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How running back targets saved the Eagles’ offense

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After a carousel at WR clipped their offense’s wings, Philly scrapped their traditional passing game for a dual-threat, dual-headed backfield. And it worked.

Across the final four weeks of the regular season, four players had at least 150 yards receiving and 150 yards rushing. Christian McCaffrey was one: a first-team All-Pro running back and the premier dual-threat weapon in the NFL. Austin Ekeler was another: the Chargers’ second-year revelation who led all running backs in yards/touch across the 2019 season.

Miles Sanders and Boston Scott were the other two.

Across the first four weeks of the season, Miles Sanders slowly bled touches to trade acquisition Jordan Howard, who was a more consistent runner without the ball security or vision issues of the inexperienced rookie. While Sanders returned kicks and masqueraded as DeSean Jackson in the passing game, Boston Scott watched from the sideline in his shorts: he was on the practice squad after briefly stepping into the active roster late last season.

It took a Darren Sproles injury and Corey Clement trip to IR to get Scott active by Week 6; it took a Jordan Howard injury to get Miles Sanders back into the starting role by Week 11. At this point in the season, the Eagles’ offense was depleted and beleaguered. They would score 10 points and lose to the Patriots; then post 9 points in a Week 12 loss to the Seahawks; in Week 13, they would fall in ignominy to the “tanking” Miami Dolphins. The Eagles were 5-7; their playoff hopes on life-support. And there was yet another injury to swallow.

After a 16-target game against the Dolphins, Alshon Jeffery would exit the Week 14 game against the Giants early in the second quarter, out for the season with a Lisfranc injury. With his departure, the vacuum in Philadelphia’s passing game grew broader, and their outlook bleaker.

In Philadelphia’s darkest hour, Boston Scott stepped into the void. 6 receptions, 6 catches, 69 delightful yards as the Eagles’ offense found their yet-unsteady sea legs in the second half against New York, with a three-touchdown effort across the last two quarters and overtime to keep their season alive.

At the time, it felt like a turning point. It was.

The Eagles set a new season high with running back targets in Week 14, and since then, haven’t looked back. Across their 4-0 winning streak to close the season, the Eagles targeted running backs 48 times and wide receivers 46 times, with much of the wideouts’ production coming in a Week 17 game during which TE Zach Ertz was inactive.

Running back targets rejuvenated the anemic Eagles’ passing attack. During those last four weeks of the season, Carson Wentz averaged a full yard better AY/A than he did over the first thirteen weeks, and he completed about 5% more passes as well. The completion percentage increase was to be expected: anecdotally, running back targets are more likely to be completed, as running backs have a lower depth of target than wide receivers and tight ends. The shallower the pass, the more likely it is to be completed.

By that very phenomenon, the increased yards/attempt should accordingly stand out. Wentz was getting more out of a passing attempt over the last few weeks than he ever did during the season. While some of that had to do with his interception-free December, his basic yards/attempt was also up over this RB-rich stretch of pass distribution. The Eagles were getting a more dynamic passing offense when working out of their backfield.

This should surprise us. As Ben Baldwin of The Athletic demonstrated over the offseason, running back targets are the lowest-value passing play across the league, as measured by EPA and success rate, in large part because backs aren’t targeted far down the field. From Week 14 - Week 17, Scott and Sanders are two of the worst running backs in the league in terms of depth of target: nobody was catching passes further behind the line of scrimmage.

So the Eagles’ running back targets were doing rather unimaginable work, even though they were found only at the end of the Eagles’ long rope this season. To understand how the Eagles’ offense fashioned a functional passing attack out of a traditionally low-value play, we have to go deeper into the schematic, on-field manifestation of the Eagles’ RB-heavy approach.

Screens

When Michael Salfino wrote about throwing to running backs this offseason for FiveThirtyEight, he shared a chart of success rate for running back targets across the 2018 season. At the tippy-top of that chart, with a success rate more than 8 percentage points better than the second-best team in the league (which was Carolina, targeting Christian McCaffrey), were the Kansas City Chiefs.

This won’t surprise many Eagles fans, who are familiar with the exploits of offensive wizard and Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. Reid, famously and sometimes infamously, relied on running back targets in one critical fashion during his time in Philadelphia and now in Kansas City: the screen pass.

While Doug Pederson didn’t necessarily copy-paste his mentor’s play designs right off the film, the Eagles have ripped off an unbelievable number of screen passes over the last four weeks, and the designs are clearly inspired by the heavy motion and misdirection looks the Chiefs championed in the 2018 season. With a nifty YAC player in Greg Ward as their primary receiver and a sudden reliance on 2-back personnel given their extensive injuries, Pederson has authored a jet-motion series to get quick wins in space with his best athletes.

