The Power of the Chip Kelly Offense
Chip Kelly did it. On the league’s biggest weekly stage, against the archnemesis division champions, on the road, Chip Kelly’s Eagles whipped Washington. That 33-27 final score masks a dominant performance in which Philadelphia had a win probability of 87 percent or higher from the moment it made it 19-7 onward. Washington came back because the Philadelphia defense played conservative zone coverage for most of the second half and the offense dumbed things down. It seems pretty likely that the Eagles didn’t want to put anything else on film that they could unveil in future weeks while they were up multiple touchdowns.
That’s not to say the offense Kelly ran or the performance the Eagles put together was perfect. In fact, Philadelphia might be even more menacing after fixing a number of notable flaws. Michael Vick played well enough, but he made a number of mistakes that highlighted his limitations as a quarterback and his inexperience in Kelly’s system. Those flaws were masked by the constant focus on how fast the Eagles were going, which wasn’t really the most notable, exciting thing about the Philly offense on Monday night. If you want to talk about what was truly breathtaking and game-changing on Monday, you shouldn’t start with how fast the Eagles snapped the ball. In fact, Kelly said after the game that he genuinely thought the offense went relatively slow. Instead, you should start with how fast the Eagles were after they snapped the football.
The Speed of Flight
The most stunning part of that Philadelphia attack — and the part most correlated with its success throwing the football — is how quickly Vick got the ball out of his hands. That’s not to say that it was a surprise, since Kelly’s longtime credo has been to have his quarterback make his read as quickly as possible and get the ball out before the pass rush can get home or the defense can react to what’s happening. A lot of what I’ll take away from this game as the impact the Philadelphia offense can have on the league appeared on its very first drive, which ended in that bizarre lateral for a Washington touchdown.
As an example, take a look at the first big play of the game, the 28-yard pass up the seam to Brent Celek on the second play from scrimmage. I’ll come back to this GIF a bunch because it’s such an important play in understanding how the Eagles put pressure on Washington, but watch how fast Vick gets the ball out:
I’m not a scout, but my stopwatch has Vick with the ball in his hands there for 1.3 seconds before throwing the pass to Celek. That’s just about as low as you can go as a quarterback while letting a route begin to develop. On the next play, a bubble screen to DeSean Jackson that I’ll get to later, he had the ball out in one second. On his first four passes, Vick needed an average of just 1.7 seconds between receiving the shotgun snap and getting the ball out to his receiver. That’s incredible for any NFL quarterback, and it’s even more staggering for Vick.
Throughout his career, Vick’s biggest issue as a passer has been linked to two of his greatest strengths: his ability to extend plays with his legs and extricate himself from sacks, as well as his howitzer arm strength. You couldn’t possibly ask Vick to avoid employing either of those things, but they created many of Vick’s woes, especially during his most recent season with the Eagles. When Vick scrambles like that and gets outside the pocket, he’s slow to identify windows that are about to become open, and then often rushes a throw into that window that doesn’t get there until the passing lane closes up, resulting in a tipped pass or a straight-up interception. Take this pick against the Ravens last season, when Bernard Pollard undercuts a seemingly open receiver in the end zone. Many of Vick’s interceptions are cut from a similar cloth.
Note how long Vick takes to throw the ball in that clip; it’s several seconds. That was a problem for the Eagles this week, too, especially close to and inside the red zone. When Philadelphia was close to the goal line, it compressed the field vertically and prevented the Eagles from stretching Washington in that direction, which tightened up the throwing lanes. As a result, Vick started holding onto the ball longer and made more mistakes. He forced a late throw to Jackson in the back of the end zone that was deflected and could have been intercepted. He missed on deep throws to open receivers with favorable matchups, including long would-be completions to Zach Ertz and Jason Avant. Those throws saw Vick hold the ball in excess of four seconds, on average. When Vick was forced to improvise, he wasn’t anywhere near as effective. When he was working with a packaged play in the Kelly system and made a quick read immediately after getting the ball in his hands, he was much, much more effective.
