The Foundation: Inside Zone

Posted: July 18th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 17 Comments »

Football season is getting closer. We’ve spent a ton of time this offseason talking about the Eagles players and what they can/can’t do. It is always good to mix in some X’s and O’s and remember just what the Eagles offense is all about.

Sheil Kapadia wrote a great post on the inside zone and what it means to the Eagles offense. It is really amazing how good Sheil has become at taking Kelly’s football concepts and breaking them down into simple terms so that everyone can understand them.

When Kelly made the jump to the NFL last year, the inside zone served as the foundation for an offense that set franchise records in yards and points. So there’s a good reason why Stoutland yells the same number for the same call over and over again during practice. The pre-snap communication has to be mastered. The footwork has to be flawless. The combination blocks have to be executed. And the second-level linebackers have to be driven down the field with authority.

“It’s something we work on every day,” said offensive tackle Lane Johnson. “It’s always gonna be our bread and butter.”

Johnson estimated that 40 to 45 percent of practice time for the offensive linemen is rooted in perfecting principles associated with the inside zone. Kelce doesn’t think that’s an exaggeration.

“I would say yeah, we really spend a lot of time on our double-team blocking with our offensive line coach and trying to make sure that our offensive line is working together,” he said. “That’s not really exclusive to that play in particular. We do that on a lot of different plays. But that play, especially against a four-down defense, there’s a lot of the double teams that come around and everything. It’d be hard to put a number on it. But we definitely spend a lot of time on it.”

Kelly despises labels. Last year he joked that the Eagles ran the “see-coast offense.” If they were to see something they liked that could help them score points, they would run it.

And to a large degree, that was true. It was one of Kelly’s biggest strengths in 2013: figuring out what the defense was trying to do and attacking its weaknesses. Some games that meant running more sweeps. Other weeks, the screen game was prolific. And throughout the entire first season, the Eagles did damage downfield, leading the NFL in pass plays of 20+ yards.

But Kelly also believes in having an identity on offense, in addition to the different tools.

“If you give your players something to hang their hats on, they will perform,” he said during a Nike Coaches Clinic in 2009. “If they can run the offense with any scenario they may face, you will be successful in running the ball. If they have all the answers to the problems the defense may give them, they will be good.”

Given that philosophy, it’s no wonder that his offense spends so much time on the inside zone.

“What’s special about the inside zone is that it can hit anywhere,” Mathis said. “It’s not necessarily designed to hit in any certain gap. If it’s wide open left tackle to right tackle, it can hit there. The blocking for it is more of a downhill, smash-mouth type blocking and getting on your guys quickly.

“We do it a lot so we get pretty good at it. At first, it took awhile. There’s a few of those blocks on the inside zone that took awhile to get comfortable doing. But over the course of the season, the more repetitions we got, the more we saw it on film, the more we learned the intricacies of the play. Our experience really came to help us.”

That is just part of the post, but gives you an idea of how good it is. Make sure to go read the whole piece.

The funny thing about Chip Kelly is that for all of his innovation (smoothies, music at practice, Sports Science, etc.), he really is an old school coach in a lot of ways. Kelly believes in the run game. He believes in running the ball to the inside. He stresses blocking more than any Eagles coach in decades. Whether you are a O-lineman, TE or WR, you will block in the run game or you will be replaced.

Kelly isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel. He is simply taking the wheel and presenting it in different ways to make it look different.

One of the reasons I don’t think people are going to shut down the Eagles offense in Year 2 is that Kelly isn’t running some gimmick attack. If you have a talented RB and good OL, you should be able to run the ball. You can do it from the I-formation, from a 2-TE set, a 3-WR set or however you like. Blockers block and the runner runs.

There is no “secret” for defenses to figure out so they can magically solve the Eagles offense. Certainly they can study it and look for trends or potential tips, but the offense is based on fundamentals and execution.

Defenses will have a better feel for the Eagles offense this year, but so will the Eagles. With better, more consistent execution, the offense could be even better in 2014.

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PFT Ranks the Eagles

Posted: July 17th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 63 Comments »

Pro Football Talk is doing a countdown of how they’ve ranked the 32 NFL teams. The Eagles rank 13th overall. Here are their comments:

There were some blips along the way, but there weren’t many questions about whether Chip Kelly could devise a winning NFL offense by the end of his first season as the Eagles’ head coach.

Philadelphia went 10-6, took the NFC East title with a Week 17 victory over the Cowboys and scored the fourth-most points in the league behind Nick Foles‘ 27 touchdowns and two interceptions. Even with DeSean Jackson in Washington, there’s every reason to think that the offense should be just as good in 2014 if not better thanks to a year’s experience in the system.