Traditional handoffs, traditional passes, touch passes, and rollouts. There’s a lot you can do off of jet motion, and the Eagles have relied heavily on Boston Scott as that jet player to present a quick threat on the flank of the defense.

But with Scott in the backfield — like when Sanders went down in the Week 17 game against the Giants — the jet motion in the backfield creates enough horizontal stretch on a defense to give the offensive line time and leverage on the necessary defenders in the screen game.

The Eagles love to run their screens behind these “stack” alignments from their wide receivers, and often with the receivers in “reduced” or “nasty” splits that are closer to the center of the formation. These alignments help condense the defense and ensure there are no defenders with outside leverage on the late-developing blockers, who could potentially force the screen runner back inside, where defensive help awaits.

These screen passes are largely the culprit of Scott and Sanders’ pitiful depth of target: they develop as far back as 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. But they’re also responsible for several of the Eagles’ explosive plays: Boston Scott’s big screen catches against the Giants in Week 17, for example, are two of the top six biggest catches of the last four weeks.

That’s the thing about screen passes: they’re boom or bust, and coin flips between feast and famine do not a consistent offense make. It’s a bit of a “Why don’t you build the whole plane out of screen passes?” situation. Against the Seahawks in Week 12, for example, the Eagles attempted three (maybe four, hard to tell) screen passes and gained a net 4 yards, all due to a Carson Wentz scramble on a busted play. If an opponent can dial in on your tendencies and stay home against your misdirection, you have no checkdown and a ton of pressure in your face. The screen is busted.

Accordingly, screen passes alone do not explain the Eagles’ RB-target bonanza. There’s more to the story.

Throwing Against Leverage

This is a clip of Tony Romo analyzing Carson Wentz’s decision-making in Week 11 against the Patriots. I’d encourage you to listen to the audio if you can — if not, it’s transcribed below.

“Over and over again in this quarter, watch the back. He’s gonna throw up here — he has him! But the back, right here, over and over...he’s got a ton of space. You’ve had five, six, seven chances and you’re gonna look back at the tape and say ‘Ugh, I could have just thrown it to Sanders, who’s special...’”

Romo’s both right and wrong here. On this 3rd and 10, with Carson reading the leverage on Zach Ertz from the slot pre-snap, the correct read here according to Philadelphia’s offensive philosophy will be throwing this speed out to Ertz, every time. Carson makes the right read.

But he’s not wrong in that the swing to the back was open, and it was open a lot against the Patriots. The Eagles had one of the lowest running back target rates (15.2%, or 29th in the NFL) through the first 13 weeks of the season, in large part because Wentz never got to those checkdown routes when they were available — and they weren’t available all that often, as the Eagles frequently used running backs to chip for their offensive tackles in pass protection.

Wentz has always been a poor checkdown quarterback, who would prefer to make the aggressive throw into tight coverage, or withstand pressure and extend the play. It’s the genesis of some of his highlight reel plays, his greatest moments; but the same tendency is responsible for his worst, as well.

Now listen to this clip — no analyst providing insight this time — but just Carson Wentz immediately hitting a “checkdown” player in Miles Sanders for a 28-yard catch-and-run. Again, if you have audio, turn it up.

Do you hear Miles Sanders call for the football? He screams “Carson!” It’s pretty much immediately after the snap.

It’s immediately after the snap because Sanders isn’t really a “checkdown” option anymore. He’s part of the base concept. The Eagles are looking to target the weakside linebacker No. 48 Joe Thomas with this slant/swing combination, and in that Thomas is the first read for the quarterback, Sanders is one of the primary options in the passing concept.

With the Cowboys in their traditional single-high look at the snap, the Eagles are either getting Cover 3 on the backside, or Cover 1 (man). In Cover 3, we can understand how Thomas will be stressed by the route combination to his side of the field. If he widens with Sanders, Wentz will fire behind him to hit Ertz on the in-breaking route (that’s why Ertz is in the reduced split here). If he gains depth to sink underneath Ertz’s slant, Sanders will be able to outflank him into space. As is the case in the eventual play, Thomas drops with Ertz, and Sanders gets outside of him.

In man coverage, a similar conflict exists. Given the natural traffic generated by Ertz’s route, and the speed advantage of Sanders out of the backfield, Thomas would still have to win a footrace to the corner from an initial disadvantage. If Sanders is able to break him off in space, it will take time for the defense to rally for the tackle, and Sanders will pick up more ground.

At the snap, Sanders immediately recognizes that Thomas has angle-dropped to sink underneath Ertz’s slant route, and screams for the football, knowing he has the space advantage to pick up a big gain. Wentz is on the same page, and takes the swing route for 1 air yard, but 28 YAC given the initially advantageous leverage.

