Throughout the entire offseason and particularly through the first few weeks of training camp, prior to the trade for Ronald Darby, the primary pain points for the Philadelphia Eagles has been the play of the cornerback group. Fans went into Thursday night’s preseason game versus the Green Bay Packers collectively clenching their teeth, praying that the secondary wasn’t a complete embarrassment.
As the first quarter ended and the starters left the field, the attention surprisingly wasn’t on the defensive backfield, it was on the running game. When the starters left the field after a successful first drive which ended in a Mack Hollins touchdown, the Eagles had run the ball six times in 10 plays for a total of three yards. It was pretty clear early on that Doug Pederson wanted to get the running game going but his offense had other ideas. Green Bay was surprisingly aggressive for a preseason opener which definitely played a role but with the praise that this offensive line group was given all offseason, the result was unexpected.
So what went wrong? Did Jason Kelce’s recurring struggles come to light again? Did the two new faces at guard, Isaac Seumalo and Chance Warmack, struggle in their first appearance? Or is this offensive line as a whole simply not as good as they were made out to be all offseason?
After looking back at their six run plays from the first drive, however, the issues, at least initially, appear to be slightly less concerning. They weren’t isolated to one or two players. The entire offensive line including tight ends was just sloppy. The majority of the errors appeared to be more on the mental side but more specifically, there appeared to be a bit of a communication issue up front.
On their second offensive play, the Eagles run an outside zone play with LeGarrette Blount to the strong side with two tight ends that went for a loss of five yards. Like many of the plays to follow, there were a few things that went wrong on this play.
First, on the front side of the play, tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz look to double team Packer’s defensive end Dean Lowry but after making contact Ertz pulls quickly off of the double team and climbs upfield for the cornerback. He wasn’t wrong for climbing upfield, that was his job. In a zone blocking scheme, the players on the double teams are taught to first, secure the double team but then look upfield. If there is a second or third level defender coming downhill into their zone, they would pull off of the double team and block that defender. The issue here is that Ertz seemed to have pull off of the double team too quickly which left Celek with a tough one-on-one block with a much stronger defensive end. Predictably, Celek was pushed into the backfield which forced Blount to take a wider angle to the sideline.
From the backside of the play, Packer linebacker Nick Perry is showing blitz and walks down right in between Jason Peters and Seumalo. Since the play is going to the right side, every player along the line is responsible for blocking the defender to his right. Peters is responsible for executing a reach block here on Perry. This is a really tough block for Peters to make though. Perry is pretty far inside and is going to immediately shoot the gap. For Peters to be able to work down the line of scrimmage, get in front of Perry and turn him back outside is a tough task. This is where Seumalo comes into play. Perry is to Seumalo’s left which means he is not in his zone and Seumalo technically not responsible for him. But this is where being in synch with the man next to you along the line is so critical. In these situations, with Peters having such a difficult reach block to make, Seumalo probably should have waited one extra second before getting to his double team with Kelce and gave Perry a quick jab inside to allow Peters to reach him.
It’s possible that the play was coached this way. Given Peters’ hall of fame level ability, maybe he thought he could’ve made this block and told Seumalo he didn’t need the help. Either way, this seems like something that can be corrected with better communication between Peters and Seumalo or Ertz and Celek. In the end, Perry made the play in the backfield but if Blount wasn’t forced to adjust his path and take a longer track outside because of Celek being driven into the backfield, he might not have been able to chase the play down. Even though Perry was actually called offsides on the play, this is still something that should be discussed moving forward.
A few plays later, the Eagles are back in 12 personnel with two tight ends tight to both sides of the formation and again run the outside zone play, this time to the left. Perry is able to get into the backfield again but this time Blount is able to avoid him and pick up a few positive yards. If Perry didn’t get into the backfield, however, this play could’ve went for much more.
The issue here was another miscommunication between Peters and, this time, Celek. The play is going to their side and Celek has Perry lined up right over top of him. In the way the outside zone is typically taught, Peters and Celek would drive to their left and double team Perry. Peters would then eventually overtake the block and Celek would climb to the 2nd level to block a pursuing linebacker of safety.
Instead, what the Eagles like to do in this scenario, is have Celek block down and pin Perry inside while Peters pulls around him and gets up to the second level. This works for a few reasons. First, it allows the Eagles to establish the edge early in the play and makes it much harder for the edge player (Perry) to set the edge and contain the run inside. Secondly, because of the head-up leverage Celek has, it is a relatively easy block for him to make and it gets Peters, a great blocker in space, out in space in place of Celek. Peters and Celek executed this block successfully several times in 2016 but this time, there appeared to be some confusion.
