Inside the Huddle Part 2: The Passing Game Showing Improvement

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

This is a three-part series analyzing where the Eagles stand after the game against the Dallas Cowboys. This is part two. You can read all three by clicking the following links below:

The Passing Game

My reservations about Sam Bradford are well-documented, but I have also said that he deserves until after the bye-week before we pass judgment on his game. Not to beat a dead horse, but Bradford missed the last two-years recovering from multiple acl tears. He was then forced to learn a new offense and develop chemistry with his new teammates this past offseason. But he was prevented from doing either of those things because he spent most of his time in March through August rehabbing his knee. So the inconsistent play was to be expected.

Chip Kelly was steadfast earlier in the year that chemistry or a lack of understanding of the offense was not hurting Bradford. But this past week, Kelly finally relented some in his press conference. The quote is courtesy of Jimmy Kempski at Phillyvoice.com:

“I think everything in Sam’s game has gotten better,” said Kelly. “As I’ve said before, I’ve seen Sam improve on a weekly basis here. We’re in Game Eight. He’s better in Game Eight than he was in Game One. I think he’s more comfortable in terms of what we’re doing.”

“In terms of where we are as an offense with a lot of these guys, it’s kind of like there was a movie being shown and (Bradford) showed up halfway through it,” said Kelly. “And then he’s supposed to figure out what’s going on and what happened in the first half of the movie because he hasn’t been with us for the amount of time that Celek has been here and some of the other guys, like Kelce, have been here. It’s something you have to get through reps; it’s not something that can be forced.”

And while Bradford got off to a slow start yet again this past Sunday, he played arguably his best half of football in the second half. And this came on the heels of an equally impressive performance turned in against the Carolina Panthers.

Bradford’s numbers over the last two games aren’t anything to write home about: 51/82, 62.2%, 500 yards, 1 td, 1 int, and an 81.05 quarterback rating. But if we go beyond the numbers and look at the tape, some encouraging signs are starting to emerge.

One of the biggest issues Bradford had earlier in the season was not getting through his progressions. Bradford would predetermine where he wanted to go with the ball, which would cause him to often miss open receivers in the process.

Over the last two weeks, however, Bradford has been doing a better job working through his progressions. One such example occurred on this perfectly delivered ball to DeMarco Murray on a swing pass, a route that Bradford has shown an affinity towards throughout the year:

Bradford starts by looking to the far side of the field, where he has three receivers lined up in a trips formation. Watch how quickly he diagnoses that the receivers are covered. By the time he gets to the top of his drop, he is able to pivot and deliver an accurate strike to Murray down the sideline.

Here is a better angle where you can see Bradford work through his progressions and fluidity with which Bradford pivots to Murray:

Another thing we are seeing from Bradford is his ability to manipulate a defense with his eyes. We started to see glimpses of this against the Carolina Panthers, where Bradford was able to manipulate All Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly with his eyes to open up the passing lane for Miles Austin:

That is not something we saw from Bradford through the first six weeks of the year.

It carried over and became even more frequent against the Cowboys.

Early in the game, the Eagles were faced with a third and long deep inside their own territory. Watch Bradford’s head before he throws the ball to Miles Austin for a first down:

Now look at what that action did to the single high safety, who follows Bradford’s eyes to the other side of the field which opens up things for Austin:

When I see things like this happening on a more frequent basis, it tells me that Bradford is starting to get a better understanding of the offense. He is growing more confident in what each play on offense calls for, and is starting to recognize how certain route concepts within this offense work against specific defenses. This is, without question, an encouraging sign.

The last thing I am seeing from Bradford is an increase in the frequency with which he is delivering accurate passes. In the preseason, players and coaches raved about Bradford’s ability to put the ball in the exact location that it needed to be, which gave receivers the opportunity to make plays after the catch. That accuracy was on full display against the Green Bay Packers in a performance that got most Eagles fans dreaming of playing in Phoenix in February.

But as I covered before, Bradford struggled to replicate that accuracy when he was under pressure in real game situations, an issue that has plagued Bradford throughout his career.

Over these last two games, however, Bradford has shown significant strides in his ability to deliver the ball accurately under pressure.