The Eagles’ basic offensive philosophy is to stress underneath zone defenders. With healthy personnel at their disposal, they run three routes into one half of the field and make zone defenders choose which route to get connected to. They run RPOs that split linebackers between pass and run defense. Recently, their jet motion series takes overhang defenders and freezes them in space with multiple, conflicting options.

But while the intentional integration of the running back into the theory of stressing underneath zones is notable, what is markedly more impressive and important is the briskness with which Carson Wentz is getting the ball to those running backs. It speaks to a calm and mature decision-making process that he didn’t necessarily have as recently as the middle of this season, where it felt like he was pushing for every yard, trying to swallow it all in one gulp.

Now, he’s throwing underneath defenders wrong — even when that means modest gains in which other players did most of the work.

Across the course of the Eagles’ 2019 season, the Eagles’ receivers have struggled to maintain proper spacing, settle against zone coverage, break with predictable timing, and simply catch the football in critical moments. While nothing you see in this section, and in the following section, is a massive innovation of offensive execution, it represents a critical return to basics for Philadelphia and a humbling for Carson Wentz. The greatest improvement he has made in the end-of-season push for Philadelphia has not been accuracy, ball security, or mental processing: it’s been simply taking what he’s given, getting what he can get, and living to fight another down.

And taking what you’re given, while starting small, doesn’t stay small for very long.

Throwing Against Leverage (This Time Downfield)

I’m going to show you a play you’ve seen before. It was the first rep in the examples of jet motion opening up space in the Eagles’ offense.

Knowing now how the Eagles try to threaten underneath zone defenders, and how they’ve utilized running backs early in the progression to do so, we can more easily understand how Goedert worked so easily into space. Yes, the jet motion helped initially pull the linebackers away from the play side, but the curl defender was kept tethered to the line of scrimmage by the RB swing route. The curl defender looks to sink, but as Wentz rolls out, he closes downhill, which creates the room for Goedert’s completion and healthy gain.

Running back catches have been a huge boon to the Eagles’ offense in recent weeks — they have explosive backs with good hands and sharp instincts. But running back targets have saved the Eagles’ offense, because those targets, completed or otherwise, have opened up the space for the Eagles’ intermediate passing game to operate. The mechanism is no different — we’re still stressing underneath zone defenders — but the choices the underneath defenders are making are changing.

On this 28 yard seam route to Goedert, the Eagles have a familiar formation to the play side: stacked receivers in a reduced split. They’ve ran screens from this alignment frequently, and on a 3rd and long from near midfield, we’re situationally aware of a screen call as well. Watch the curl defender in Cover 2 get caught cheating with his eyes in the backfield as he waits for the running back to release into the flat, which allows Goedert to uncover into open space behind him.

Another seam route — this time, off of jet motion from Greg Ward. Fearful again of the running back releasing quickly into the flat with a new numbers advantage to the play side, watch the Giants’ underneath zone defender ignore Ward streaking upfield to get in position against Sanders. Meanwhile, Josh Perkins “takes two” by attracting the bailing middle linebacker with his deep over route.

Ward does a tremendous job here reading leverage and understanding the single-high safety is capping his seam route, but is late to rotate over. Ward accordingly breaks his route off and looks for the football; Wentz makes the same read. Just as the Eagles’ play-calling and scheming has improved over the last few weeks, so have the players: Ward and Wentz are on the same page here, when in November, they couldn’t operate in lockstep.

The Eagles have been trying to hit these routes with these players all season — and it’s not like they absolutely couldn’t before. But when Miles Sanders was snagging the occasional BUS route and Boston Scott was playing parcheesi by the Gatorade cooler, the Eagles’ passing offense was generally nonthreatening. An opponent could lock everyone up man-to-man, score a few points on offense, and go home with a win.

But man coverage fell at the hand of the screen pass and the swing route, just as zone coverage suffered against quick running back routes that exposed linebackers worried about the Eagles’ target-heavy tight ends. Over the course of a few weeks, the Eagles reimagined their passing game as starting with the backs rather than occasionally ending up there, and Carson Wentz flicked the switch from gun-totin’ backyard hero to professional game manager. Dazed, defenses picked themselves off the mat and made adjustments; revitalized, the Eagles and Wentz looked downfield, saw newfangled throwing lanes, and kept punching back.

Against the Seahawks on Sunday, the Eagles face one of the worst screen defenses in the league; a team that will leave three linebackers on the field and ask them to cover tracts of land against the Eagles’ shifty backs. In their first meeting, Miles Sanders got 5 targets for 23 yards — Boston Scott saw exactly 3 snaps and zero touches on offense. In the upcoming meeting, the Eagles will dance with the one that brought ‘em: if they keep winning, it will be with Sanders and Scott as the primary passing options in yet another December miracle of offense for Doug Pederson’s Philadelphia Eagles.