Receiver Jordan Matthews rejoined the team today as they began preparing for their fourth and final preseason game on September 1 against the Jets.
All preseason, the Eagles' offense has given fans a taste of what its identity will be this season from a schematic standpoint, increasing by degree with each passing game. This week against the Colts was really a good glimpse at what this unit can be.
In the run game, you have more than a handful of different blocking schemes to go along with a collection of ball carriers. There's a misdirection element involved, and with the multitude of different formations and personnel groupings, defenses should have a hard time pinning down tendencies on the ground.
In the passing game, there are deep shots weaved into the structure of the offense (mainly through three-level stretch concepts), but this is a quick-hitting air attack. With the aforementioned formations and groupings, this unit wants to keep defenses constantly guessing. Different combinations of backs, tight ends and receivers will all have an impact in every area of the field. That was absolutely the case on Saturday night.
The other two areas of concern for fans heading into the season revolved around the offensive line and the play of the quarterback. Through three games, however, fans have to be feeling pretty good about both. Sam Bradford was near flawless against Indianapolis, finishing 17-of-20 with two incompletions bouncing out of receivers' hands and the third hitting to a ground after a miscommunication. Bradford was efficient, accurate and most importantly he knew the right time to push the ball past the sticks, something that was evident on the first third down of the game.
You may remember that the offense got off to a really bad start in this game, as Bradford took a sack for a 14-yard loss off play-action. After a run on second down made it third-and-forever, Bradford dropped back and hit Chris Givens on the outside past the first-down marker to move the chains.
This was a great route by Givens, as he broke toward the post before settling down just past the chains and made himself available to the quarterback, who hit him in stride for a first down.
After rewatching this performance, two things stood out to me against the Colts. First, I loved seeing all of the multiplicity with formations and personnel groupings as I mentioned earlier. Second, as Mike Mayock brought up on the broadcast, it was great to see some players step up when their number was called to make a play. At the top of the list was a player who I broke down on last week's podcast, wide receiver Josh Huff, who I said on Tuesday would be a lock to make this team.
Here's a shot from the second series of the game. It's second-and-2, and the Eagles come out in 12 personnel with one running back (Darren Sproles) and two tight ends (Zach Ertz and Trey Burton). The two receivers on the field are Huff and Nelson Agholor. The defense rushes to get lined up properly to match up against this formation. With so much separation between Huff and the cornerback in the slot, Bradford steals a first down and more.
Huff has always been at his best in the open field with the ball in his hands. That's what makes him such a dangerous kick returner. It's very clear that this staff will make it a point to get him the football in space, more so than at any point in his still young NFL career, and it continued on the next drive.
It's first-and-goal on the 9-yard line. Huff is lined up to the boundary. The Eagles are going to bring him to the other side of the field to take a jet sweep from Bradford at the snap of the ball.
In order to properly defend the jet sweep, you need good communication defensively, especially on the back end. If the cornerback over Huff is not going to run with him, then someone else in the secondary must take him when he crosses the formation. That communication is slow to take place, and by the time rookie safety T.J. Green (who ran 4.3 in the 40-yard dash on the turf at Lucas Oil Field at the Combine earlier this spring) sees Huff, even he is not fast enough to recover. Huff follows the effective block by Agholor on the perimeter to the pylon for a touchdown. Huff had the huge catch on the second series of the game, scored a touchdown on the third series and continued to answer the bell the next time the Eagles had the football.
It's third-and-6, and the Eagles come out in 11 personnel with Huff lined up as the No. 3 receiver in a 3X1 set. Against man coverage, watch Huff run away from his defender on an over route as Bradford lasers a ball into his chest for a first down.
There are a lot of pieces on this Eagles roster. You saw Paul Turner make a couple of catches in the second half after his standout performance last week at Pittsburgh. We've seen the flashes from Agholor. With the return of Jordan Matthews, it will be huge for this offense to have another receiver take the next step in his development this season to take this offense to a new level.
In the first preseason game against Tampa Bay, you may remember Ryan Mathews' touchdown run coming off a three-tight end set in 13 personnel (one back, three tight ends and one wide receiver). Last week against the Steelers, we saw a lot of 12 personnel from the offense, and this time with a little more receiver distribution and location (meaning we saw players line up in a lot of different spots). This week against the Colts, we saw a lot of both, including one personnel grouping that got me very excited.
Here, the Eagles are in a 13 personnel set with Brent Celek, Ertz and Burton all lined up tight to right of the formation. The lone receiver to the boundary was Dorial Green-Beckham. Let me explain why this grouping is so exciting.
The first time we see it, the Eagles run an Inside Zone Counter run to the tight end side to pick up 9 yards. Mathews presses the hole quickly, runs through initial contact at the line of scrimmage. The effective blocking on the play side allows for a big gain on first down, which is all you can ask for each and every time you move the chains (remember, productive first downs turn into very manageable third downs).
On the next series, we get to see the personnel grouping again on first-and-10, this time just past midfield. Again, there are three tight ends to the right with DGB to the left. This time, Indianapolis is sending a cornerback on a blitz from Green-Beckham's side, but to no avail. Bradford takes the snap and zips a quick throw to Green-Beckham, who ran a quick slant route right into the void created by the blitzing corner.