The Packaged Plays
For a team that merely needed to read Grantland to find out that the Eagles were probably going to run some packaged plays, Washington sure seemed overwhelmed by the stuff that the Eagles were doing. It was often stuck with personnel moving in the wrong directions or declaring their plans before or right at the snap, making Vick’s decisions easy. Even when they made the right moves, they were occasionally doomed just by the sheer brilliance of Philly’s play design and the athleticism of their weapons.
Take a look at that pass to Celek again.
This isn’t one play. It’s really three or four plays. The Eagles can execute a number of different choices here, depending upon the actions and movements of the Washington defenders.
At the snap, LeSean McCoy runs across Vick to take a possible handoff as part of the read-option. It’s not an unfavorable matchup for the Eagles, since Washington has six players in the box with eight players to account for: the six blockers on the line of scrimmage, McCoy, and Vick. Vick’s reading the actions of London Fletcher (no. 59), the strongside linebacker, who will determine what Vick does with the ball. If Fletcher begins to drop into coverage on Celek’s stick route, he’ll hand the ball off to McCoy, who has an even more favorable matchup with the linebacker (and tight end) fading from the line of scrimmage. Fletcher instead honors the run-action and begins to pursue McCoy, which opens a gigantic throwing lane up the seam.
The nickel cornerback in the slot could try to undercut the pass to Celek, but that would leave Philadelphia’s other play open: the smoke pass to Jackson in the slot, who has the slot cornerback presumably on him and another cornerback on the flanker. If the nickel corner goes for Celek, the Eagles can throw the screen to an uncovered Jackson with one blocker on the one defender in front of him. As it turns out, the slot corner actually run blitzes at the snap to try to get a body in the backfield, which is the worst possible move; it forces the deep safety on that side of the field to sprint toward the two receivers at the snap in fear of that two-on-one screen. That just makes Celek’s little eight-yard stick route even more devastating.
Sometimes, the read is even easier. Take a look at the very next play, a bubble screen to Jackson:
Here, the Eagles line up with trips receivers to the left. After Vick receives the snap, he sees the weakside defensive end — Brian Orakpo — pursue down the line of scrimmage toward McCoy, who is heading behind the blockers on the right side. Vick rightfully holds on to the football and looks left to see that the nickel cornerback is blitzing him from the slot. That leaves the Eagles with a very favorable matchup on the outside: three receivers against two defensive backs. Vick therefore throws the bubble screen to Jackson, who is normally elusive enough to make a defender miss one-on-one. Three-on-two is a breeze. This is about as safe as can be and it goes for 16 yards. Look at all that open space in front of Jackson when he receives the ball; if anything, it’s a surprise it only went for 16. The exhaustion inevitably arising from the Eagles’ tempo and play density only makes defensive players more likely to miss tackles.
Those packaged plays represent the newest form of option football. The Eagles aren’t just running the read-option like Washington did a year ago. They’re running the read-option, plus a bubble screen on the outside, plus a stick route up the seam, and they’re doing it all on the same play. Naysayers and read-option doom-mongerers miss the point; even if there was some simple way to defeat the read-option (and there’s not), all you would accomplish in doing that would be to open up advantageous situations for the receivers on the outside of the field. You can try and try and try to stop everything in these situations, but you’re going to find it awfully difficult to stop three plays at once if you don’t know what’s coming.
Instead, really, the Eagles mostly beat themselves to create stops for Washington early on. There were a number of plays when Vick misread the defense and made the wrong choice with the football, often handing the ball to a running back who was up against a defensive end specifically hoping to see that back with the football. Vick missed on those passes to Ertz and Avant. Ertz dropped a third-down conversion on a play that Kelly challenged. And when Washington was able to get pass pressure, it forced Vick to panic and the Eagles to make mistakes. That bizarre lateral touchdown that opened the scoring came on a play when Vick held on to the ball for too long and threw the ball too late to his safety valve, McCoy, who was covered after slipping out of the backfield. It would normally have just been a minor loss, but Ryan Kerrigan had taken a wide route to Vick and forced debuting right tackle Lane Johnson to stretch his backpedal into McCoy’s flare route, bumping the running back backward and turning what would have been a forward pass into (arguably) a backward one. Of course, very few teams have a pair of pass rushers like Kerrigan and Orakpo, and the Philadelphia tackle combination of Johnson and Jason Peters should get better as the season goes along.
