Chip Kelly Update: A Defensive Mastermind

Mark Saltveit FishWrap, FishWrap Archive

from Video

Chip Kelly seems to spend half his life fighting shallow stereotypes about his teams.  He’s a passing demon!  No, wait — he’s obsessed with running.  Well, he demands running quarterbacks, right?  In any case, he has a huge book of tricky plays.  Or is it a small book of flexible plays?  They all come fast . . . except when he slows it down for long clock-killing drives.  You get the idea.

The one impression Chip watchers have consistently held is that his is an offensive genius who doesn’t care much about defense.  His teams give up a lot of yards and points, and he just counts on outscoring them.  After all, he was a former offensive coordinator, while Oregon’s defense — such as it was — was spearheaded by Nick Aliotti, who had been the defensive coordinator since 1998.  And the Eagles have had an explosive offense and terrible D, right?

I will tell you right now: this stereotype is the most wrong of them all.  Chip Kelly coaches a complete program whose offense is built on its defense, and vice versa.  He has definite ideas about defense that kick ass, which he imposed on Aliotti at Oregon, and the Eagles are more impressive in stopping opponents than in scoring.

We'll let you score about this much

We’ll let you score about this much.

Put it this way: can you tell me in a few words what Chip’s offensive strategy is?  At best, you’ll probably mumble something about blur . . . spread . . . balanced . . . packaged . . . you know, that Chip thang. But if you’ve been following the Eagles at all, you know exactly what their base defense is: a two gap 3-4, with mixed and disguised pass coverages (based on a zone blitz concept).

That was the Ducks’ scheme too, though they showed more one-gap than two-gap due to their speed and small size.  Do you know how far back that scheme dates?  To the spring of 2010, after Chip had been head coach for a full year and 12 years into Aliotti’s reign, when Charles Fischer (the founder of this website) found out about it from Clay Matthews Sr., the Pro-Bowler and father of two NFL linebackers.  Fischer wrote about it that summer on various blogs, a good year before was created, and it was big news at the time.

In other words, that bend-but-don’t break, takeaway-mongering defense that was the dark side of the moon to the big run and pass plays — that was Chip’s doing.  Oregon led the nation in net takeaways during Chip’s college coaching years, and that was no accident.  When he got to Philadelphia, he immediately went about building a similar system.

A tough -- and young - front line

A tough — and young – front line.

The three phases of Chip’s program interlock.  His biggest changes, to the naked eye, were on special teams, which immediately got a lot more focus in practice, new players (including controversial roster slots for ex-Ducks such as Casey Matthews and Jeff Maehl) and a training camp competition between two explosive punters, Brad Wing and Donnie Jones.  Free agent tight end James Casey is considered a bust by many because he doesn’t play much on offense, but he’s another versatile player who is a ST stalwart.

The change from the doomed Wide-9 defense to a two-gap 3-4 was drastic, and many considered it a mistake better tempered by finding some sort of middle ground until Kelly and Howie Roseman had time to assemble a drastically different set of players.  Kelly stuck to his guns and pushed ahead, even through a disastrous first quarter of the season, during which the Birds surrendered 36 points a game.

Now tough in the middle, too

Now tough in the middle, too.

Since their low point (a 52-20 loss at Denver), the Eagles have not allowed more than 21 points by any opponent, which is better than Carolina, Kansas City and every other team in the NFL.  The very young front line has solidified, especially since the team traded away veteran Isaac Sopoaga, Mychal Kendricks stopped over-pursuing plays, rookie Earl Wolff worked into a starting safety job and much-mocked Nate Allen has quietly become very, very good.  For all the years Eagles fans have hated him, he’s still only 26, and Kelly and his coaches have quickly turned him from a liability into a weapon.