Was this the perfect play call by Doug Pederson against this blitz? Or was it a perfectly executed "sight adjustment" from the quarterback and receiver, with Green-Beckham alerting Bradford of the blitz and changing his route to a slant to make himself quickly available? Either way, the pass is completed and you see how hard Green-Beckham is to bring to the ground as he muscles his way for a first down.
Two plays later, the offense comes out in the very same personnel group, but this time they run what should be a very familiar pass play for Eagles fans. This is the mesh concept we've broken down so many times in the past, a play that's been so effective for the Eagles over the last couple of seasons. With Celek and Ertz running two crossing routes at a depth of 5 yards, Burton settles into the void in the middle of the field. When you watch from the end zone angle, you can see a really clear picture of how the seas part, with both underneath linebackers respecting the crossing routes underneath.
The Eagles put this exact personnel grouping on the field a handful of times, with a mix of both run and pass plays called out of the huddle. You see a few different kinds of formations, and with players like Ertz, Burton, Sproles and Green-Beckham all on the field at the same time, it becomes a bit of a matchup problem defensively. I'm really excited to see how the Eagles use this combination moving forward in the regular season, especially when you factor in other players such as Huff, Agholor and Matthews into the mix. This is what makes this passing game so difficult to game plan for. At the end of the day, it comes down to matching up correctly from a defensive perspective.
On the very next play after the mesh concept, the Eagles come out in 12 personnel, with Green-Beckham and Rueben Randle both lined up outside the numbers on opposite ends of the formation running fade routes. This is where it becomes "low post basketball," as Bradford lays up a beautiful jump ball to DGB in the corner, letting him win in ways that very few in this league can for a touchdown.
We have talked about the value Dorial Green-Beckham can bring this team on offense with his combination of size and speed. But what about on special teams? Being the star that he was in college, I don't know that he was ever asked to do what he did for the Eagles on Saturday night against the Colts.
Here, you can see Green-Beckham lined up as a gunner on the punt team at the top of the screen. The stat sheet had him down for eight special teams snaps against Indianapolis, the same amount of reps he had on offense. Green-Beckham saw second-team reps as a four-core special teams player. Was his technique always perfect? Was he exactly where he needs to be at all times? No, but I loved seeing the effort he gave in the third phase of the game as he continues to show the value he can bring value to this roster. It's not every day that you see 240-pound gunners sprinting downfield on special teams!
Moving on from Green-Beckham, let's backtrack to the play of Burton. The third-year tight end has had an outstanding summer as one of the stars of Training Camp practices, and is poised for his most productive season in the NFL. His positional versatility is what helps make the Eagles' use of multiple-tight end sets so effective, because we've seen him win as a blocker at the point of attack as well as down the seam in the middle of the field. That's not the only way the Eagles have used him.
It's first-and-10 on the first play of the third quarter, and the Eagles are in 12 personnel with one back and two tight ends, except the second tight end is lined up outside the numbers. Watch how smooth and effortless Burton is as an athlete, winning on this slant route against a cornerback in off coverage to pick up an easy first down. Remember though, having that athleticism and that versatility isn't enough. You also need a scheme that is going to highlight those physical skill sets to create matchups for them in space!
On the very next play, the Eagles stay in the same personnel grouping, but line up in a completely different formation. This time we see an empty set, with rookie Wendell Smallwood (who ran hard and competed well on special teams before leaving the game with a concussion) winning on a quick out route for a positive gain on first down.
Smallwood was used as a receiver throughout his career at West Virginia, lining up in the slot on vertical routes or winning in the quick game outside or out of the backfield. His versatility is perhaps his best attribute, and seeing him line up outside and pick up a catch before leaving the game was also a sign of things to come with the first-year back.
These last couple of plays all took place on the Eagles' opening drive of the second half, and I really loved watching that drive. Why? It was nine plays, went 68 yards, had a good mix of run and pass plays and had a variety of different looks formationally.
Here, the Eagles run to the strong side of their two-tight end formation, as Ertz and Celek execute a great double team at the point of attack, as Kenjon Barner races down the left sideline for a huge gain.
Jim Schwartz illustrated this exact point during one of his press conferences a couple of weeks ago. When an offense operates out of multiple tight end sets, if you have a group of tight ends that can both run and block, it becomes increasingly difficult to defend. Just because a tight end is athletic doesn't make him versatile. If he's only a factor in the passing game, it's not an issue to put a bigger corner on him whenever he takes the field. Conversely, if a player is only strong in the run game, that's easy to defend too. But when a player can do both, like Celek, Ertz and Burton can, and you have a coaching staff prepared to take advantage of that, well now you're onto something.
The Eagles capped off this drive on this touchdown throw to Burton, a beautifully designed rub concept with both Burton and Green-Beckham lined up inside and Celek and Ertz lined up outside. Celek and Ertz run vertically, creating a natural screen that the defenders over Burton and DGB should have trouble running through. Bradford sees Burton break open with ease, and it's a simple pitch and catch for six points.
Needless to say, I'm pretty excited to watch this offense continue to develop and evolve as the season begins in a couple of weeks. The key word to remember? Versatility!
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.