That makes the Eagles a good bet to contend for another division title and our panel ranks them No. 13, which is higher than any of the other NFC East teams. To vault even higher, the Eagles will need to make strides on defense and our voters appear to need some convincing that those strides will take place this season.

This all seems pretty reasonable to me. I love ripping on PFT when they say dumb things, but I don’t have a problem with someone picking the Eagles as the 13th best NFL team.

You can certainly make a case that the Eagles will be better than that. There are only a handful of teams I think are definitely better. There are several teams where you can argue for both sides.

PFT also did a preview of the Eagles that seems reasonable. Here’s the overall conclusion.

The Eagles won the division last year and there isn’t a team that’s clearly better than them heading into this season, so a repeat should be their goal.

Barring injuries, the biggest reason to think that the Eagles may take a step back is that Foles is unlikely to throw 27 touchdowns against two interceptions again this season. More turnovers would put more pressure on a defense that’s still finding its way and that could lead to worse results this time around.

Given how strong the offense looks, though, Foles would have to pick up some of Sanchez’s habits from the Jets to keep the Eagles from competing in the NFC East even if the defense doesn’t make any major strides this season.

I don’t get too caught up in power polls and rankings. They’re fun, but don’t mean much. Getting to the playoffs and winning in the postseason is far more important than rankings in July. Or even October.

Teams I see as clearly better than the Eagles:

Seahawks
Niners
Broncos

That’s it.

You can certainly argue about:

Saints
Panthers
Packers
Patriots
Bengals
Colts
Chiefs
Cardinals
Bears
Lions

I probably lean toward the Eagles being in the Top 10, but then again I’m probably a bit biased.

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The TO Effect?

Posted: July 17th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 40 Comments »

The Eagles drafted WRs in the 2nd and 3rd round this year. Most people are confident that the players will pan out. Heck, Jordan Matthews is already slated for stardom by some. How times have changed.

Take a look at this list of WRs drafted by the Eagles from 1999-2012.

Na Brown
Troy Smith
Todd Pinkston
Gari Scott
Freddie Mitchell
Freddie Milons
Billy McMullen

2004

Reggie Brown
* Hank Baskett
Jason Avant
DeSean Jackson
Jeremy Maclin
Brandon Gibson
Riley Cooper
Marvin McNutt

Notice anything?

What the heck happened in 2004? Either the team learned how to draft receivers or Andy Reid and his staff learned how to develop them. Donovan was erratic early in his career, but was a polished QB by 2004. I’m sure that’s part of the situation. It just amazes me how different the 2 groups are in terms of success and production.

The first group has 24 career TDs.

The second group has 118 career TDs. Heck, Reggie Brown has 17 TDs by himself.

I’m not here to bring conclusions to you. I’m curious as to what your theories are for what happened? Did the team get better at scouting? Did Reid and the staff improve? Did McNabb simply get better? Did everybody learn something from TO that helped with WR development?

Any other theories?

I don’t think this is just a coincidence. Seems too definitive to be random.

Thoughts?

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The Men Behind Davis

Posted: July 16th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 37 Comments »

One of the key points I’ve tried to make in regard to Bill Davis is that he now has a strong staff around him. Too often we see an offensive or defensive coordinator and judge them without looking at the assistants around them. When Jim Johnson had the Eagles defense playing great football, he had Ron Rivera, Steve Spagnuolo and Leslie Frazier helping him. Those coaches could help with schemes, gameplanning and also teaching the concepts to the players.

Kelly hired a strong group of defensive assistants to support Davis. Bill McGovern has been a terrific LB coach for years. You may have heard of some of his pupils, Luke Kuechly and Mark Herzlich. Rick Minter has been a positional assistant, coordinator and head coach at the college level. He has extensive experience with creative defenses. He was taught the Under defense by Monte Kiffin when they worked together at Arkansas and NC State. Minter ran the Notre Dame defense when they were competing for national titles in the early 90′s. He became the head coach at Cincinnati and hired guys like Rex Ryan, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh and Jimbo Fisher to work for him. John Lovett has been a defensive coordinator and DBs coach for 30 years.

And there is also Jerry Azzinaro.

Chris Brown of SmartFootball.com responded to yesterday’s column with some thoughts on Twitter.

Azzinaro is a huge part of the defense. And he is Kelly’s right hand man on the Eagles. Check out these comments from last year.

“First and foremost, he’s really, really smart,” Kelly said. “He comes off as a gruff, get-after-you guy, but he’s extremely intelligent. He’s a great communicator. He can get his message across in terms of how he wants it done. He’s very detailed in his work, extremely meticulous in how he wants it done. But I think the guys gravitate to him.