Rather than fighting Celek’s block to the outside, Perry sees Peters pull outside and decides to push upfield inside of Celek. This is a fairly common defensive adjustment to what Peters and Celek are doing here and should have been easy to handle with proper communication between the tackle and tight end. As you watch the play, though, it appears that Celek expects Peters to pick Perry up when he stunts inside and Peters expected Celek to get a piece of Perry sealing him inside. Neither happened. Blount is again forced to alter his path, a path that is critical for the outside zone play to work, and has to scrape and claw for a minimal gain.
On the next play, later in the same drive, the Eagles line up in the i-formation with offensive tackle Dillon Gordon in at fullback. They again run the outside zone play, this time with Gordon inserting himself as the lead blocker. Clay Matthews and defensive tackle Kenny Clark, however, were not concerned. Celek, this time lined up next to Lane Johnson, has the same responsibility to sealing the edge to his side. Lane Johnson, just like fellow tackle Peters, is also very good blocking out in space and initially tries to pull out and around Celek like Peters on the last play.
After the Packer’s safety comes downhill to the inside, however, Johnson must turn back inside to pick him up. At this point, it is too late for him to fit onto a double team of Matthews with Celek and he must go directly upfield to take on the safety. Matthews then, as he should, destroys Celek and blows up the play in the backfield. It would be easy to blame Celek here but what NFL tight end would you trust to block Clay Matthews? This is something that needs to be communicated better between Celek and Johnson. These minor adjustments are not typically part of the overall play call. Doug Pederson does not call for Peters or Johnson to loop outside around the tight end. These are typical adjustments made by veteran players along the offensive line. If Celek is unable to block Clay Matthews one-on-one, he and Johnson need to work the double team.
Similarly, on the backside of the play, Seumalo is tasked with a difficult reach block on Clark who is lined up on Kelce’s backside shoulder. This is something that Kelce and Seumalo need to be on the same page with pre-snap. Seumalo is ultimately unable to reach his man and Clark is able to clean up the mess that Matthews created. Kelce makes a great block up on the second level but ideally should waited the extra half second to make sure Seumalo was able to reach his man. Kelce needs to recognize that or Seumalo needs to let him know he could use the extra help. Either way, the communication needs to happen.
Finally, on the final play I want to highlight, the Eagles are in 11 personnel with one running back and one tight end. This time they run a split zone concept which is an inside zone with the tight end, coming back across the formation to stop the pursuit of the backside edge player. Just prior to the snap, the Packer’s safety Morgan Burnett walks down to the line of scrimmage, blitzes off the edge that Celek will be vacating and brings Blount down in the backfield.
From a different angle, it appears as if Celek was looking to the inside and never saw Burnett come down showing blitz. It didn’t appear as if Wentz saw it either as he was down under center.
If Wentz had known Burnett was there, he probably would have adjusted the play. You can’t let a player come unblocked off of the front side edge of the play. The play probably would’ve been adjusted to have Celek block to the front side rather than going across to the backside. Given a preference, it would be better to leave a player unblocked to the backside. Blount moving towards the other direction gives the backside player a longer path to the ball. If they were really concerned about the speed of the backside pursuit, Wentz could’ve also backed up into the shotgun and used a zone read look to hold the pursuit with the threat of his legs.
Regardless of the adjustments that could have been made, it appeared as if there was another communication failure somewhere along the line. Did Johnson or Warmack see Burnett? If they saw him, did they assume Wentz did as well? We all know what happens with assumptions, right? If the Eagles didn’t, they do now.
Overall, this was a just a sloppy game by the starting offensive line. I don’t envision the offensive line meeting room as a particularly fun place to be when players resume practice this week. In fairness, they only had one drive. In a full game, adjustments most definitely would have been made and they would have gotten their act together. The good news is, though, that this is preseason. If there was ever a situation to expect communication issues, it’s this one. The players have been back together for just two weeks and there were two new faces at the guard positions for this game. This performance would have been slightly more concerning had the players just been physically dominated by the Green Bay defensive line. While the performance was frustrating, the level of concern should remain relatively low. I’d expect a much sharper performance next Thursday in Philadelphia when Jordan Matthews and the Bills come to town. (That felt very weird to say).