With all the talk about the Philadelphia Eagles' fast-break offense under new head coach Chip Kelly, the real effect of that offense will be seen over time as NFL defenses adjust and adapt to concepts they may not have seen. It's great to be able to run plays as quickly as 13 stopwatch seconds apart, as the Eagles did in Thursday's 14-9 win over the Carolina Panthers. But it was how quarterbacks Michael Vick and Nick Foles (and to a degree, third-stringer Matt Barkley) sold play action in many ways that decided Carolina's defense to a large degree. And we're finding out that there's much more to Kelly's playbook than a bunch of guys running around in a wishbone.
The multiplicity of that offense has already been discussed estimably by many, including Grantland's Chris Brown, Mike Tanier of Sports On Earth, and our own Chris Burke, and Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said after the loss that he really could have done without it. For Rivera, it was less about the speed of the Eagles' game, and far more about what they were doing with it.
“I’m not sure if it was as much tiring as much as we probably overplayed the play action and it’s all part of it," Rivera said. "It stymies your pass rush. One of the things that you can’t do is you can’t allow that play-action to [stop] you doing your assignment. We started watching the mesh point a little bit too much, in my opinion. I’ll get an opportunity to see it on tape but I really thought that we were letting it freeze us a little too much and they did some really nice things. This is assignment football when you play a team like this.”
The mesh point, to be specific, is the point in the play where the quarterback either hands off to the running back or decides to keep it himself. Kelly likes to move the mesh point around, which is a common concept among the best play action, read-option and Pistol offenses. Against the Panthers, the Eagles especially benefitted from this idea when running back LeSean McCoy was in the game in the first half, setting up his usual array of ankle-breaking cuts in space. Once the Eagles had the Panthers on a course to look for McCoy above all as a matter of survival, often leaving linebacker Luke Kuechly to spy on the quarterback, the pursuit issues began. However, the great thing about these "option action" ideas is that if everyone's on the same page, you don't have to be superstars to pull it off.
Vick and Foles threw a lot of short passes off of play action, and this was by design -- you take what the defense gives you when you know you can sustain drives, and you're dictating the action at the same time.
"I just think it's good decisions," Kelly said. "They played off [coverage] a little bit. They were playing off of [receiver] DeSean [Jackson], so you have to throw the ball underneath at times. But I think both those guys are not forcing it, and that's a good thing. I think if they can let it come to them, and we tell them all the time, you don't have to make it happen, let it happen. So if they're going to let you throw it down, we've got some guys that can run after the catch. So we can keep, instead of being a one‑play drive for a touchdown, it happens to be an eight‑play drive for a touchdown, as long as we continue to drive the football."
McCoy's one-yard rushing touchdown with 53 seconds left in the first half was another great example of how assignment football can beat ... well, the other thing. Receiver Riley Cooper set up on the left side and ran a fake sweep to the right. That's hardly a new idea in the NFL -- the New Orleans Saints used to own defenses with it when they had Reggie Bush -- but it really caught the Panthers off-guard.
"We just called motion, and we could have read it and handed it off," Kelly said. "[Vick] made a good decision, and handed it off. And he and Cooper carried out their fake on the back side." It's simple, and yet, it's not so simple. Kelly's fake variants differ from those you'll see from the Redskins, or Seahawks, or 49ers, or any other team looking to use artful deception as a mainstay of an offense. And until NFL defenses figure out a way to stop it (as we keep hearing they will, to no avail), prepare to see more -- and different -- versions of the same.