Unbalanced Lines and Bizarre Formations
Of course, that assumes Johnson and Peters will even be lining up at tackle altogether. Both players were tight ends in college, which speaks to their mobility and athleticism at the ends of the line. It also allows the Eagles to try out some interesting unbalanced sets, like this one:
Here, the Eagles have an unbalanced line to the left. There are two players to the right of the center; the nominal right tackle is Ertz, who is probably the first player in recent memory to line up as a split end and a right tackle in the same half. Peters is all the way on the left side as the nominal tight end. The Eagles also have all three receivers on the left side of the line, which is particularly uncommon because they’re also on the left hashmark. This is an uncommon technique in the pros, but it’s one that Kelly happily employed in college. It gives him a wide variety of strategic options; because the defense has to account for the possibility of a mammoth blockade of a screen occurring with Peters and the receivers on the left side, there’s often a chasm of space available for the taking on the right side, which is particularly dangerous when the Eagles have Vick and McCoy available in the backfield. The Philadelphia receivers can also use all that space to run long drag routes across the field that are designed to stretch the defense horizontally and vertically across different levels. Combine that with the unfamiliarity of the tactic for fun.
Does that seem exotic to you? Look at this thing:
Your eyes don’t deceive you. That’s exactly what you think it is. The Eagles have their two guards and a center in the middle of the field, with Vick and McCoy lined up behind them in the shotgun. Then, there are two sets of trips on either side of the field, with each set containing two receivers and one offensive tackle. Yes, that’s a legal formation. And yes, it worked; the Washington defense had no idea what to do and sprinted in every which direction at the snap, but the Eagles ran a simple draw with McCoy; Kerrigan sprinted toward Vick but didn’t get there in time, McCoy ended up matched up one-on-one in the open field with Fletcher, and the result was a 10-yard carry and a first down.
What is that thing? It’s a variation on a formation that’s called a number of different things, most notably the “Emory & Henry” by Steve Spurrier, who saw Emory & Henry College run versions of it as a child in Tennessee and later pulled it out as a trick play formation. You can run a number of different plays out of it that would be intimidating; it makes for easy bubble screens to either side, for one. I like the double pass diagrammed on this page; you can even imagine a situation in which you throw a backward pass to a receiver on one side, use the tackle out there in front of him for pass protection, and then run four verticals (Chris Brown’s favorite play) with the one receiver remaining on that side, the two receivers on the other side, and the halfback going downfield, with a deeper-dropping quarterback as a safety valve.
Destroy the Negatives
Concerns about the offense slowing down during the second half are overblown. As I mentioned, the Eagles ran a much more conservative, straightforward attack during the second half; Vick noted after the game that the offense showed only 60 percent of its hand in Week 1, and the final score makes the game seem a lot closer than it ever actually was. It’s a legitimate concern that the Eagles can’t turn second-half blowouts over to fresh legs at the bottom of an 80-man roster in the same way that Kelly could in college, but if Philadelphia’s worst problem is finding the best way to maintain three-touchdown leads in the second half, it’ll be just fine.
One more play from the second half, though, to show just how discombobulated Washington was by the time the game was up. Early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles ran a read-option play that produced one of the damndest sights you’ll ever see. After Vick had ran the ball for a short gain on the previous play, Orakpo crashed down the line toward the running back on the ensuing play, perhaps assuming that Vick wouldn’t keep the ball on the read-option for two consecutive plays. Watch what happens to the space in front of Vick:
Think about that. For years, defenses have spent their time cooking up game plans that are designed to stop Vick, arguably the greatest rushing quarterback in NFL history, from getting an opportunity to run with the football. Pundits, coaches, and players alike have insinuated all throughout this offseason that merely hitting the quarterback will be enough to bring the read-option to a screeching halt. And here, on this play, the sea parts in front of Vick on a read-option play and Washington basically invites him to run untouched up the field. That’s the power of the Chip Kelly offense. When you try to take away everything, you’re left giving up the one thing you swore you wouldn’t.