offense. Wentz struggled to get into a groove. The three turnovers didn’t prove costly, but are certainly plays that he will learn from. The other takeaway, however, was the Eagles' ability to run the football against the top-ranked run defense in the entire NFL.

Take a look at this chart and you’ll see the production the Eagles had on the ground. This list doesn't include plays wiped out by penalty or turnover. Wentz’s rushing numbers are not included as well.

Rushing Plays Vs. Vikings
Formation Ball Carrier Yardage
Under Center Ryan Mathews +6
Shotgun Ryan Mathews +6
Under Center Ryan Mathews +3
Under Center Ryan Mathews +6
Under Center Wendell Smallwood +3
Under Center Ryan Mathews +2
Shotgun Ryan Mathews +6
Shotgun Ryan Mathews +1
Shotgun Ryan Mathews +20
Under Center Ryan Mathews +7
Under Center Ryan Mathews +3
Under Center Wendell Smallwood +4
Under Center Wendell Smallwood +3
Under Center Ryan Mathews 0
Under Center Ryan Mathews 0
Shotgun Wendell Smallwood +4
Under Center Darren Sproles +17
Under Center Darren Sproles +1
Shotgun Darren Sproles +8
Under Center Ryan Mathews +3

The running backs gained 103 yards on 20 carries (5.15 yards per carry) against a defense that ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game entering the week. The Eagles got chunk plays on the ground, and it started early on.

On the third play of the game, the Eagles called a Stretch run play on second-and-11. Center Jason Kelce does a great job cutting off the back side, as Ryan Mathews takes this for a 6-yard gain to set up a third-and-manageable situation.

Later in the first quarter, the Eagles are backed up and again go back to the Stretch play. The Eagles ran this play twice with Mathews and gained 13 total yards, as he scampers for seven on this rep. Great job by right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai of collapsing on the defensive tackle, working the double team with guard Brandon Brooks to create a cutback lane for Mathews to get downhill for a first down.

Another effective run for the Eagles was the Shotgun Counter play. A backside guard pulls to the front side while a tight end loops as well to be a lead blocker. Here, Mathews takes this carry for 6 yards on first down behind Brooks and Brent Celek. Great job by Jason Peters at the second level as well getting to the linebacker and steering him from the action.

Doug Pederson and the Eagles did a great job of keeping Minnesota on its toes as well. It’s third-and-9, and Minnesota is prepared to stop a pass play with a light box (two deep safeties). This is a Shotgun Power run, with Brooks pulling from the back side. Peters immediately sifts up to the playside linebacker, leaving Brooks for the backside linebacker. Mathews takes off for a 20-yard gain, the longest run surrendered by the Vikings all season long.

This was one of my favorite plays of the game.

It’s the fourth quarter. The Eagles just got the ball back after a Sam Bradford fumble, and the Eagles call a version of their Sweep concept. Vaitai pins down the 3-technique defensive tackle, Celek pins down the defensive end, Brooks pulls outside for the playside linebacker and Kelce is responsible for the middle linebacker. He can either pull to the outside, or he can immediately climb to the second level and hunt for him.

Watch Kelce fight through traffic here and make his way to Minnesota’s Eric Kendricks, finishing him to the ground. This was a great read from Darren Sproles, who gained 17 yards on first down. Overall, I thought it was a sneaky effective day on the ground for the Eagles. There were no negative runs, just two carries for no gain (three if you count a fumbled snap that Sproles picked up and got back to the line of scrimmage) and eight of their 20 carries by running backs went for over 5 yards.

Wentz struggled early as he threw two interceptions that I’m sure he’d like to have back. He was off target on some throws that, as Pederson mentioned after the game, were a result of poor lower-body mechanics. Those are issues he’s still working through in his first year in the league. The coaching staff did a nice job of working in simple throws with some window dressing for the young quarterback to help keep the defense off balance while also trying to work him into a rhythm.

