It’s always easy to tell if an offensive line coach is one of the best in the business, as the club will also give him the title of run game coordinator. That’s what the Eagles did with Jeff Stoutland in 2018. Stoutland is arguably the greatest assistant coach in team history and has a 38-year track record of getting superb performances out of his offensive lines.
It might not seem like that was the case in 2020, as the Eagles had their share of offensive struggles, but from a run-blocking perspective, his group was superb. The Eagles led the league in my good blocking rate (GBR) metric that gauges how often an offensive blocking wall gives its backs quality run blocking — roughly defined as when the offense doesn’t allow the defense to disrupt a rushing attempt. Good blocking rates are incredibly important because studies I’ve done over the years have shown that good blocking rushing plays are anywhere from three to four times (and occasionally five times) as productive as bad blocking plays.
What made this performance even more impressive is that the Eagles did this despite having an NFL-record 14 starting offensive line combinations last season.
So, how does this portend for the Eagles’ 2021 running game? Do they have the makings of another topflight blocking wall? If so, is that enough to give Nick Sirianni the type of ground attack that he will need to balance out his offense in his first season a head coach?
Let’s break this down by positional groups, starting with the blockers.
Center Jason Kelce made the Pro Bowl last year, the fifth straight time he has garnered either Pro Bowl or All-Pro honors, yet the reality is Kelce was one of the most inconsistent run blockers on the Philadelphia offensive line. According to my game tape breakdowns, Kelce was defeated at the point of attack on rushing plays more often than any other Eagles blocker.
That may sound like a knock on his talents, but the most likely reason Kelce had this inconsistency is because he was being asked to cover so much extra ground given the rotating lineup around him. If the Eagles have anything close to a standard season injury-wise in the offensive wall, the odds are very good that Kelce’s performance will be much more consistent, and he will thus end up with another Pro Bowl nomination.
No one will be happier about that than Isaac Seumalo, the weak link in this run blocking group. Seumalo has long been the Eagles’ most unreliable offensive lineman, as he often struggles with powerful two-gap defensive linemen, so getting Kelce’s assistance on a more regular basis could reduce the negative impact of Seumalo’s up-and-down blocking.
It will be interesting to see how Dallas Goedert is utilized. He saw a career high in targets per game and receptions per game last year, but that extra receiving workload may have hurt Goedert’s formerly elite blocking, as he was defeated at the point of attack more frequently than in previous seasons.
With Zach Ertz surprisingly returning to the club and possibly playing a larger role than initially anticipated (Sirianni has indicated he is willing to use more two-tight end sets in his system than usual since Goedert and Ertz are both on the roster), Goedert may be asked to concentrate more on his run-blocking skills. If that is the case and it leads to an improvement, it’s another positive sign for this platoon.
The rushing game isn’t just about blocking consistency, as there can be wide variances in how effective backs are at taking full advantage of quality run blocking.
That isn’t a problem for Miles Sanders. Last year he posted a 9.7-yard mark in my good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric that measures how productive a ballcarrier is when given good run blocking. That total placed 11th among all qualifying backs (100-plus rushing attempts to qualify) and sixth among backs with 50 or more carries that fell into the good blocking category.
Boston Scott didn’t tally enough rushing attempts to land on the qualifiers list, but his 9.1 GBYPA was only a small step down from Sanders and more than a half-yard better than the 8.5 leaguewide average in GBYPA.
Scott was also impressive to the scouting eye, as he was one of the best running backs in the NFL at reading defensive fronts on the move. Most ballcarriers will have a slight amount of hesitation if the defensive front shifts during the run in such a way as to open an abnormal cutback gap, but Scott was able to adjust to those shifts almost instantaneously. This isn’t to say that Scott is on track to be at their level, but the only backs who were equally impressive in this skill were Derrick Henry and James Robinson, who ranked first and sixth, respectively, in rushing yards last season.
Leaning on Scott for the alternate ground gains behind Sanders would also keep the door open for Kenneth Gainwell to concentrate more on becoming a quality third-down back, a role that probably would best suit Gainwell’s talent set.
The Eagles have potentially one of the best rushing quarterbacks in the league in Jalen Hurts. Last year, Hurts racked up an 8.7 GBYPA on planned rushing plays and tallied 6.8 yards every time he scrambled out of a pass attempt, with three of the scrambles resulting in rushing touchdowns.
Having noted Hurts’ superb rushing ability, the Eagles relied on it far too heavily last year, as his 11.5 rushes per game in his four starts would have prorated out to 184 rushing attempts over a 16-game stretch. For reference, Lamar Jackson led all quarterbacks with 159 rushing attempts last season. There is next to zero chance that Sirianni goes with a quarterback-centric ground game approach with this offense, so look for Hurts’ impact rushing ability to be used much less frequently in 2021.
The Eagles have a hit-or-miss schedule run defense-wise in 2021, as they have a 42 score in my rush defense schedule points that measure rush defense schedule strength on a 1-100 scale (100 being the most favorable).
They start the season with two very tough rush defense matchups in Atlanta and San Francisco and face a brutal Tampa Bay rush defense on a Thursday night in Week 6, but the Eagles also have three highly favorable rush defense matchups from Weeks 3-8 in battles against Dallas, Las Vegas, and Detroit. Add it up and this may be a situation where Sirianni will need to move between rush-heavy and pass-heavy based on matchup.
The Doug Pederson Eagles never relied on the rushing game as much as they could have and should have, as Pederson seemed to insist on leaning on the aerial game even when situations indicated he ought to go with a more ground-heavy attack.
Sirianni’s preference is to use a lot of three-wide receiver sets on offense and thus rely very much on an aerial approach, but the analysis above indicates that this offense should provide Sirianni with similar opportunities to dominate games via rushes. If he is wise enough to take advantage of those favorable prospects, it could be just what the Eagles need to get back into contention in the NFC East.