The Eagles made huge news to close out the opening week of free agency with the additions of the reigning rushing champion (DeMarco Murray) and a former first-round pick (Ryan Mathews).
With the trade of LeSean McCoy to Buffalo, there was a need in the backfield and adding two players of their caliber sent shockwaves throughout the NFL. How would these players fit into the Eagles' offense? I went to the tape to see how Murray and Mathews will look here in Philadelphia.
It's no secret that the Eagles employ a zone-blocking scheme up front along the offensive line.
Sure, there are some "gap scheme" runs mixed in, but for the most part you'll see variations of the zone run game when the Eagles look to move the ball on the ground. There are a lot of intricacies to the zone run game, more than I will cover in this piece, but your first objective as an offense is to create a wall up front. An easy way to look at it is, if you cut the line in half, you can almost see exactly how the combo blocks will pan out.
Here's a run by McCoy last year against Houston. This will be an inside zone to the left. Jason Peters (No. 71), Matt Tobin (64) and Jason Kelce (62) will be responsible for the 3-technique, rush linebacker and playside backer. Todd Herremans (66) and Lane Johnson (65) are responsible for the nose tackle and the backside linebacker. Brent Celek (87) will be responsible for cutting off the backside defensive end (that's J.J. Watt, by the way). Now, when you look at the combo blocks, deciding which offensive lineman will sift up to the linebacker is all dependant on how the defense moves after the snap. Will there be a stunt or a blitz? Will a linebacker scrape over the top? The offensive line has practiced all week against the different looks the Texans could provide, and now we get to see it in action.
Back in Week 3 on Eagles Game Plan, Chip Kelly explained about how the running back ideally will have four different paths to hit this run. He can "bounce" it to the playside (far left in the picture above), he can "bang" it between the two sets of combo blocks (second from the left), "bend" it behind the backside combo block (second from the right) or "bring" it all the way back across the grain.
This is why you hear all kinds of buzz words getting tossed around when it comes to running backs having success in a zone scheme. Patient. Decisive. Downhill. One-cut runner. You're patient because you wait to see that crease open, but you're decisive in that when it opens, you're sticking your foot in the ground (one cut) and getting downhill as fast as possible to pick up positive yardage. This type of scheme is all about taking what the defense gives you. The offensive line works in concert to create a lane based on how the defense aligns and then reacts post-snap. The running back finds a crease and takes the first sign of daylight.
On this play, McCoy takes what's there, and bounces this run for a long gain and a first down. The other factor that comes into play with the Eagles' effectiveness in the zone run game is their tempo. I detailed this in regards to Sam Bradford and how productive and efficient he has been running a no-huddle offense. That is a huge part of how the Eagles attack opposing defenses.
Everyone remembers this huge run from Darren Sproles in Week 1 against Jacksonville. It was fourth-and-1 and the Eagles were in hurry-up mode. The Jaguars were scrambling as half of their defensive front is still trying to get lined up just moments before the snap.
After the snap, Kelce gets to the playside backer, Herremans and Zach Ertz take out the backside backer and Sproles bangs this run inside and is off to the races as the Eagles get back in the game and ultimately come back to win. There are plenty of wrinkles to the Eagles' zone run game, and one of the more popular variances is the "split zone" run that features a tight end coming from the "play side" to block a backside rusher. But up front, it's exactly the same.
Again, it's all about numbers. This is a run to the right. Andrew Gardner (66), Johnson and Celek will take the three defenders in front of them. Kelce, Evan Mathis (69) and Peters will take the three to their side. James Casey will come back side to erase the unblocked defender. That seal from Casey should help create a crease that allows for a potential "bend" by the back.
This is a great downhill run from Chris Polk, who sees it, hits it and picks up positive yards for a big gain and a first down.
So how do Murray and Mathews fit?
Well, before I went to the film to watch both backs extensively (I had a much bigger knowledge base on Murray than Mathews, of course), I made a quick call to NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell, who has watched every play of both players since they arrived in the NFL. How did he think they would fit in Philly? Cosell said in the Eagles' scheme, you "have to be decisive downhill, and that's the key to why Murray and Mathews are in Philadelphia." Cosell continued by saying that last year Murray "showed that he was a decisive runner, and that Mathews has been the same type of back. Both guys will get downhill quickly and they will get what's blocked along with a little bit more."
At the NFL Annual Meetings in Arizona last week, Kelly was asked about both players and what they bring to the team. Kelly praised Murray's attitude and personality, as well as his ability to take what the defense gives him.
"He's got unbelievable patience and vision," Kelly said, "He never takes negative yardage plays ... I'm really excited to add him to our side."
Kelly said he was excited to add the former San Diego Charger because of his style of running.
"He's physical, he's got legitimate breakaway speed. He ran a 4.37 at the Combine at 222 pounds," Kelly said of Mathews.
These are two players whom Kelly is clearly fond of, and is excited to plug into the system. With that said, let's see how their skill sets fit in this scheme.
Back in the fall, I analyzed the Cowboys' running attack, focusing on their stretch running game. This outside zone run is slightly different from the way the Eagles attack defenses, with the main differences coming in the angles of the back and of the offensive linemen (much more lateral to stretch the defense horizontally). But the idea is still the same. Get a hat on a hat up front, get the numbers in your favor. Create a crease. Find a crease. Get through the crease.
Let's see how Murray does here.
Murray patiently waits for the crease, reads the block, sticks his foot in the ground and gets downhill for a huge gain. But Murray isn't just a frontside runner ...
On this run, Murray immediately sees the backside linebacker has overpursued and presses the backside, bringing it back for a big run across midfield. And as Cosell said, Mathews is the same type of back, with a very similar set of skills.
On this zone run from San Diego, you've got three sets of combo blocks up front. Mathews takes the ball, sticks his foot in the ground, bangs it up inside, lowers his shoulder through a tackle and picks up several more yards after contact.
The physicality of these two runners was apparent very early on as I watched both of them throughout the 2014 season. While neither may have the wiggle that McCoy had here in Philadelphia for so many years, these two create yardage in a different kind of way, and that's by running through first contact. I couldn't watch this next run enough times as I was going through the film ...
Murray is like a 217-pound ping pong ball on this play, bouncing off of defenders and running through would-be tacklers and making it look easy, as it took six Saints (by my count) to bring him to the ground. As I continued pouring through the tape, I found myself tagging all of the runs where second-level defenders looked "tentative" (to be kind) to attack both Murray and Mathews downhill. I saved some of the best ones for you ...
We haven't seen this type of violence from lead ball carriers in Philadelphia for quite some time, and it's easy to see why this tandem (along with Darren Sproles as the Swiss Army Knife spread out all around the formation) will be one of the more exciting backfields to watch this season.
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.