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The Eagles should get “nasty” with DeSean Jackson

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How to utilize Jackson in a variety of alignments...

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

You’d be right to be excited about the new deep ball connection between Carson Wentz and DeSean Jackson. Since Mike Wallace went down with an ankle injury in Week 2 of 2018, the base has been clamoring for a true deep threat. Some thought the answer would come in the 2019 NFL Draft. It turned out, it came via trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Howie Roseman, the Checker of Boxes, checked yet another box. Color me shocked.

Considering his past with the Philadelphia Eagles, there’s less heavy lifting to do familiarizing you, gentle reader, with the value Jackson brings. His ability to “take the top off” a defense is well known and from what we’re seeing at minicamp, he’s still got his trademark burners. The question then becomes, how can the Eagles deploy Jackson to achieve the best results?

Before digging into the specifics on Jackson, we need to have a talk about wide receiver splits. When you think about a non-slot receiver, you might picture a player lined up 2-3 yards outside of the numbers. The term for that alignment is a “plus split”.

Image via Bleacher Report, Matt Bowen

There are advantages and disadvantages to this alignment. It’s easier to get a receiver isolated on a cornerback when he’s far away from the action, but it also demands certain releases depending on the route. For example - when working from a plus split - an outside release limits the potential routes. Typically it’s reduced to a go and a comeback. That’s not a lot of variety. Any other routes in the tree require a hard inside release at the line.

From a “numbers split”, where the receiver lines up on or at the top of the numbers painted on the field, a receiver has more freedom and space. The rules for releases are less stringent and there’s a bigger area in which to work out-breaking routes.

Image via Bleacher Report, Matt Bowen

Then there’s the “nasty split”. I made the case for the Eagles to use more of these after the Golden Tate trade. With both Tate and Nelson Agholor on the roster, it made sense to provide two slot receivers with splits that played to their strengths of their skill sets and essentially replicated slot alignments. Basically, a “nasty split” brings a receiver inside the numbers and close to the core of the formation, giving them access to a wider variety of routes with multi-directional optionality.

Image via Bleacher Report, Matt Bowen

An additional benefit of a nasty split, as Matt Bowen noted in his article for Bleacher Report, is that “the defense always has to be alert to the reverse or “ghost action” (fake reverse).”

From 2017-2018, Jackson aligned as an outside receiver on 81% of his routes. But as I’ve noted above, not all outside alignments are created equally. Breaking down where Jackson’s explosive plays (20+ yards) were created in that same time frame, the stats present a much different picture.

Plus Split: 6 receptions for 191 yards

Numbers Split: 5 receptions for 175 yards

Nasty Split: 8 receptions for 261 yards

Slot Alignment: 4 receptions for 129 yards

So if Jackson ran 81% of his routes as an “outside receiver”, it’s notable that only 26% of his explosive plays came from a plus split. Compare that with a traditional “X” like Alshon Jeffery, who compared to Jackson has over double of his big plays come from out wide (58%). As a side bar, this adds to the case that Jackson should receive more work in the slot.

“Of his three stops, nobody utilized him less from the slot than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last year he operated from that alignment for only 55 snaps (16%). With the Washington Redskins, his usage trended slightly up every year (27% > 29% > 30%).

One of Jackson’s most productive seasons from an inside alignment came in 2015 with the Redskins. In 82 of his 286 routes run, Jackson was targeted 20 times for 15 receptions, 297 yards, and 3 touchdowns. That might not seem like a lot, but that’s 19.8 yards per catch and a healthy 3.62 yards per route run. Small sample size, yes, but it’s dynamic production.” - Michael Kist

But we want the Eagles to be a heavy 12 personnel team, and we want them to utilize Zach Ertz in the slot in those sets, so let’s focus on the outside reps for Jackson. How can the Eagles keep him on the outside and still allow him to work from reduced splits?

The reasons in favor of running more condensed sets are numerous. They often dictate coverage deployments, forcing teams into more zone match or banjo coverages. Unlike Nick Foles, who thrives against man coverage, Carson Wentz has had more success against zone. So already you’re helping your quarterback by demanding a coverage type that lends itself to his strengths.

Playing zone against condensed sets is preferred due to the high likelihood of pick/rub routes and it also makes life easier for linebackers who can read step at the snap and then work to their responsibility. Teams can take advantage of that read step with play-action concepts, but that’s a novel for another day.

Playing pure man against these sets are suicide, but if you add “banjo” or switch coverages that react to the releases of the receivers, it can be done. Still, that adds stress on a defense due to the communication and cooperation involved. If a switch goes wrong post-snap, it can lead to disastrous results. The New Orleans Saints are particularly advanced at attacking banjo coverages, as demonstrated by one of my favorite red zone concepts from 2018.

What these sets also do is they often provide off coverage. Jackson is no slouch at beating press, but given the choice I’d rather have him attacking a player giving him a healthy cushion rather than not. Granted, Jackson is likely to receive a cushion anyway as he consistently receives the most room from defenders per Next Gen Stats. That type of distance at the snap can create opportunities for curls from plus splits and a bevy of routes from reduced splits.

For example, this “blaze out”, which threatens a post before breaking off to the outside, would not be possible from a plus split.

Along with all the other benefits, there’s also the possibility that bringing Jackson in will get him matched up with a safety. Not only will that safety have to read the action in front of him, but he’ll then have to turn and run with one of the fastest players in the league. Any misstep or hesitation from said safety leads to an easy six, as demonstrated in the video below.

The concept of condensed sets isn’t new to the NFL, you can thank Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams for that. Dominique Foxworth pointed this out in the lead up to the Super Bowl.

“While many coaches are just starting to accept that spread offenses are not just for college football, McVay is doing the opposite: contracting. With the help of ESPN Analytics and NFL Next Gen Stats, I discovered that 60 percent of the Rams’ formations are less than 20 yards wide at the snap. The second team on that list is at 37 percent.”

There are downsides for the Eagles when it comes to compacting the offense. It modifies the run game and also brings more defenders in and around the box, which could negatively effect or limit their RPO menu. I’m also not arguing that the Eagles become the Rams by relying on those sets to such a high degree. I’m simply saying that for the Eagles to fully exploit Jackson’s skill set and dynamic playmaking ability, they should consider getting a little nasty with him.