The Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly keep reaching for the stars. They encourage fans to hope for a Super Bowl run with unselfish teamwork, clever schemes on both sides of the ball, and emerging young talent.
Then reality slaps them back down to earth, as the Eagles lose to the top level of NFL teams: Green Bay (at Lambeau), San Francisco and Arizona in their home stadiums. Sunday, the world-champion Seattle Seahawks beat the Eagles more soundly than the 24-14 final score indicates.
Seattle didn’t look ready for a Super Bowl run in its first ten games either, losing four of them, but for the last three weeks the Seahawks have looked every bit as tough on defense as last year’s championship squad.
The Eagles’ offense actually did well, in one sense.Philadelphia scored 14 with two touchdown passes against the league’s best secondary, and San Francisco and Arizona managed only three points each against the Hawks.
It wasn’t nearly enough. And it boils down to talent. For all the talk of Chip Kelly’s offensive genius, he doesn’t design plays that beat the defense’s schemes. He schemes to create one-on-one match ups against defenders and get the ball to the most favorable face-off.
It only works if there’s a matchup you can win, and if you get the ball to that guy. Seattle runs a very simple defense on every down, mixing Cover 1 and Cover 3 from the same formation, and they have the talent to win every one of those matchups. Which is exactly what they did Sunday.
Philadelphia also executed poorly. LeSean McCoy was grieving the death of a very close cousin and missed practice on Friday. His running Sunday (50 yards) reflected it.
The offensive line — especially reserve Andrew Gardner — did not sustain or even make their blocks consistently, as Sheil Kapadia breaks down in his All-22.
The primary failure was by Mark Sanchez at quarterback, though. He’s the “point guard” who’s supposed to be distributing the ball and shooting the occasional three-pointer to keep the defense honest. The “three-pointer” in this case means keeping the ball on a read-option and running or throwing a quick screen when the defense overplays the run.
Sanchez broke open the game against Dallas in week 13 by doing exactly that, but he froze up against the admittedly scarier front line of Seattle. He also missed some big opportunities, none bigger than with 9:07 left in the 4th period, down 24-14, after Mychal Kendricks stripped Marshawn Lynch and the Eagles recovered the fumble.
Chip Kelly had been calling aggressive plays all game, starting with a pass right at Richard Sherman on the first play from scrimmage (Sherman nearly intercepted it). He had one pass concept that was very successful, resulting in Sanchez’ (woefully underthrown) 35-yard touchdown to Zach Ertz. Here’s how Chris Brown of Smart Football diagrammed it:
@SI_DougFarrar Here was the TD to Ertz. Just 4 verts with switch releases – old R&S “Go Switch.” Sproles to flat pic.twitter.com/lF3pKvoI6I
— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) December 11, 2014
After Kendricks forced the fumble, Kelly ran that same play again, and Jordan Matthews couldn’t have been more wide open — in the same spot down field where Ertz caught his touchdown. Riley Cooper was also open in a much smaller window over the middle, but Sanchez threw a good eight feet behind him, creating an easy interception for Tharold Simon. And with that, the Eagles hopes evaporated.
@SI_DougFarrar Here’s INT – same concept wide open. Flat defender sucked up to Sproles, Sanchez throws to wrong guy pic.twitter.com/Bo04xDX56V
— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) December 11, 2014
Yes, Matthews was just as open as it looks in that screen shot — if not more. Here’s the All-22 view later in the same play. The closest defender was ten yards behind him. Imagine the change in game momentum if Philadelphia had converted that easy touchdown, and trailed by only three points with nine minutes left in the game.
The misfires obscured a lot of good developments. The Birds’ front seven was fantastic with seven tackles for loss, stuffing Marshawn Lynch on play after play and containing Russell Wilson better and better as the game went on. Unfortunately, their careful “contain” rush gave Wilson more time to throw, and he exploited the Eagles’ Achilles heel — giving up big yardage on third-and-long — mercilessly. Seattle converted two 3rd-and-15s and a 3rd-and-13 in the game, morale killers in a mostly excellent defensive outing.
The Eagles scored on their only red zone visit, had a 46-yard kick return from ex-Duck Josh Huff (leading to Ertz’ touchdown), and got outstanding games from Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks (with 11 tackles each). They played the world champs tough, led by a free agent backup quarterback that everyone else had scoffed at, and had some solid opportunities that they missed.
The Birds also got a sense of where they stand and what they need to work on. This team is not at the top tier of NFL teams yet, with a need to upgrade at cornerback, inside linebacker, safety and — unless the 2013 Nick Foles returns from injury, instead of 2014’s poor imitation — at quarterback. Then again, it’s only the second year of Chip Kelly’s rebuild, so for people to even discuss whether the Eagles belong in the NFL’s elite is astonishing.
Sunday, Philadelphia plays Dallas for the second time in three weeks. It’s hard to beat a division rival twice in three weeks, but the Eagles have the talent and intangibles to do it. If they fail, they can still make the playoffs by beating the New York Giants and Washington Redskins in the final two games of the year.
But with the loss to Seattle, this game becomes very important. It’s also on national TV, Sunday night. If nothing else, win or lose this team is exciting and fun to watch. And Sunday’s showdown should be no different.
Featured photo: from video (NFL Rewind)
Mark Saltveit’s newest book is “Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution” (Diversion Books, NY) has been recently released. He is the author of “The Tao of Chip Kelly” (2013) and writes on science, religion, wordplay and political scandals. He is also a standup comedian and the world palindrome champion.
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