The Eagles are heading into the 2017 season with a committee approach to their backfield. After acquiring Ronald Darby in a trade last week, running back has become one of the obvious positional weaknesses. With the running game being so ineffective in the first two preseason games, the natural inclination is to look to the running backs, specifically the supposed lead man, Legarrette Blount.
Through two preseason games, Blount has carried the ball nine times for only 17 yards. Not very promising. In breaking down the plays, however, Blount is very clearly not the problem. For any running back to be successful, regardless of their size, speed, agility or vision, they need to have blocking up front. Through the first two games, Blount has had none of that.
On the offense’s first play from scrimmage in Thursday’s preseason game versus the Bills, the Eagles run Blount on an outside zone to the strong side of the formation with two tight ends. As soon as Blount receives the handoff, Bill’s defensive end Jerry Hughes splits right between Lane Johnson and Brent Celek and gets right in Blount’s face forcing him to adjust his path and bounce further outside.
The outside zone play for a running back is all about timing. The runner has a track they are supposed to follow that should time up well with the blocking up front. The runner should then have the option to either bounce the ball outside, bang it through the primary read inside the edge player or bend it back inside if there is an open cutback lane. If the defense can force the runner off of his track before he has a chance to read the blocks in front of him, however, the play is essentially dead. The timing of the play gets thrown off completely and it turns into a free-for-all. In this case, the blocking out on the edge was actually decent. This may not have been a huge play but very well could have been a four or five-yard gain had Johnson or Celek executed their assignment.
On the next play, later in the quarter, the Eagles run a sweep play outside with Isaac Seumalo and Jason Kelce pulling around the outside as lead blockers for Blount. Again, Hughes gets in the backfield and blows up the play, this time thanks to Zach Ertz. Hughes forces Blount to widen his path outside and then hangs on his back for a second slowing him down. With Hughes slowing him down that allows two linebackers enough time to converge on and make the tackle on Blount.
If Ertz makes this block, this play probably goes for a touchdown. In the image below, you can see how the play looked before Hughes blew into the backfield.
Seumalo and Kelce did a good job sealing off the edge of the defense. If Blount wasn’t held up by Hughes, he probably would’ve built up a head of steam, ran right by Kelce’s block outside and bulldozed either the cornerback or safety for a touchdown.
On Blount’s final run to the outside, the Eagles run an outside zone toss again to the strong side of the formation. On this play, almost nobody along the line was able to execute their block. Torrey Smith and Nelson Agholor are responsible for crack blocking the Bill’s defensive end and cornerback. Agholor does a good job with the end but Smith is unable to seal the corner inside which allows him to flow outside with Blount clogging up running lanes to the playside. The crack blocks on the outside allow, Johnson and Ertz to pull out around the outside and lead block on the edge for Blount but, in the end, it didn’t matter all that much. Kelce fires right up to the second level trying to seal off the playside linebacker but is unable to reach him because Smith gets in his way. Last but not least, Seumalo and Brooks try to reach their man shaded to their playside shoulders and are also unable to do so.
With Smith and Kelce unable to execute their blocks on the play side, the defense clogged up the lanes and took away the front side of the play. With Seumalo and Brooks unable to execute their reach blocks on the backside, admittedly difficult blocks to make, the defense took away any cutback lanes that might have been available to the backside. Blount literally had no place to go.
The two popular storylines following the game were Blount’s lack of speed and inability run outside and Doug Pederson’s poor usage of said running back who doesn’t have the speed to run outside. Both of these are inaccurate. The result of the three plays above have literally nothing to do with Blount’s athletic ability or speed. On two of the three, Blount is not even running full speed, he is on a designed track to the outside reading the defense. On all three plays, the lack of execution by the offensive line prevented him from doing anything. Is Blount the ideal runner for those types of plays? Maybe not. But, can he be effective running to the outside? Absolutely.
Fun fact: Blount’s 4.92 yards per carry over the past three seasons on runs to the outside rank 10th out of 59 running backs— Brandon Lee Gowton (@BrandonGowton) August 17, 2017
Every player brings a different skill set to the table. What Blount may lack in speed or elusive cutback ability, he makes up for in power and contact balance. Contrary to popular belief, running him to the outside does have its advantages. Getting him to the outside with a full head of steam and going one-on-one with a cornerback is a win for the offense. In fact, many of his big runs in New England came on similar plays.
For the record, I am not contending that Blount is a great running back or even that running him to the outside is the best way to use him. He has shown over his career that he is very effective lining up behind center and coming downhill. He has also shown, however, that he can be effective running outside but, like every other running back in the league, he needs the defenders to actually be blocked.
As for Pederson’s play calling, as usual, it’s very simple. Those plays weren’t designed not to work. He didn’t accidentally bring his “Plays That Don’t Work” play sheet to the game. If the offensive line did their job, those plays would have worked and Blount would have had a successful night running the ball outside. Also, from Pederson’s perspective, even though Blount is more effective inside, he can’t just line him up and pound him on every play. The defense will know exactly what to expect. By running Blount outside, it gets the defense on their toes, gets them running sideline to sideline and opens up the belly of the defense to hopefully be exposed down the middle on the next play. This is how a coach forces a defense to defend the entire field horizontally.
Lastly, this is the preseason. The coaching staff knows exactly who LeGarrette Blount is as a runner. They probably don’t plan on running Blount to the outside over and over again in the regular season. They didn’t even do that with Ryan Mathews last year. They often used Darren Sproles or Kenyon Barner on runs to the outside. This year, it could be Sproles, Donnel Pumphrey or even Corey Clement getting many of those runs outside. In the preseason, however, the coaches are not putting in specific personnel packages to fit the situation. They are keeping it vanilla and trying to determine who can play football and who cannot.
In the words of Aaron Rodgers, R-E-L-A-X. LeGarrette Blount is not DeMarco Murray. Doug Pederson is not Chip Kelly. If we truly need something to worry about, because that is what we Philadelphia fans do, let’s worry about the offensive line.