“I was with him at Oregon, and it was really important for me to be with him here just because I think he’s a great teacher and great communicator.”

Kelly was asked what it means, that Azzinaro is the assistant head coach.

“[He] coaches me a lot. I mean, he’s a really special guy to be around,” Kelly said. “I think, again, he’s extremely intelligent. He’s got a great view and great mindset in terms of how he looks at not only the game, but looks at life. We all seek professor Azzinaro’s counsel a lot of times, to be honest with you.”

How many head coaches would refer to the DL coach as “professor” and make reference to “seeking his counsel”? Clearly they have a special relationship.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking Azzinaro is a “yes man” for Kelly. Azzinaro is quite the defensive guru. He made an instant impact when he joined the Oregon staff.

Kelly knew of Azzinaro’s accomplishments – most notably his work with Dwight Freeney at Syracuse – before he came to Oregon. And when Azzinaro joined New Hampshire in 2007, when Kelly came to the Ducks as offensive coordinator, he got more rave reviews.

So Kelly replaced Michael Gray with Azzinaro, and the ideas came together quickly.

“When we brought Jerry on and he brought those schemes, it didn’t take me long to go, ‘this is unbelievably good.’ ” secondary coach John Neal said. “It was better than anything I’d ever had, as a scheme, even before I walked out on the field.

“It’s fun to see it working so far. We have combined worlds. That meshing is why we’re doing well. There are no egos.”

Azzinaro, playfully gruff but as guarded as Kelly when it comes to sharing information, said it’s not really a scheme thing.

“It’s more how we operate within the scheme than the scheme itself,” Azzinaro said. “How does (undersized tackle) Brandon Bair get to function inside? How do we rotate the defensive linemen? These kinds of things.”

Azzinaro has brought the ability to play different defenses with the same personnel. When the Ducks bring in an extra defensive back, they don’t lose a pass rusher. Azzinaro’s zone blitzes have made a star out of Kenny Rowe, a hybrid end/linebacker who had seven sacks in his first seven games and six tackles Saturday against Arizona State.

By improving the linemen’s technique and bringing pressure from elsewhere, he has taken the pressure off the injury-ravaged secondary. The Ducks lead the Pac-10 in pass defense, a year after the D-Boyz – with current NFL performers Chung and Byrd – finished last.

“Instead of dropping into zones waiting for people to come to us, we’re attacking people,” linebacker Spencer Paysinger said.

Then there’s the enthusiasm that the screaming, leaping Azzinaro brings.

“Brandon Bair, Will Tukuafu, they come over and hit us in the chest if we’re tired, telling us to suck it up, give us a little chest pump,” Paysinger said. “I’d say coach Azzinaro has really planted seeds that are going to help us.”

Tukuafu, tackles Blake Ferras and Simi Toeaina and safety T.J. Ward are the only seniors on the defensive two-deep, so those seeds have time to grow. But it’s apparent the Ducks have a pretty good grasp of these schemes already.

“We’ve been able to modify our packages based on people, not zones or coverages,” Paysinger said. “We have fast (defensive ends), so we’re putting them in coverage – we know they can cover flats.

“We’re able to think on the fly – not, ‘what do we have to do here?’ or ‘this formation means we have to be here but in special cases here.’ It’s real simple: I’m going to have this person; if he motions, I’m going to have this person over here. It’s really simple for us, and it’s allowing us to play quicker because we know exactly what we’re doing.”

Aliotti gleefully explained how he can now use an odd package without having to put in an odd package, how he can make a dual call based on how the offense lines up. It’s “the best of both worlds,” he said, mixing Azzinaro’s schemes with what the Ducks had been running.

“The guy brings an amazing amount to the program, and he deserves a lot of credit,” Neal said. “But we’d like to hold the credit until the season’s over.”

There is a book called “Coaching the Under Defense” by Jerry Gordon. Where did Gordon learn the Under?

From my perspective, it’s something that we ran in college. When I was a player and then when I was coaching up at University of Massachusetts, I coached for two guys, Ted Roof who’s now Penn State’s defensive coordinator. I was also defensive line coach for Jerry Azzinaro, he’s at University of Oregon right now.

And so it’s been part of a package and it’s something that I really, really, liked. I always liked it. I put my own little flavor on it just from doing it all these years. But that’s the Genesis of it; Jim Reed, Ted Roof, and Jerry Azzinaro.

 So Bill Davis has a staff full of veteran teachers. He also has smart, creative defensive coaches to help him scheme and make adjustments. This group knows how to come up with a good gameplan and then get the players to execute it.

