Film review: This time, the other team had the better plan
The Minnesota Vikings had more answers to what the Eagles were doing than almost any opponent this season.
If the Detroit Lions set themselves up as the perfect foil for the Chip Kelly offense, the Minnesota Vikings showed us what can happen when an opposing defense arrives with a much better plan:
That's the look the Vikings gave the Eagles the entire day: One safety deep, three defensive backs in man coverage (usually), and one safety dropped into the box to provide extra run support.
In theory, Chip Kelly's run game can still function against this setup, because the quarterback can "block" one of the defenders by reading him on the handoff. This only works, however, if the defense treats the quarterback as a legitimate threat to run, which the Vikings did not:
The seven Minnesota defenders completely ignore Nick Foles' bootleg action in favor of crashing hard on LeSean McCoy. With only six blockers, that leaves a free defender and no chance for a miraculous Shady escape on this one.
The extent to which the Vikings were willing to let Foles carry the ball shows up well on this next play:
This was an ordinary, vanilla pass play. Foles, feeling some pressure and not seeing anyone open, scrambled to his left. Against any other quarterback in any other offense, that linebacker in the flat would come off of LeSean McCoy to tackle Foles, especially once the quarterback gets further downfield than his receiver. But watch how focused he is on possible option trickery:
On this one, Foles picked up a nice seven-yard gain. The problem is that a couple of nice gains like that aren't really enough to move a disciplined team off its plan.
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Minnesota also attacked the wide receiver screen game. This is a version of the inside zone / bubble screen packaged play we've seen a lot this season:
Early in the year, these plays were busting for big gains, because opponents were still playing them like, well, the Eagles do:
The Vikings refused to give the Eagles that kind of space outside, much like we saw from the Lions last week:
That anonymous defensive back is attacking the line of scrimmage even as three receivers race past him. He'll peel off and drop into a short zone as the play continues.
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There's an obvious response to all this action at the line and in the box, which is to throw the ball down the field. In theory, that works every time. In actual practice, there are some complications.
First, the offensive line needs to hold up long enough to let receivers get open and for the quarterback to make good throws. Because when Foles has time, he drops in throws like these:
But that same level of precision is harder to achieve when he's getting crunched:
The second issue is that if you decide to put the whole game on your quarterback and the defense is as terrible as it was last Sunday, he needs to be perfect. That's a lot to ask of a young quarterback who has played well all year, but went through some stretches on Sunday where he seemed to make up his mind before the snap about what he was going to do and then couldn't come off that initial read when it wasn't open:
That's Ertz streaking into the end zone on the right while Foles is radar-locked to his left.
The final issue is that the Eagles' could use more depth at wide receiver. We can cherry pick a frame or two to show times when Foles missed a few open guys, but that's not representative of the day. In the future, running "four verticals" against man-free coverage will scare opponents a lot more when it's four fast guys, not DeSean and the 4.7s.
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There was one positive element of the offense I did want to pull out. For much of the year, the Eagles have struggled with running the outside zone. The inside zone has worked very well, but the outside version has yielded lots of negative yardage as the running backs stretch things endlessly to the sideline.
The Eagles seemed to have a different mentality with the outside zone this week:
Rather than stringing things out and letting the running backs pick a crease, this is more "kick out and cut inside."
It doesn't show up well in these static shots, but center Jason Kelce (#62) is making a fantastic block on this play. He went a long way to – legally – take out that linebacker.
Here's another good look at this play:
The defensive alignment was different so this time there are two linemen pulling. Todd Herremans comes around for the kick out and Kelce leads Shady through the hole. Kelce enjoyed finishing the block on this one as well:
This was actually the same play the Eagles ran on the third down that preceded the fourth-and-short attempt:
The problem on this one is that the redoubtable Kevin Williams (#93) shoots past Lane Johnson and knocks Kelce off his path. He recovers, but not in time to lead Shady through the hole. McCoy sees lots of purple in that gap and bounces it outside where, yes, his elbow was down short of the line:
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One week after the meltdown against Detroit, Chip Kelly was not about to let his special teams cost him again. Rather than kick the ball deep to the dangerous returner Cordarrelle Patterson, Kelly asked Henery to keep it short.
A couple points on how this worked:
This was Minnesota's return setup on the first kick of the day. It's a little hard to see, so I've red-dotted the players behind the initial wall. Patterson is in the back of the end zone with two sets of blockers on the five and 20 yard lines.
As Minnesota realized what the Eagles' plan was going to be, those players kept moving forward until they were practically daring Alex Henery to try to kick it over their heads:
The other issue was that Henery tried two different kinds of kicks. The "howitzer" model that went short but high gave the coverage team enough time to get down the field before the ball was caught:
The poorly executed, rolling "squib" kicks did not:
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Two weeks ago, I began the review of the Cardinals game by writing: "When a team's offense is playing well, the coaches look like geniuses … When a defense is playing well, it mostly just looks like the guys on the field are making plays."
Turns out there's a corollary to that observation. When a defense isn't playing well, it looks like all the guys on the field stink.
There were, to be sure, plenty of bad individual performances. The mistakes of Patrick Chung, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher have been pointed out everywhere, but Nate Allen shouldn't get off easily either:
The whole point of playing man-to-man with a safety over the top is so he can help out on things like a mismatched safety lined up on a slot receiver.
Or on this one, where he's in trail position on a receiver, but then floats outside to cover no one while the receiver breaks across the middle:
Of perhaps greater concern, however, is the extent to which the Minnesota offensive coaches appeared to be ready for all of defensive coordinator Bill Davis' "surprises":
This will be one of those OLB blitzes off a slot that never seem to get there in time. Not only do the Vikings have an H-back ready for Brandon Graham, but running back Matt Asiata (#44) also knows what's coming even before the snap:
With that long run from the slot, Graham is so slow into the backfield that Kendricks is slipping past Asiata before he's even in the frame.
Here's another one where the Vikings were ahead of us:
Minnesota is so sure Mychal Kendricks is blitzing through the A-Gap that they stick tight end Rhett Ellison in the hole to meet him. Kendricks still comes and gets stuffed. Might be time for a few new looks.