After averaging over 6 yards per rush at Oregon, and putting up gaudy ground game statistics through his first 4 games in the NFL, Chip Kelly's famous offense has stalled. Everyone knows the problem with the passing game (we don't have a quarterback), but what is wrong with the run? The seemingly unstoppable zone read-option scheme adopted by Kelly has looked rather boring in the last few games.
As a longtime Eagles fan and football junkie, I mapped out every running play from Sunday's game against the Giants and set out to find the problem. The zone read, as most people know, leaves the back side defensive end unblocked and the quarterback reads his action. If the defender stays home or runs upfield, the QB gives the ball to the running back. If he collapses down the line, the quarterback will pull the ball and run it himself. Against the Giants, the Eagles ran 5 of these plays where the defensive end was read. They also ran similar plays, where an interior defensive lineman was read, twice. On every other running play, Vick/Barkley read either an outside backer, or made no read and just handed the ball off. The Giants put 7 or 8 men in the box for the entire game and challenged Barkley or Vick to beat them through the air. This gave the Eagles unfavorable blocking matchups, and the G-Men had no problem stopping the run.
NFL lineman and linebackers are too athletic for Kelly's zone blocking scheme to work. The lineman get upfield too quick, and force LeSean McCoy to make plays by himself. And with Barkley's lack of speed, the zone-reading of a defender does not take him out of the play like it is supposed to, as he will crash down on McCoy every time.
To counter this, Chip began throwing the bubble screen out of the trips formation, where the Eagles had excellent blocking matchups on the outside. He threw four of these, each going for good yardage, but then abruptly stopped in the third quarter even though the Giants had changed nothing schematically against the trips formation. Why not keep throwing it and make New York sacrifice a run defender? The four bubble screens were the most Chip Kelly has called all season, but there were multiple opportunities where a bubble screen would have been more appropriate than an inside zone read.
There were times on Sunday where I watched the Eagles run the inside zone read three times in a row with nearly identical blocking schemes each time. THIS WILL NOT WORK IN THE NFL! They would occasionally pull a lineman to the outside as a lead blocker for McCoy, but this is also very difficult to ask your lineman to do in the pros, as it is much easier in college. That was the only variation that Kelly gave to his zone read plays, and defenses have caught on.
I understand that this is the bread-and-butter play for the Eagles, but the ancillary plays off of it are what make Chip's offense special. Where is the power play? Where is the counter trap? Both of these plays have a lineman or two pull away from where a usual zone read play would go. The Eagles ran power just once on Sunday, and I think that it would be a great change of pace play that should be used more often. With no fullback in this offense, lead-blocking lineman are essential. We just don't see that enough with the inside and outside zone reads. Even a simple draw play would be good to get McCoy out in space.
I'm not saying that the Eagles should line up double-tight power I formation and run the ball up the middle all game, but Andy Reid turned McCoy into a 1000-yard rusher with simple blocking schemes and pulling lineman.
Until Michael Vick is 100% healthy, Marcus Mariota is drafted, or Colin Kaepernick decides to take his talents to South Philly, Chip Kelly should rely less on the zone read and find other ways to get the ball to LeSean McCoy.
-Sean Burke, high school football player and spread offense enthusiast.