One reason that Philadelphia destroyed Dallas on Thanksgiving Day was that Mark Sanchez began keeping the ball on option plays, and no one was prepared for it.
The read-option is a staple of Chip Kelly's offense because it punishes over-agressive defense, and (if executed properly) makes linemen hesitate just enough to open up big gains. Only in his fifth game at quarterback did Sanchez start pulling the ball to keep the defense honest, and it got him a touchdown on the ninth play from scrimmage.
In his very next game against Seattle, it felt like he had lost all of that new-found confidence and was scared to keep the ball. But first impressions can be misleading, so I went through the All-22 video for all 46 of the Eagles non-kicking plays. Long story short: pretty much, yeah. But Seattle gave him some good reasons to be nervous.
Not every option play is a read option; technically, it's only those where the quarterback is "reading" a single unblocked player, and choosing to keep or hand-off based on his reaction. I counted 18 run plays with a proper mesh against Seattle, not all of them read options, and Sanchez only pulled the ball on two of them, both in the second half. Ironically, I think he should have handed them off; he was nearly sacked both times, though he managed to complete somewhat frantic short passes on each.
Give Seattle credit. They did a great job defending the read-option, which makes sense because they run it too. The defender being read would sometimes hesitate or shuffle his feet at the mesh point, to make himself hard to read. On other plays, Richard Sherman came down to set the backside edge and discourage a QB counter against the flow of the play.
On 12 of the 18 option runs, in my opinion, Sanchez absolutely made the right decision when he handed off. Twice he should have handed off but didn't; there were only four times when he should have kept the ball. Two were huge missed opportunities.
The other two were borderline, judgement calls really, but QB keepers do more than gain yards; they keep defenses honest and sometimes freeze defenders in crucial moments. In a game like this, against a defense this strong, a quarterback should pull on those edge cases just to keep the defense guessing.
Also, LeSean McCoy's brilliance covers up some of the bad choices. There were several plays where he was forced to run into a pile (or face an unblocked defender due to a whiff, as Sheil Kapadia noted), and he still got a yard or two or four where other RBs would have lost ground.
At the start of the second quarter, second and 10, Sanchez read DT Jordan Hill, who was already chasing Sproles but shuffled a little right during the mesh. Sanchez handed off, even though Seattle already had penetration near Sproles. He probably could have beaten Hill running north-northwest and had Jordan Matthews open on a short slant. I classify this one borderline.
The big misses came back to back as the first half wound down. Even if the Eagles hadn't scored on that drive, extending it might have prevented Seattle from grabbing a field goal at the end of the half. The Birds picked up five yards on the H-reverse diagonal cutback play, another great counter. So it's 2nd & 5 from the 12, with 2:51 left in the half.
Sanchez appears to be reading LB K.J. Wright, even though Riley Cooper is about to block him, or maybe Tharold Simon (directly behind Wright way back at the 21). The entire left of the field is open, and defenders are all moving right with Shady. Simon probably would have limited a running gain to 5 yards, but it would have done wonders to slow Seattle's aggressiveness on future downs. Sanchez also could have thrown a screen to Maclin far right, over the heads of the linemen pursuing LeSean.
The big miss was on the next down, third and two, at a time when the Seahawks had clearly concluded that Sanchez would never pull the ball under any circumstances. Philadelphia left DT Jordan Hill unblocked in the middle, and he crashed hard on McCoy, who still managed to hurtle heroically for the first down. Straight up the middle, though, the seas were parted for Sanchez. Jason Peters was headed to clear out Earl Thomas, and Kam Chancellor back at the 30 was the only defender who could have made a play. It would have been an easy ten-yard run and slide, maybe more.
Here is what it looked like on the coaches' tape:
Seattle certainly noticed the bullet they dodged. This play was right before the 2 Minute Warning, and after the break, Chip Kelly naturally tried the exact same play. The Hawks made sure someone (KJ Wright) was filling that gap up the middle.
Look, I realize that these are split second decisions, and I don't have to face the prospect of getting squashed by 280 pounds of defensive tackle. But that is Sanchez' job, and if he can trust the scheme, just a couple of these plays per game will go a long way toward making that job easier.