Suffering a loss heading into the bye week is always difficult, if not only because you have two weeks to stew on the loss and think about the "what could have beens" of the most recent game. Luckily for the coaches and players, the bye week isn't about stewing or focusing on just this loss. For the coaches this is a week of self evaluation, a time when they can look back at everything they've done over the first half of the season.
This self-scouting process is time-consuming, because the staffs on both sides of the ball will examine every possible scenario when it comes to down and distance, game situation, formations and alignments and find all of their tendencies from those situations. The coaches are searching for answers.
But what are the questions?
It could be as simple as, "How often do we run the ball to the tight end side when we line up under center?" It could also be as specific as "How often do we run A-gap man blitzes on third down in the red zone against 11 personnel?" If the coaches start to see areas where they are becoming predictable, they take note of it and find ways to break tendencies. They find areas that they need to improve, whether it be on third down, in the red zone or in the two-minute drill, and then come up with different solutions to the problems. Some of the players may be involved in these discussions, but this week is just as much about them getting their bodies right for the second half of the year and unplugging for a bit.
After a couple of weeks when the offense was able to get things rolling against New Orleans and against New York, the "execution" issues came up again against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night. Earlier in the season, I detailed how it wasn't just one specific theme. On one play, it would be a drop. On another play, it would be a missed assignment in the run game or in the protection. On the next play, it could be an erratic throw. Whatever the case may be, too many plays that weren't successful could be pointed to a lack of execution. That was again the case on Sunday. How do things like this get fixed? That's a tough question to answer, but when the team returns to the NovaCare Complex next week, the focus will be on improving in those situations and preparing for the final nine games of the regular season.
Let's look back at Sunday's loss at Carolina, and focus on the offense. After reviewing the tape, I thought there were some interesting takeaways from the game. I thought that, final drive notwithstanding, Matt Tobin performed admirably at left tackle for an injured Jason Peters both in the run game and in the pass game. You obviously had to like what you saw out of Ryan Mathews once again, as he continues to be an effective runner both inside and outside for this team. Staying in the run game, I found it interesting that they went back to a scheme that we haven't seen too much this year, a version of the inside zone run that we've seen in previous seasons under Chip Kelly, the split zone run.
Last week I showed you how the return of the inside zone helped get DeMarco Murray back on track by getting him downhill quicker out of the shotgun. This week, they add the element of "split flow," with a tight end coming across the formation to block the backside defender. This block helps to create a seal on the back side of the play, giving the running back a clear alley if he doesn't carry the play to the front side.
On this play against Carolina, Zach Ertz comes across the formation to block defensive end Jared Allen. Murray runs right off his hip and takes this third-and-1 carry for 11 yards and a first down. Murray wasn't the only one to have success with the scheme, as Mathews was able to belt off some of his biggest runs in the concept as well.
Against a slightly different look defensively, the Eagles run split zone once again, with Trey Burton coming across the formation to take the backside defender from left to right. With things blocked up differently, Mathews carries this play front side, gets the corner and gains 22 yards and a first down.
It wasn't just the inside zone that earned Mathews some yards on the ground, as the outside zone was effective with him as well. It was the play call on his long touchdown run.
Mathews starts on his outside track to the right, but look at his eyes. When he sees linebacker Luke Kuechly overpursue, he sticks his foot in the ground and gets downhill quickly, taking advantage of a poor angle from safety Kurt Coleman and sprinting for a career-long 63-yard touchdown.
There was a lot to like from the run game on Sunday, and while the pass game certainly wasn't perfect, there were its share of bright spots. I thought Sam Bradford continually looked more comfortable in the pocket for most of the game, and his ability to maneuver with bodies around him at times allowed him to deliver a few really clutch passes, especially on third down.
Not only did Bradford move well within the confines of the pocket at times, but he also was able to move defenders with his eyes. This worked the coverage in his favor to create wide throwing lanes, including this play early in the game.
It's third-and-2 and the Eagles come out in an empty set. Bradford drops back and looks immediately to his left in the direction of Ertz in the slot. Kuechly naturally slides in that direction, creating a ton of space in between the hashes. Bradford knows this and immediately resets his feet toward the middle of the field and puts a pass on Miles Austin for a 22-yard gain and a first down. Bradford's patience and his awareness of second-level defenders lead to this completion, and it was a big play for the Eagles' offense.
That was an example of Bradford's patience, but his decisiveness and ability to process quickly showed up as well on Sunday night.
It's second-and-9. The Eagles are running a Flat-7 concept to the right with double post (or "Topper") to the left, with Mathews out of the backfield in the flat. You can watch Bradford's eyes on this play. Notice how quickly he gets through the progression and gets the ball out of his hands. Greg Cosell from NFL Films has always told me that the best quarterbacks are able to "eliminate" quickly, meaning that it's not always about a passer's ability to decide who to throw the ball to, but rather who NOT throw the ball to.
On this play, look at how quickly Bradford eliminates the progressions in the read. He sees cornerback Josh Norman take away the corner route from the tight end. He moves to his first vertical route over the middle being taken away by the defense, and then sees a safety over the top of the outside vertical route. He gets to his final read in the progression, Mathews in the flat.
Bradford also displayed good pocket movement at different points in the game, showing the ability to sidestep pressure to find a throwing lane and step up in the pocket when faced with a rush off the edge.
It's third-and-6 and the Panthers bring linebacker Thomas Davis on a blitz through the B gap. Bradford hits the top of his drop, steps up and to the left, and hits Ertz on the dig route as a part of this "Levels" concept, resulting in a 10-yard completion and a first down.
This Eagles offense is one that excels at creating favorable one-on-one matchups in the passing game, and we've seen it week in and week out since Chip Kelly's arrival in 2013. Ertz has always been one of the benefactors of that.
On this wheel route against Davis, Ertz climbs the ladder and comes down with a 24-yard completion and a big play down the sideline, easily the best grab of any Eagles pass catcher on the night. If the Eagles' receivers can come away with even half of the potential catches left on the table (whether they're contested, like this one, or not), this offense will be more sustainable in the second half of the year. It just comes down to execution.
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.