In the fourth quarter, Bradford threw, at least in my opinion, one of his most accurate passes of the year, a 20+ yard strike to Zach Ertz who was streaking along the sideline in single coverage:

If you look at the tail end of that play, you will see that Bradford is not operating with a clean pocket. David Irving (#95) is pushing Matt Tobin back and able to get in Bradford’s face. Yet, Bradford was able to deliver a strike to Ertz, who was blanketed by a defender:

Now, I wouldn’t start planning parades down Broad Street or clamoring for Kelly to resign Bradford to a contract extension just yet. Bradford struggled yet again in the first half, completing only 10 of 18 passes for 74 yards and zero touchdowns, before rebounding in the second half completing 15 of 18 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown.

This continues a troubling trend from the quarterback, who has completed 55.3 percent of his passes for 821 yards, three touchdowns, five interceptions for a 62.9 quarterback rating in the first half, compared to completing 68.7 percent of his passes for 1,240 yards, seven touchdowns, five interceptions and a 95.4 rating in the second half.

If the Eagles are going to have any chance of competing for the NFC East and making a run in the playoffs, Bradford will need to play more consistently. But we are starting to see signs of incremental improvement; which is encouraging to say the least.

We cannot cover the passing game without also spending some time giving love to Jordan Matthews for his performance Sunday. The stat line was sensational: 9 catches, 133 yards, 1 touchdown and ZERO drops.

We read all during the bye week that Matthews was hard at work at his alma matter, Vanderbilt University, trying to correct the issues that plagued him. But my favorite anecdote from this past week came after Matthews dropped a pass during a Thursday practice. Courtesy of Mark Eckel of NJ.com:

“You can’t say enough about the way Jordan worked this week in practice,” quarterback Sam Bradford said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone work as hard as he did.

“It was Thursday and he dropped a pass in a red zone drill. He stayed out there and took every snap to make up for it. He never came off the field. When he wasn’t running with the ones; he was on the scout team. I’ve never seen a starting receiver do that before. He just wanted to work at it. He’s relentless.”

It is this type of effort that makes Matthews so easy to root for. He is humble, hard working, and a team first guy. In other words, he embodies exactly the type of player that Chip Kelly wants on this roster. So it was great to see him break out of his slump.

Chip Kelly deserves credit for helping Matthews with some crafty play calling. During the game, the Eagles kept hitting Matthews over the middle with crossing routes. It is a staple of Kelly’s offense and allows Bradford to hit Matthews in stride for easy YAC opportunities.

But Kelly noticed that the Cowboys were jumping the route, so he called the perfectly timed inside-out double move, which played off the Cowboys’ over-aggressiveness:

While the lack of drops and big numbers were impressive, so to was Matthews route running. Here is a better angle, watch how he is able to turn the defender around with ease:

Does this play look familiar? It should, because it was the same play that the Eagles ran in overtime to win the game. Here you can see Matthews running the same route (albeit from very high above):

Here is somewhat of a better angle from the All-22:

The Eagles have to be encouraged by Matthews breakout game, but he cannot do it alone. Zach Ertz has been effective when thrown to, but needs to see more targets (he received only 6 against Dallas).

And Nelson Agholor, who has been hampered by a high ankle sprain, needs to validate his high draft position. The Eagles cannot continue to roll out Miles Austin in the starting lineup. Getting Agholor up to speed will give the Eagles a viable outside threat so the team can spread the field vertically.

And of course, the Eagles need to feed Darren Sproles more. Over the last four games, he has averaged only six (!) touches per game. That is a ridiculous mismanagement of talent by the Eagles coaching staff. There is no reason that Sproles cannot get 10-15 touches a game. He is an obvious mismatch for opposing defenses, and the Eagles are limiting their offense by keeping him on the sidelines.

With all that said, there are signs of improvement. With Bradford gaining confidence, Matthews (hopefully) putting the drop issue behind him, and Agholor finally healthy, perhaps the Eagles can start to get more consistent production from their passing attack.

Note: This is a three-part series analyzing the Eagles. You can continue reading by going to part three here. Or, you can go back to part one, where I analyze the run game, by clicking here.

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3 thoughts on “Inside the Huddle Part 2: The Passing Game Showing Improvement

  1. Pingback: Inside the Huddle Part 1: Run Baby Run | Eagles Rewind

  2. Pingback: Inside the Huddle Part 3: How Predictable Play Calling is Contributing to the Inconsistency on Offense | Eagles Rewind

  3. Pingback: On Doug Pederson, The Front Office and The Quarterback, Part 3 | Eagles Rewind

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