The Eagles’ surprising decision to trade Sam Bradford to the Vikings and name Carson Wentz as the starting quarterback does little to address their biggest offensive concern: the inability of their wide receivers to separate from man-coverage.
New head coach Doug Pederson comes from the Green Bay coaching tree – by way of Andy Reid – and runs a traditional west-coast offense based upon rhythm and timing.
The system is designed to sync up the quarterback’s dropback with the steps of his wide receivers. It is taxing and demanding to learn, but once a quarterback has the timing and detail of the footwork down, it makes reads more defined.
Unlike other systems, the precision of the quarterback’s dropback is inherent in its success. They aren’t simply defined by three, five, or seven-step drops, but by the speed at which those drops are taken: quick-three, long-three, long-five with a hitch and so on and so forth.
The timing should be such that as a receiver runs to a precise depth the ball is on the way to their hands, in rhythm.
Here’s an example from Andy Reid’s playbook from his last year in Philadelphia – Pederson was the quarterbacks coach.
To combat the rhythm of offenses, a defense will play press-man coverage and attempt to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage. Even if they don’t dislodge the receiver from running the route cleanly, the hope is the release is disrupted enough to throw out the timing element.
Beating press-coverage is an art form. It’s often the difference between sticking around in the NFL and having a short career.
The Eagles currently have no receivers who have shown the ability to consistently separate from press-coverage.
Last year they rolled out a receiving corps featuring Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff, Riley Cooper, Miles Austin, and first round pick Nelson Agholor. They were a mess. Only one (Matthews) cracked the top-40 of FootballOutsider’s DYAR metric. And the offense as a whole finished 26th in offensive DVOA.
The group was as collectively slow as any in the league. That lack of explosiveness – as well as an inability to lower their individual strike zones – made it near impossible for them to consistently separate from quality cover corners.
This year’s group isn’t much better. Matthews, Huff and Agholor are all back. And Dorial Green-Beckham has been added into the mix; a towering receiver who is good in contested catch situations, but also struggles to consistently gain separation.
Without players who can beat press-coverage, Pederson will need to build in more “man-beater” concepts. Meaning to beat man coverage through play design rather than individual players beating cornerbacks themselves.
Eagles Coach Chip Kelly did a poor job of building in man-beater concepts into the Eagles offense.
Kelly runs an offense that features many timing elements. The difference is that his offense is also based on isolation plays – receivers routes being independent of each other and winning their individual matchups. Whereas in Pederson’s offense, receiver’s routes are run in complement to each other; often attempting to attack a specific player.
Here are some ways Pederson can create some separation through design.
Antonio Brown is the best player in the league at separating from man-coverage. He does so because of his agility and intelligence, but also because he is constantly on the move. The Steelers do a very good job of moving him all over the offensive formation and snapping the ball when he is in an advantageous position, with defensive backs unable to get a jam at the line of scrimmage.
Last year the Eagles finished last in the NFL in pre-snap movement. Motioning or shifting on just 11 percent of their snaps. By contrast, Pederson’s Chiefs tripled that number; moving on 33 percent of their snaps.
Bunched formations are a simple way to naturally create separation. By bunching receivers in a two-man stack or a three-man triangle the defense is unable to get its hands on receivers and disrupt their releases.
Here’s an example from Pederson’s Chiefs in which he motions to twin two-man stacks.
It creates an easy completion and an opportunity for a catch and run without the defense able to disrupt the receivers release.
Bunched formations are valuable, but it limits route combinations and can be slow to develop. Plus, defenses are getting better at how they defend them.
Pick routes are a staple of offenses looking to attack man-coverage. They’re routes designed to get defensive players to cross each other through traffic, forcing them to run into each, block each other’s line of sight, or hesitate and create separation for the receiver.
In Kansas City, Pederson ran one of the most expansive screen games in the league. Without a traditional No. 1 receiver, he developed a number of screens to get the ball to his best playmakers in space. Part of that was a single-man screen package that I detailed last week. It’s a package that relies on having an athletic center. Fortunately for Pederson and the Eagles, in Jason Kelce they have one of the few centers in the league who can replicate the type of plays that were run in Kansas City.
In one offseason, it’s difficult for Pederson to help his receivers win 1-on-1 matchups at the line of scrimmage. What he can do is implement smart play designs that create easy throws for his young quarterback and gives the receiving corps the opportunity to make some plays after the catch.