Coming into the game against Denver, the biggest hill to climb for the Eagles offense was figuring out how to counteract the aggressive Denver front seven. Whether it was against the pass, with a dynamic secondary and one of the most feared rushers in the league in Von Miller, or against the run, where the Broncos were second in the league coming into the game, that defense is considered by many to be one of the best in football. Doug Pederson and the Eagles offensive staff came in with a well-defined game plan to attack the Denver defense, and the players executed it to near-perfection.
THE 'COLLEGE OFFENSE'
After the game, Denver's Pro Bowl cornerback Chris Harris told reporters that the Eagles run a 'college offense'. I don't believe he meant that to be a slight, because it speaks to the layers of the Eagles offense. Is this offense as option-based as Kansas City's or Carolina's? In my opinion, no, but it's certainly a part of what they do to help set up both the run and pass game.
When you go into a game facing a defense like the Broncos with a pass rusher like Miller, you have to figure out a way to keep him off your quarterback. One of the best ways to do that is with the read option. If you're worried about blocking Miller, don't block him! Just 'read' him instead.
Shot 1 - As soon as I saw this TD to Alshon I thought of the 2013 Iron Bowl & Sammie Coates. Same idea. Zone read w/ option to throw #Eagles pic.twitter.com/9C0Wlb9izv — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
This is the touchdown to Alshon Jeffery, which all started with a read option on Miller. At the snap of the ball, Carson Wentz has the ability to hand this ball off to running back Jay Ajayi, depending on the action of Miller. If Miller plays this too far outside, defending against the quarterback keeper, then Wentz will hand it off. That's not what happens here, however, as Wentz keeps the ball and starts to run to the right, directly at Miller.
In the secondary, cornerback Aqib Talib gets a little bit too nosey with his eyes and Jeffery, who runs a one-step 'Smoke' screen, bolts down the sideline. Wentz drops in a perfect touch pass to Jeffery on the run to help create yards after the catch, and Jeffery takes it into the end zone for six points. The Eagles get on the board without having to block Miller and prevent Talib from being able to make a play on the football.
As soon as I saw this play, I thought of the 2013 Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama, where former Steelers wide receiver Sammie Coates raced down the left sideline for a game-tying touchdown. It wasn't the exact play design, but the concept is basically the same. Quarterback Nick Marshall executed a read option run to the left, Coates pretended to block on the outside before releasing downfield for a huge play and a score. The Jeffery touchdown wasn't the only time the Eagles 'read' Miller, because they got to the end zone later off of a similar concept.
Shot 2 - #Eagles get Corey Clement into the end zone off Speed Option. Great way to block Von Miller...don't block him (read him instead). pic.twitter.com/QNz614dxB1 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
In the third quarter, the Eagles came out in the pistol on first-and-goal with the ball on the right hash. Wentz took the snap and ran right at Miller, who again was left unblocked. Flanking Wentz on the right was rookie running back Corey Clement. If Miller crashes down on Wentz or even stands still to defend the quarterback run, Wentz pitches this ball. If Miller reacts to Clement and flows outside, Wentz keeps this and runs into the end zone for six. The former happens, and Wentz pitches this ball to the outside as Clement reaches the end zone for his second touchdown of the day. Again, the Eagles put points on the board by not having to block Von Miller.
MOVING THE POCKET
When you go up against a fearsome pass rush like Denver's, one of the other tactics teams will use is moving the pocket. By changing the launch point for the quarterback, defenders' landmarks change. It's harder to rush the quarterback if he's not always throwing from the same spot! Whether it was on plain Sprint outs or off boot-action, the Eagles made it a point to get Wentz out of the pocket against the Denver defense early in the game.
Shot 3 - Another way to counteract a dangerous pass rusher? Move the pocket. #Eagles made it a point to do that vs DEN early on Sunday pic.twitter.com/Z4TeiB8RrR — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
On these two completions from the first quarter you can see Wentz making throws on the run both to his left and to his right. On both plays you can see how the Denver pass rush is a near-non-factor for Wentz as he delivers the ball.
