Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Football Laundromat: Philadelphia Eagles Edition

As-salamu alaykum, readers. TC Fleming here. This Eagles team is pretty awesome. They've been exceptional at creating the big play for some years now, really since DeSean Jackson showed up. But between the maturation of Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Brent Celek and the addition of Michael Vick, they've gone from pretty good at it to totally fearsome. Let's take a look at a couple ways that they generate the 40-, 50-yard gains like they do.

There's one constant in their big plays: a lot of time for Vick. Be it by strong protection from the offensive line, Vick's swift moves ducking away from rushers or a nice combination of the two, the receivers are allowed a sizable amount of time to dart around the secondary. Another football truism present throughout these plays is Vick and his receivers' unspoken understanding of which direction they're darting in. A good many times, the receivers' given route is enough to get them open deep. When it's not, they'll start to improvise, and how often the receivers and Vick stay on the same page throughout this process is impressive. The need for this sort of football happened a lot when Vick was in Atlanta. Consistent success with this type of football, not so much.

Anyways, the most common way the Eagles get explosive plays in the passing game is by some variation of the "four verticals" play, which we looked at a little bit when talking about the Packers. It's the simplest play design in all of football, with the receivers just running in more or less a straight line down the field.

The particular play in question happened against the Colts with the Eagles on a third down from just outside their own end zone (making this an admirably ballsy play-call). Vick started out flanked in the shotgun by fullback Owen Schmitt and running back LeSean McCoy before both of them motioned out to the outside hip of the offensive tackles on either side.

After the motions, their alignment is identical to the Cowboys' formation the Cowboys used against the Colts that got Bob all excited this week. As Bob explains, it's a really effective way to take away the dual pass rushers Freeney and Mathis. I would also be really interested to know how much the Cowboys watched film of the Eagles deploying this formation against the Colts and how much it factored into their decision to deploy the same formation against the same opponent just a few weeks later. But anyways, back to the play.

The two backs chip the defensive ends before heading out to be safety valves in case the play doesn't develop fast enough. That's a legitimate concern with the four verticals. The receiver generally has to get behind the defender before he can get open, and that takes a little time.

Getting open is not an issue on this play. Jackson is running full speed from the snap of the ball. The safety and nickel back covering him are backpedaling from the start, doing their best to keep with him. In the end, they just can't and he gets open behind them to make a 58-yard catch. And that's the truly scary thing with a lot of the plays I watched: it's not a case of the defense making big mistakes. Even when a safety reads everything right, Jackson is just too fast to keep him in front of you for long. Defenders can play everything right, and as long as Vick has time, they still get beaten for 58 yards. And the Eagles run some variation of just that play multiple times each game, so expect to see Alan Ball demonstrating just what I'm describing.

Another staple of the Eagles' deep-passing game is what my Madden playbook calls the "snugs" formation. While I'm just going to describe one, they run a number of different plays from this formation and all have shown a strong ability to burn the defense for big yards. All of the plays have a constant: they're more or less a two-man route. Maclin and Jackson will most certainly be attacking the safeties, but everyone else will be either chipping on their way to a short route or just straight-up blocking. This is to give Michael Vick ample time to get the ball to Maclin or Jackson deep.

This one is a neat little combination that drew a 27-yard pass interference penalty against Jacksonville. This particular play was against zone coverage, but I think it would be pretty deadly against man, too. It would be very difficult for a defensive back to chase Maclin across the field, and Jackson would shield Maclin from the safety. Against zone, Jackson gets the safety on that side retreating. Maclin runs a nice route to take him to a nice depth where he's easily behind the underneath defenders but in front of the retreating safety on that side. The safety is able to come up and get a hit on Maclin, but since he was out of position after retreating to cover Jackson, he isn't able to take his time with the play and time his hit right. The hit arrives before the ball, and it's easy an pass interference call.

This final play is the purest example possible of everything I talked about at the beginning: it's about protection, and it's about unspoken communication between quarterback and receiver. The game situation dictates a lot of the play structure: there's twelve seconds left in the first half with the Eagles in scoring range on the Jacksonville 17-yard line. So no need to mess with short routes. The pass needs to be to the end zone. Reflecting this, Jackson and Maclin go deep as every single other player on the offense blocks for Vick.

The blocking is decent, and Vick scrambles out of danger from the first rusher to break free. All of this gives DeSean Jackson ample time to jog around in the end zone, darting this way and that to break free of defenders. The second he does, Vick throws a pass (While rolling right, no less. As a left-handed passer, throwing while rolling right is Vick's great weakness.) and has a 14-3 lead to take into halftime. Just look at the job Jackson does of staying active and Vick does in hanging in the pocket and keeping his focus downfield, waiting for that break. Neat to watch if you ask me.

Even in the only Eagles loss where Vick started and finished the game (the game against the Bears), the team had its big passing plays, including that awesome late touchdown to Brent Celek. That play was crazy. So you can bet that the Eagles will roll out some four verticals and some snugs, and you can similarly bet that it will be a question of not if they'll complete those passes but rather how often.

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