Beyond that, there is good chemistry on the staff. Azzinaro worked with McGovern at UMass many years ago. Azzinaro worked with Minter at Marshall not too long ago. Lovett is an outsider, but has a background very similar to Azzinaro in that he’s from New York, played football at a small college, and then began coaching at small northeastern schools.  These coaches get along. They work well together. Eagles fans only need to look back to 2012 to see that a dysfunctional coaching staff can kill a team. 

Davis helps the situation by pointing out on a regular basis that this isn’t his scheme. The entire defensive staff had a hand in putting it together. Davis isn’t angling to be a head coach. He just wants to succeed as a defensive coordinator. The other coaches are older guys who aren’t as fixated on climbing the ladder as young coaches would be.

If the Eagles defense does ever become a really good unit, there will be a lot of people responsible for that success.

* * * * *

I mentioned time of possession in the previous post. This upset one reader. I am not an advocate of that stat. It has nothing to do with winning. That’s an old media talking point, but not something I subscribe to.

I do think time of possession can affect the defense of a team. If the opponent has fewer chances with the ball, that gives the defense an advantage. It does not guarantee success, but it can be helpful to the defense.

There was also mention that the Eagles defense can help themselves by getting more 3rd down stops. This is completely true. No one is saying any bad thing that happens on defense is the fault of Kelly and his offense. That would be silly.

That said, you’re being naive if you think Kelly’s system doesn’t affect the defense. Sometimes it helps them, sometimes it hurts them. It definitely affects them.

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More on Davis and the Defense

Posted: July 15th, 2014 | Author: | Filed under: Philadelphia Eagles | 85 Comments »

Yesterday’s post about Bill Davis and the defense generated some good discussion in the comments section. Some of you wondered why the defense can’t be a top unit, even with Kelly’s playing style. There was also talk about what the expectations should be for the defense.

I’ve written about this a few times. If you go back to last year’s Eagles Almanac, which I assume all of you bought (right???), I wrote in there about how the defense would need to be looked at beyond just yards and points. Yards per play is a stat that should be looked at. Points per play is a stat that I don’t think anyone keeps track of but maybe someone should. Takeaways are critical. Situational defense is critical.

The Eagles were dead last in the NFL in time of possession last year. They played the most snaps on defense. You simply can’t post great numbers in that type of a situation. Can you be a great defense if you don’t post great stats? That’s an interesting question. I lean toward “no” because you would need to have some crazy good unusual stats in order to make that argument.

Cincinnati and New Orleans were the only 2 teams to finish in the Top 10 in offensive and defensive yards. They were 2nd and 3rd in the league in time of possession. The offense and defense worked in concert. The Saints defense came out of nowhere to have a great year. Give Rob Ryan and his guys credit, but also recognize that they faced the fewest plays in the entire league (943). That is 207 fewer plays than the Eagles. It is the equivalent of playing 3 less games. If you look at yards per play, the Saints defense comes in 10th overall while the Eagles are at 20th. In terms of yards, the Saints were 4th and the Eagles 29th. Welcome to the new NFL.

Chip Kelly is an offensive coach. The team is always going to be slanted to the offense. So it is interesting to wonder how good the defense can be. Kelly has put resources into the defense so it isn’t like he’s ignoring it. Kelly wants a defense that can help the team win games. And really that is the key. The Eagles need a defense that works for them and what they do.

At Oregon Kelly had a defense that was among national leaders in takeaways, Red Zone defense and sacks. How did the 2013 Eagles do in those stats?

* The Eagles had 37 sacks, which was 20th in the NFL.

* The Eagles had 31 takeaways, which was tied for 3rd in the league.

* The Eagles were 12th in the league in Red Zone defense.

You can see that the team can do what Kelly wants. Improving the pass rush is a key. For a team that played with a lead as much as they did, 37 sacks isn’t enough. The Eagles did get good pressure at times and forced  several intentional grounding calls, but they still need more sacks. They need to punish opposing QBs.

This is where Marcus Smith, Travis Long, Joe Kruger and Taylor Hart come into play. They should offer better depth. One of the ways to help a pass rush is to send waves of players after the QB. Fresh legs can make a difference in the 4th quarter of a game. Having better competition and depth at CB also should help the pass defense.

The defense has the potential to do what Kelly needs. We have to wait and see what kind of progress the unit makes.

* * * * *

While we did see progress in 2013, we do have to point out that the defense still had some hiccups. Matt Cassel and Kyle Orton lit the team up. That’s not good.

And there were some favorable circumstances. The Eagles didn’t have to face Aaron Rodgers. They played Calvin Johnson in a blizzard. Eli Manning had a nightmare season. RGIII was struggling in a major way.

I think there are reasons to be optimistic, but let’s be careful as well. The defense still has a long way to go.

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