Shot 4 - #Eagles move the pocket on Wentz's 4th TD. Most would call this a 'difficult throw' in the red zone. Wentz has 15 TDs/0 INTs in RZ pic.twitter.com/d424ztNQ9S — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
The Eagles moved the pocket on Wentz's fourth touchdown pass of the game down in the red zone. Wentz sprints to his right, and the first progression is Ajayi in the flat. That is taken away by Denver, so Wentz gets to his second progression, Jeffery, in the back of the end zone. This is a ridiculous throw, as Wentz throttles down, quickly resets his throwing arrow, and delivers a pinpoint pass to Alshon on his facemask for six points. Wentz has 15 touchdowns with no interceptions in the red zone this year, the best ratio in the NFL.
GETTING THE TIGHT ENDS INVOLVED
Going into the game, many people talked about how the biggest weakness in this Denver defense was defending the tight end. After losing Zach Ertz during the week of practice, many wondered how the Eagles would respond. They did it by not changing a thing with their game plan, showing confidence in Brent Celek and Trey Burton to shoulder the load in the passing game from that position, and that confidence paid off.
Shot 5 - #Eagles showed a lot of faith in Trey Burton and Brent Celek to win matchups in the pass game. Used both as 'X Iso' in 3x1 sets. pic.twitter.com/v2XJ2MXPj9 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
Here are two examples of the Eagles lining up in 3 x 1 sets with each of their tight ends set as the 'X Iso' receiver. Both win at the top of the route (Burton against zone coverage, Celek against man), for first downs.
Shot 6 - #Eagles use 12 personnel to get #Broncos in Base defense. Love Burton running a sluggo vs a LB. Great protection / throw on TD pic.twitter.com/MTv3SFxkhc — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
The Eagles further leveraged that matchup on this touchdown throw to Trey Burton in the second quarter. The offense comes out in 12 personnel with one back and two tight ends (Burton and Celek). The Broncos respond with their 'Base' defense, with three defensive linemen and four linebackers. This is exactly what the Eagles were hoping for in this part of the field, as they run mirrored 'Sluggo' (Slant and Go) routes with their two tight ends. Celek, at the top of the screen, is matched up on a safety, and Burton, at the bottom, is matched up on a linebacker. The Eagles love the matchup with Burton vertically against a linebacker, and he wins easily on this double move in space. Wentz delivers a beautiful touch throw to the pylon, and Burton plays the ball well in the air to reel it in for a touchdown.
Earlier, the Eagles used Burton down in the red zone, not as a pass catcher, but as more of a decoy to help open things up for Clement.
Shot 7 - Great design on this screen to Clement. Looks like 'Snag' concept off play-action. Found man defender by pre-snap motion #Eagles pic.twitter.com/5AMbdI1ajW — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
Before the snap, the Eagles bring Burton in motion from the slot to the backfield. A defender comes in motion with Burton, signaling man coverage. This gives the Eagles a good feeling that linebacker Brandon Marshall, who was covering Burton on the play above, is manned up on Clement out of the backfield. The Eagles need to block him up if this play is going to work.
The ball is snapped, and Burton flashes to the flat immediately, bringing his defender with him. Carson's eyes immediately go there, and watch the flow of the Denver defense. Everyone is either dropping back (to defend the receivers in the slot releasing downfield) or running to the flat to cover Burton. The Eagles get linemen up to Marshall, and by the time he realizes what's happening it's too late. Clement catches this screen and races to the end zone relatively untouched. Keep in mind that, once again, the Eagles reach the end zone without having to block Von Miller, who faced a faux chip block from Clement before he released on the screen.
Shot 8 - A couple of dimes from Wentz. First one came in 2-minute drill. Makes throws like this on a weekly basis, believe it or not! pic.twitter.com/nmM13Kum84 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
These plays aren't related to the tight end, but I wanted to wrap up the passing game with these two reps because they were outstanding throws by Wentz. The first one came during the Eagles two-minute drill at the end of the second quarter, and it's just one of those throws that Wentz makes on a near-weekly basis that just make you shake your head and say 'wow'. Wentz is a special player, and he's quickly developing into one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
EAGLES ON THE RUN
Coming into this game the Broncos were the only team in the NFL to not allow a rushing touchdown, and the Eagles were able to do it three times. Clement reached the end zone twice on the ground, and Ajayi got in as well, as the Eagles put up nearly 200 yards against a more-than-formidable defensive front.
