EARLY THIS season, Chip Kelly's Eagles offense stretched defenses to the breaking point, leaving gaping holes inside for LeSean McCoy to exploit. Now, as the Eagles prepare to travel to Oakland to face a defense ranked sixth in the NFL against the rush, they're finding those holes have largely been filled in and booby-trapped.
Yet Kelly's offense still is based on being able to run; McCoy still leads the NFL not only in rushing, with 733 yards, but in attempts, with 156. Somehow, the team that managed only 48 yards on 19 rushes Sunday in losing to the Giants - after talking all week about countering New York's run-stopping ability - will have to figure out how to function when opponents clog the box. This is not the first time we've written about this dilemma, but like the Eagles' quarterback conundrum, it remains a huge variable affecting success.
Shouldn't a team with a strong offensive line and a premier back be able to say, "OK, here it comes, now we're going to take 4 yards here, and you're not going to stop us"?
"It comes down to each guy winning their one-on-one battle and the back making the right read," left guard Evan Mathis said this week. "If one of those things doesn't go the right way, it can break down the entire play . . . We should always be able to get 2, 3, 4 yards on a run. An offensive line is supposed to be able to take pride in being able to move the front and get those yards."
Mathis emphasized that there is no blanket explanation, no one reason the Eagles have struggled. The upshot seems to be, everybody, from the playcallers to the line to the backs, needs to be a little sharper. Consistent quarterbacking would give the Eagles an air attack that might force the linebackers and safeties out of the run gaps. Things were easier for McCoy when defenses also had to worry about Michael Vick, who has gained 308 yards on 34 carries this season, 9.1 yards per carry.
"It's not scheme, it's not personnel, it's execution," Mathis said. "Every play is different. You get different looks, different scenarios, different situations."
"We've gotta get more movement, open the holes up a little more, and the backs gotta be more patient and follow us. It's not one or the other," right guard Todd Herremans said yesterday. "If [the back is] looking at it and it's looking a little clogged up, it's a little harder to trust that the hole's gonna be there. That could cause him to bounce it, try to cut back, or whatever. We're working on it."
Center Jason Kelce said: "We're certainly disappointed that we haven't been able to run the ball" effectively lately. "I think it's close. I think there's a few things that we do well each game . . . This last game, I think a lot of the problems would have been solved if the back and the offensive line were on the same page more often. I think sometimes there was stuff there. Obviously, there was sometimes we just didn't get movement, or there was a missed block, but I think we kind of need to get back on track of being on the same page with the back."
McCoy said what he's seeing when he gets the ball now is very different from what he grew accustomed to seeing when he was dipping and darting 184 yards on 31 carries in Week 1, or 158 yards on 20 carries in Week 3.
"The 'backers are way more into the line of scrimmage than usual," McCoy said. "Everything seems so cluttered, seems so packed."
Kelly spoke after the Giants game of McCoy trying too hard to hit the home run, instead of taking what's there, though more often than not, very little seemed to be there against the Giants.
"We were trying to do a lot of different things in that [Giants] game in the run game, because of how much they game-planned us the first game," Kelce said. "Trying to do some different things with the back to try and not give away some stuff. In turn, it got us off page a little bit. We weren't as cohesive as we have been."
Of course, those two huge early games skew the stats, but in the 18 quarters that ended with Vick's original hamstring injury at the Giants, McCoy was averaging 5.7 yards per carry, with 26 first downs and 13 runs for double-digit yardage. In the 14 quarters since then, he is averaging 3.4 yards per carry, with 10 rushing first downs and four double-digit runs. Of his last 65 attempts, 32 have gained 2 yards or less.
This isn't a great week to try to get untracked, though Nick Foles certainly could use a solid run game as he tries to take back the quarterbacking reins.
"They're really athletic," Kelly said yesterday, when asked about the Raiders' ability to defend the run. "It starts with the d-line. They've got a bunch of guys that are stout, but they also run really well, starting with [6-3, 300-pound defensive end] Lamarr Houston. Nick Roach is playing really well, middle linebacker for them, can move around really well, and I think when you've got someone like [37-year-old safety] Charles Woodson on the back end that gets everybody lined up the right way - even though he's been in the league 16 years, he's playing at a really high level.
"I think it starts with their athleticism. That's the first thing you see on tape, is that they run really well. A lot of times, long runs don't happen when everybody runs to the ball, and that's what I think the Raiders are doing right now."
"They all rally to the ball very well . . . I don't see too many big names, where you go, like, 'Wow!' other than Houston, he's pretty good, and Woodson. Other than that, they just play well together."
On Twitter: @LesBowen