This was Wentz’s first throw after the second interception. It’s second-and-4, and the Eagles call a simple Slant Flat concept. It’s a one-read play meant for the ball to come out quickly, with two receivers running to one side. The quarterback sees how the two defenders play the combination, and throws to the open window. The Eagles have Sproles and Kenjon Barner on the field. They bring Sproles in motion out of the backfield to run a quick route to the flat. This catches the attention of safety Harrison Smith, who follows Sproles toward the sideline. This creates a nice, easy throw to Jordan Matthews, who rumbles 10 yards for a first down.

Same drive, four plays later, and the Eagles again construct a simple read for Wentz to help get him going against the toughest pressure scheme in the league. It’s first down and Wentz sits back in the shotgun. He takes the snap and fakes a handoff to Sproles in the backfield. At the same time, Zach Ertz runs right down the hash for a quick pop pass and Josh Huff is on the perimeter ready for a bubble screen. This is a very simple read for Wentz. He’s reads linebacker Kendricks, who is playing the run. Once Wentz sees that, he has to just check the defender over Huff. As long as the defender widens with the bubble screen, Wentz knows he has Ertz wide open. This play goes 14 yards for a first down to move the chains.

In the third quarter, the Eagles used more simple reads for Wentz to move the ball downfield. This time, down in the red zone, they bring Huff in motion from right to left. When no defenders run with Huff, Wentz knows he can hit him on the bubble screen to that side of the field. Two blockers erase two defenders, and Huff goes 14 yards for a first down. This is just Pederson and Wentz stealing yards against a stifling Minnesota defense.

That play worked so well that they went back to it two drives later, this time for an 11-yard catch by Huff, who is at his best with the ball in his hands. The former third-round pick has developed into a quality special teams player, and not just on returns but also as a cover man. In these types of quick-hitting throws, he’s been very effective in space for the Eagles' offense.

By creating easy throws and reads for Wentz after the early struggles, the rookie was able to settle in and just play football. I truly believe that those I just showed you help to set up Wentz to make plays like this one.

The ball ends up on the ground after a bobbled snap, and this is where most quarterbacks just jump on the grenade, take the loss and live to play another down.

Not Carson Wentz.

He picks this up on the run, rolls right and gets his eyes up to find Sproles for a first down downfield. Kendricks, much like Ryan Shazier in the Pittsburgh game on Sproles’ long touchdown grab, is stuck in no-man’s land, as Wentz hits Sproles for 19 yards.

The Eagles' coaching staff showed a lot of faith in Wentz on this fourth-down call, not only for just putting it in his hands to go for it in a tight game late in the half, but also to actually allow him to potentially run for it. The ball ends up on the ground (again), and watch Wentz. He doesn’t panic. He picks the ball up and carries the play out for a 6-yard gain and a first down. Between this play and the two-point conversion, Wentz proved that he could be one of those quarterbacks that, if your team needs a yard in crunch time, he’ll get it for you with his legs. His athleticism is one of his biggest strengths.

It’s been far too long since I’ve broken down a special teams play, and I had to acknowledge all of the great blocks on Huff’s long kick return for a score on Sunday. This starts with the effort of two double teams right at the 30-yard line. Trey Burton and Bryan Braman block the Vikings’ L4 player (the fourth player from the left of the formation before the kick). Marcus Smith and Jaylen Watkins block the L2 player. Love the extra effort from Watkins to keep his man away from the sideline.

Next, focus on both tight ends, Celek and Ertz, as they help lead the way for Huff on this right return. They help create an alley that, along with the pair of double teams, leave Huff one on one with the kicker. What I love most about Huff with the ball in his hands is that he is no-nonsense. He shows very little hesitation. He just wants to eat up grass as quickly as possible. Here, Huff hits this hole at full speed, and the kicker is unable to break down and get him to the ground, as Huff sprints for the 98-yard touchdown.

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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