These are the kinds of runs I was hoping to see from Ajayi on Sunday. He gets eight yards after contact here, turning what would've likely been a six-yard run into a 14-yard first down. You see Ajayi hit the hole hard, run through an arm tackle and lower his shoulder through contact, driving his feet along the way (with some help from his teammates) to move the chains. That first down run led to this...
Shot 10 - #Eagles got a great look for Ajayi TD. Block it up perfectly. Brandon Brooks is playing at a Pro Bowl-level. RB runs to daylight pic.twitter.com/ftfKK7Z9GK — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
Ajayi's long touchdown probably was predicted by the coaches as soon as they broke the huddle, because this was a perfect look. Denver is completely outmanned on the playside, and the Eagles all execute their blocks perfectly. Halapoulivaati Vaitai executes a perfect kick-out block, pushing his man to the sideline. Jason Kelce and Stefen Wisniewski execute a 'fold' scheme, with Wis blocking down on the defensive tackle and holding him up at the point while Kelce pulls around as a quasi-lead blocker in the hole to the second level. Brandon Brooks - who has been the most consistent and arguably their best lineman all year - gets two defenders on this play. Ajayi runs for daylight and you get to see that breakaway speed in the open field as he races for 46 yards and a score on the Eagles longest run of the day. After seeing the physicality and balance from Ajayi on the previous play, I loved seeing the burst in space to reach the end zone.
Shot 11 - Similar look on the long run by Clement early 3rd Quarter. Clement just has to run to daylight. Great blocks on playside #Eagles pic.twitter.com/GfRz9RWdri — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
Early in the third quarter the Eagles got a similar look pre-snap, and Clement is the one who took this one for a big gain. Brooks and Lane Johnson are on the playside here and lock their defenders out, Clement runs through an arm tackle and races down the right sideline. The play comes back a few yards due to a holding penalty, but it still moves the chains and helped set the tone for the second half.
Shot 12 - Clement ran hard all day long. Couple of nice runs here and some nice pop from Big V at the point of attack! #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/LCILcQ7Okm — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
I thought Clement ran the ball well all day long. He was decisive, ran behind his pads and took the yards Denver gave him. On these plays above you can see his ability to get downhill but also notice some of the blocks up front, notably from Vaitai, who showed good pop in the run game for most of the afternoon.
Shot 13 - More examples of LeGarrette Blount downhill. #Eagles used 6 OL often in this game with Ertz out. 2nd play is their staple 'Wham' pic.twitter.com/tXk2sZuMi6 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
You get to see some more movement at the point of attack on these two runs from Blount. On the first play, the Eagles are in a 13 personnel set with three 'tight ends' on the field, but the third tight end is offensive lineman Isaac Seumalo. The Eagles run away from the extra offensive lineman here, and get three great blocks play-side by Kelce, Brooks and Johnson. Look at the sideline angle and you can see the yards after contact gained by Blount.
On the second run you see the Eagles' staple run play, 'Wham', with Blount getting downhill quickly with offensive linemen getting right up to the second level. I expect to keep seeing Blount with these kinds of runs moving forward.
Shot 14 - #Eagles continue to use 'Tackle Over' sets to their advantage. Ran away from extra OL often in this scheme. 3 big plays here. pic.twitter.com/KQTdLpZPlV — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) November 6, 2017
One of the other wrinkles of the Eagles run game is the use of 'Tackle Over' sets, where one offensive tackle slides over to the opposite side of the formation as a quasi-tight end, giving the Eagles a run-heavy look to one side. Typically, teams line up in this kind of formation and run behind the two tackles. The Eagles clearly felt confident doing the opposite in this game, because it seemed that every time they lined up this way they ran AWAY from the strength of the formation. This decision comes from hours and hours of tape study, knowing how Denver would line up to this kind of set and what angles it would create in the run game.
The Eagles offense is absolutely hitting on all cylinders heading into the bye. The fact that they did all of this against a destructive Denver defense without one of their biggest playmakers in Zach Ertz is a great sign, as this unit continues to find ways to move the ball and put points on the board. I'm extremely excited about this group moving forward.