Coaches skilled at teaching fundamentals are a major, but unheralded, part of Chip Kelly’s programs.  The effect is very noticeable with this defense.  Defensive line coach (and assistant head coach) Jerry Azzinaro followed Kelly out from Oregon and is the heart of this defense (where Billy Davis is the head).  Casey Matthews told Tim McManus how Coach Azz not only preaches that all defenders should run toward the ball on every play, he does it himself — charging down the sideline, not in a Tomlinish way.  ”If you watch Azz out there, as soon as they hand the ball off or the quarterback throws it, he runs in the general direction [of the ball] just telling us to go,” Matthews told McManus.

Coaches have specific drills to teach key skills, as McManus details: a strip-sack routine where defenders push through trash cans to knock the ball out of the hands of a “quarterback” holding the ball over his head, and a “deep-ball drill” where DBs run toward random passes and practice sure-footed jumps to catch them in mid-air.  Davis has been criticized for having a spotty record of success in the NFL, but his teams have always been great at takeaways; his two Arizona teams were both sixth in the league.

As I said, all of these pieces interlock, which is why the defense was so bad at first. When parts of your defense reinforce each other, then a failure in any of them undermines each of the others, and the results can be very ugly.  The reverse is also true; once they start coming together, they tighten like a noose.

The 3/4, two-gap alignment frees up safeties to focus on the pass and make plays (even as the Eagles have become a very good team against the run), and it shifts your roster’s focus to linebackers and safeties, who are better on special teams as well. A stronger pass rush and tough run D force teams to pass, which leads to more interceptions, sacks and strip-sack fumbles. And the pressure from all of this unnerves quarterbacks and makes them less effective and accurate.

The cherry on top is takeaways, which not only stop scoring drives but shift morale dramatically, as any Duck fan can tell you. Last year, the Eagles were not only last in the league in takeways, they had the 2nd-lowest total in NFL history (13). This year, they already have 22, only six behind the league-leading Chiefs, Seahawks and Panthers. On the other side of the ball, they’ve coughed the ball up only 15 times, vs. 28 at this point last year. And 5 of those 15 were by Matt Barkley in his two halves of football.

Better yet, they are picking up steam. Nick Foles only has a single fumble all year, 19 TDs and no interceptions. In their current four game win streak, the Eagles have nine takeaways and only one turnover. That makes it a lot easier to win.

Oh, did I mention? The Eagles beat a very tough Arizona team 24-21 Sunday to improve to 7-5, in large part due to two interceptions and a strip-sack fumble recovery. They sacked Carson Palmer five times and neutralized stud receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who has absolutely destroyed the Eagles in recent years. Fitzgerald got his one touchdown on 3rd and 20 when safety Patrick Chung, who had a terrible game, knocked cornerback Brandon Boykin out of the play, letting the big receiver rumble 43 yards into the end zone untouched. Aside from that mistake, however, the Eagles held Fitzgerald to 29 yards on four receptions, which is very encouraging with Detroit and Calvin Johnson coming to Philly this Sunday.

Call the "waah-mbulance," Arians is sad

Call the “waah-mbulance,” Arians is sad.

Arizona coach Bruce Arians, who had chortled about Kelly’s “college offense,” was reduced to blaming the referees for his loss (even though they called back a touchdown punt return by DeSean Jackson and a long LeSean McCoy run on shaky penalties).  The Eagles are riding so high that Riley Cooper and Brent Celek low-fived each other in the middle of a red zone play — right before Celek scored a touchdown.

The Eagles led 24-7 in the third quarter before their offense stalled, allowing Arizona back into the game.  Eagles fans and writers, always pessimistic, focused on the woes of Chip Kelly’s fourth quarter clock-killing drives, and floated all sorts of crazy solutions for fixing them (including bringing Michael Vick in as a Mariano Rivera-type closer just for those long, run-focused drives).

But the bottom line is that the Eagles are improving every week and crushing teams with a combination of explosive offense and an increasingly tough D.  Their odds of making the playoffs have increased to 60%, and people are openly talking about making a real playoff run.  It’s a good time to be Chip.  And it’s all based on his defense.

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