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Eagle Eye: It's All About Protection


It goes without saying that the Eagles had their most productive offensive performance of the season on Sunday afternoon against the New Orleans Saints. There were a lot of key factors for this, but the biggest difference was execution. The offensive line played at a higher level for 60 minutes than at any point so far this fall. There were still some drops here and there, but there was improvement in that area from the pass catchers. Aside from two red zone interceptions, quarterback Sam Bradford was largely accurate on the day. That all resulted in the team moving the ball much more consistently on Sunday, as they tied a team record in first downs and, aside from the two turnovers, were able to finish drives.

This past week on Eagles Game Plan, Ike Reese and Mike Quick discussed the Eagles' issues on third down and how they were related to the lack of success on first down. This is something I wrote about exactly one week ago after the loss to Washington, and the premise is simple. If you don't move the ball well on first down, you put yourself in worse situations on third down, making it harder to convert.

Last week against Washington, the Eagles only had eight plays that went for more than 4 yards on first down (24 chances). How did they respond this week? There were 44 first down plays on Sunday and the Eagles gained 349 yards on those plays, good for 7.9 yards per play. That's a huge, huge jump in productivity on first down, and it really helped the Eagles get into a groove offensively.

There wasn't a new set of plays that head coach Chip Kelly devised in the week of practice, nothing got drawn up in the dirt on the sideline before the game. They didn't rely on passing over running (the run/pass ratio finished at 24/20 in favor of running the ball by game's end). Did they slow things down a bit offensively? It sure seemed that way. Did they run more from under center than they had in the past? Definitely. But they had tried those things before and didn't have this kind of success. The execution was a whole lot better across the board, and that was the main reason for the production against New Orleans. The next task will be building off of this performance and moving forward with the rest of the season, starting on Monday against the New York Giants.

The execution was especially prevalent in the run game, as the Eagles were able to get things going on the ground early and often against New Orleans, specifically on the outside in the sweep game. This has been a staple of this offensive running attack over the last couple of seasons, and it worked wonders for them on Sunday.

A great pin block from tight end Brent Celek on defensive end Cameron Jordan (I thought Celek had a very good game as a blocker) helps get this going, and blocks from wide receiver Riley Cooper on the outside as well as center Jason Kelce and right guard Matt Tobin on the run help spring Darren Sproles for a 14-yard gain. Philosophically, there have been questions raised by analysts whether or not the alignment of the running back in the formation gives away the direction of the play. The Eagles have mixed things up in the last few weeks to catch defenses off-guard, but if blocks aren't made up front it doesn't matter which way your back is carrying the ball. It's just not going to end well. The Eagles got sound blocking up front in this game. When they combine that with misdirection, it was very effective.

Celek provides a great pin block once again. Tackle Jason Peters does a nice job as well pinning the 3-technique inside. Left guard Allen Barbre and Kelce get out in space and take men out of the play. Tackle Lane Johnson releases to the second level and cuts a linebacker off as running back Ryan Mathews belts off a 33-yard gain for a big play. Both of these runs came on first down for this offense. If the Eagles can continue to get going early in drives, you're going to see them possess the ball for longer periods of time and, ultimately, put more points on the board.

The sweep wasn't just effective with Mathews and Sproles, as running back DeMarco Murray had a number of big gains in the same scheme from the shotgun, including this run in the second quarter.

Great blocks again from Celek and Peters help contain the edge, while Barbre kicks out the overhang defender in safety Kenny Vaccaro. Kelce, who initially looks like he's pulling, stops and takes care of the blitzing rookie linebacker Stephone Anthony. Murray gets to the sideline and finishes a 24-yard gain to put the Eagles in scoring range across midfield.

On the very next play, after showing the ability to get to the edge in the perimeter run game, the Eagles come back with outside zone run-action to the right.

This run-action gets the Saints' defenders flowing to the wide side of the field. Bradford rolls to his left on this "naked" pass play, hitting wide receiver Josh Huff on a crossing route for his 41-yard touchdown catch, the first of his career. These run-action passes were very effective for the Eagles on Sunday.

Here's another example on the very next drive later in the second quarter, this time going to the left. Bradford rolls to his right, has a "Flat-7" combination with tight end Zach Ertz running a corner route. Bradford hits the tight end for a 21-yard gain and a first down, throwing it behind the defender where only Ertz (who makes a really athletic grab) can get it. Moving Bradford outside the pocket worked really well against the Saints, but even when he stayed in the pocket, the offensive line was able to keep him upright for most of the afternoon. This allowed the quarterback to get into a groove, even after those early interceptions in the red zone.

Look at the room Bradford has to work with here on this first down late in the first half. With no one pressuring him on this throw, Bradford places this ball perfectly to wide receiver Jordan Matthews. It's outside the No. 3 defender, but not too far out in front the defender squatting in the flat. The ball hits Matthews right between the numbers, he bounces off a tackle and picks up 18 yards on first down. The pass protection allowed the Eagles to run a lot of their favorite pass concepts (plays they've been running all year, but haven't been able to connect on because of pressure or drops), but now you've got completions and first downs instead of three-and-outs.

In the third quarter, the Eagles are running a version of the "Drive" concept that we see so often with a number of different pass targets. Ertz runs the shallow cross and Celek has the curl route over the ball. This play is designed to put that linebacker in a bind. If he drives on the shallow cross from Ertz, it opens up a window for the quarterback to hit Celek. If he stays put on Celek, Ertz should then be able to get the ball with room to run. The linebacker runs with Ertz, Bradford sees it quickly and delivers the ball to Celek. The veteran picks up 23 yards and a first down.

From the end zone angle, you can see (a) how much space Bradford has to work and (b) how that linebacker is affected by the drag route from Ertz, opening up a much bigger window for Bradford to deliver the football for a big play.

NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell did a great job breaking down the Eagles' final passing touchdown of the game from Bradford to Celek. It came on a "Snag" route, a three-man concept we've done plenty of breakdowns on in the past.

The motion from Cooper right before the snap created confusion in the Saints' secondary, and Celek broke wide open in the end zone for the score. Again, though, look at the cushion Bradford has to work in.


Bradford is comfortable in the pocket, with very little threat of pressure, and he gets rid of the ball in time to Celek for six points. If the Eagles can continue to protect Bradford and execute in the run game like they did on Sunday, this offense will turn around quickly as the season progresses.

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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