Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3
Two camps exist within the Philadelphia Eagles fanbase right now.
The first camp believes that this team is too inconsistent to do anything of worth this year. They will point to the fact that the Eagles gained only 91 yards in the first three quarters of the game outside of their two touchdown drives. They will also point to the inconsistent quarterback, the dearth of talent at wide receiver, and the defense’s frustrating habit of giving up third and long plays.
The other camp looks at the Eagles as a team that has improved incrementally as the year has progressed and has put themselves in position to be the favorites to win the NFC East. They will point to Sam Bradford’s improvement running the offense, a run game which has quietly become dominant over the last four weeks, and the breakout game of Jordan Matthews.
Truth be told, I cannot decide which camp I fall in because I cannot ignore the valid points of both sides. The Eagles offense has been maddeningly inconsistent at times, but looks unstoppable at others. Perhaps that is why this team is 4-4?
So this is my hot take conclusion of where the team currently stands:
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s try to figure out where this team stands after the win over the Dallas Cowboys.
After I watch a game live I have little idea of what I want to write about. But then I watch the game tape and look at the numbers and I have 18 different topics I want to cover at once. The struggle is real.
But I cannot address all of the issues with this team, there just isn’t enough time. So I have limited my focus on some big ticket items: the emergence of the run game, the improvement of Sam Bradford, and an easy fix that can be made to help alleviate some of the inconsistencies on offense.
But rather than making you read through a 3,500 word short story, I broke this article up into three articles that can still be read in long form if you so choose:
- Part 1: The Run Game
- Part 2: The Passing Game
- Part 3: How Predictable Play Calling is Contributing to the Inconsistency on Offense, and a Preview of the Eagles Remaining Schedule
Let’s get right to it.
The Run Game
You may not have noticed, but the Eagles have found themselves a running game over the last four weeks. It has largely gone unnoticed because many — including yours truly — have been fixating on whether Ryan Mathews should start over DeMarco Murray. And while I think that is a valid debate worth having, it should not overshadow how effective the Eagles running game has been over the last four weeks.
Here is a chart showing the difference in the Eagles run game in the first four games of the season compared to the last four:
It should come as a surprise to no one that the Eagles were 1-3 in the first four games when they failed to get any semblance of a run game going. (And of course, the one game in which they won during that span — against the Jets — was in large part thanks to Ryan Mathews kick-starting their run game with an impressive performance.)
It should also not be a surprise that the Eagles have gone 3-1 over the last four games when the Eagles averaged 173.25 yards and 1.5 touchdowns per game on the ground. As Chip Kelly has often said, this is a run first offense. And the numbers support that: whenever the Eagles run the ball more than pass, they are 12-2 under Kelly. But when they pass more than run? The Eagles are 11-15.
Now the Dallas game is a bit of a misnomer in that regard, because the Eagles actually passed more (36) than ran the ball (35). So we shouldn’t get caught up fighting over the margins; the main conclusion that we can reach is that the Eagles are a much better football team when they take a balanced approach.
So why did it take Kelly the first four weeks of the season to start running the ball more? There is a bit of a chicken and egg situation here. Kelly clearly called less run plays to start the season than he has over the course of the last four weeks. And an argument can — and should — be made that Kelly was too quick to abandon the run at times.
But in Kelly’s defense, watching the Eagles offense line over the first four weeks was like watching a car accident in slow motion. The Eagles routinely blew assignments leading to running backs getting tackled give yards behind the line of scrimmage. The failure to gain any yards on first or second down put the Eagles in third and long situations, which in turn led to an alarming number of drives that ended with a three and out. It was a self-perpetuating problem that hampered this offense’s effectiveness.
Over the last four weeks, however, we have seen the offensive line improve dramatically. One of the reasons is continuity. To start the season, the Eagles rolled out an offensive line that was, for all intents and purposes, brand new: Jason Peters never played next to Allen Barbre, who never played next to Jason Kelce, who never played next to Andrew Gardner, who never played next to Lane Johnson. For a unit that relies so heavily on communication and knowing what the person next to you is doing, the lack of familiarity proved fatal. But with eight games under their belt, the offensive line is clearly more comfortable playing with each other.
Another reason that has largely gone unnoticed is the emergence of Matt Tobin, the player who many thought would take over for Todd Herremans to start the season. If you recall, Andrew Gardner was lost for the year during the Jets game. Since Tobin has been inserted into the starting lineup, the Eagles have gone from averaging 2.71 yards per carry (against the Falcons, Cowboys and Jets) to 5.06 yards per carry (over the remaining games). This is not entirely entirely the result of inserting Tobin into the starting lineup. But we cannot ignore the impact his presence has had along the offensive line, either.
The continuity on the offensive line, and the increased frequency with which Kelly is relying on the run game, helped the Eagles impose their will on the Cowboys’ defense. Indeed, if you were to give Chip Kelly the ability to construct the “perfect drive”, he would be hard pressed to find one better than the first touchdown drive against the Cowboys. That drive captures everything the Eagles want to do philosophically on offense: run often, run fast, and pound the opposing defense into submission.
The Eagles started the drive off with the following plays:
- Murray run for 9 yards;
- Murray run for 3 yards;
- Bradford pass to Murray for 8 yards;
- Murray run for 6 yards;
- Murray run for 3 yards;
Each Murray run was on an inside zone up the middle. With the defense getting gassed and looking to stop the run inside, Kelly unleashed the fresh legs of Ryan Mathews, who beat tired Cowboys’ defenders to the edge for a gain of 21 yards:
The body blows kept coming. Kelly went back to Mathews for a run up the middle and gain of 3 yards, quickly followed by a play-action pass to Jordan Matthews for a gain of 9 yards. This was the Eagles’ fourth first down on the drive, and the Cowboys defenders were spending more time gasping for air than preparing for the next play.
Sensing weakness, Kelly quickly went with a sweep to the outside, letting Mathews use his speed and explosiveness to gash the defense for another 12 yard gain.
To say the Cowboys defense was gassed would be an understatement. The Cowboys were forced to burn a timeout just to get in some fresh legs in the game. But the damage was already done:
Four plays later, the Eagles scored on a DeMarco Murray 1-yard touchdown run. It was an imposing 13 play, 71 yard drive that featured 9 runs to just 4 passes. The drive last four minutes, 12 seconds, which means the Eagles ran a play every 19.38 seconds.
This is the Eagles identity: running roughshod over the defense until it becomes so gassed it either gives up a big play, is forced to burn a timeout, or both. And if they are going to continue their success this year, it will be on the back of DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles.
You can go to part two, which analyzes the passing game, by clicking here. Or, you can skip ahead to part three, which discusses how play calling predictability is contributing to the inconsistent offense, by clicking here.