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What Doug Pederson will (and can’t) steal from the Kyle Shanahan offense

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What are the Eagles trying to pull from Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco offense?

San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles

“I think (the offense) is going to look a little bit different.”

That’s what Eagles HC Doug Pederson said concerning the glut of new hires made by Philadelphia across the course of the offseason. After adhering to a strict practice of internal promotion (save for the Defense Against The Wide Receiver Coach position) following the 2017 brain drain on his offensive coaching staff, Pederson pulled the plug on homegrown talent and looked outside NovaCare in the 2019 offseason.

From the Broncos’ impatient rebuild he plucked ex-offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, who struggled as a first-time play-caller but brings a background in Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco offense. From Joe Moorhead’s RPO bonanza in Mississippi State he snagged passing game specialist Andrew Breiner, who now buttresses the passing game in Philadelphia’s offensive war room. From hiatus following a stint with the Baltimore Ravens’ budding QB-run offense under Lamar Jackson and Greg Roman he returned Marty Mornhinweg to midnight green as an offensive consultant.

Diverse backgrounds bring fresh ideas and challenging perspectives — that’s nothing but good news for an Eagles offense that smashed its skull against the same West Coast spacing concepts for the duration of the 2019 season. But integrating new ideas from different systems is a delicate science.

Take, for example, the Kyle Shanahan West Coast offense that Scangarello figures to bring to Philadelphia. Even though Shanahan and Pederson share a West Coast background, that familiarity begins and ends with terminology, as their offenses look remarkably different. As Pederson himself said during yesterday’s press availability regarding the changes that new minds will bring to the offense, there won’t be a wholesale shift in philosophy. He highlighted four items as areas of the offense in which to expect a shift:

  • Protections
  • Play-Action
  • Screens
  • Running Game

When comparing the Eagles’ West Coast offense with the Niners’ West Coast offense and predicting what new areas of overlap to anticipate, the most important exercise is in understanding the fundamental philosophy of an offense, and those concepts that can and cannot be successfully excised from that philosophy. The West Coast tree has many branches — offshoots that can be plucked and grafted onto new roots, without uprooting the offensive structure altogether.

Protections and Play Action

Shanahan’s background is embedded in the forefathers of the West Coast offense, one of whom was literally his father: Mike Shanahan, the longtime head coach of the Denver Broncos and Washington Redskins across the turn of the century. As such, Shanahan’s base protections are the common calls that many football fans have heard mentioned in passing: 2 Jet and 3 Jet.

A Jet protection is a six-man protection, incorporating the five down offensive linemen as well as a running back. It is characterized by a four-man slide on the offensive line. One tackle is left on an island against the rusher aligned to his outside shoulder, while the remaining four offensive linemen slide into gaps away from that isolated tackle, taking whatever rusher comes through those gaps. This is the “four-man slide” of jet protection.

In the image below, you can see that the left tackle, left guard, center, and right guard are all sliding left, and taking whatever rushers they find in those gaps. The right tackle is isolated on the base end to his side.

via SB Nation

The sixth man in the protection is the fullback. He keys two players: the two linebackers away from the slide of the offensive line. In that four offensive linemen are sliding to three down linemen, they are also responsible for the WILL linebacker to that side, should he come on a rush. That’s four linemen for four potential rushers.

This is where the “2” and “3” of “2 Jet” or “3 Jet” come in. The number indicates in which direction the offensive line should slide. “2 Jet” slides the line to the weakside linebacker, while “3 Jet” slides the line to the strong side linebacker. The back will go opposite the slide, checking the two remaining linebackers, and taking whoever comes in pass protection. If nobody comes, he’ll release late into a checkdown route. This technique by the back is accordingly called a “check-release.” Watch RB Raheem Mostert check the MIKE linebacker in this 3-jet protection, confirm he isn’t coming on a rush, and then release into a flare route.

Shanahan features Jet and other half-slide protections as the base protection of his dropback passing offense. The tricky reality here is that Shanahan infrequently runs a plain old dropback passing offense. Shanahan’s offense is famously built on the cornerstone of his wide zone rushing attack, which necessitates a full-slide from the offensive line as they sell the run action.

Once you’re committing your offensive line to a play-action pass, you lose Jet protections as an option, and you accordingly have to recruit different schemes. This is where Shanahan’s multiple backfield and motion-heavy offense come into play, as Shanahan can account for unblocked defensive linemen with multiple players from different angles, buying enough time for his play-action crossers to unfold into space.

This is the character of the Shanahan offense: horizontal spread, play-action dropbacks that move the launch point and open intermediate to deep throwing windows. And if the Eagles are looking to adopt some of the concepts with the Scangarello hire, they’ll have to change a key character of their offense: their shotgun/under-center rates.

San Francisco took 43% of their offensive snaps from the gun last year, which was the second-lowest rate in the league (Minnesota at 30%). Philadelphia, alternatively, took 71% of their snaps from the gun, tied for the eighth-highest rate in the league. The Eagles want to be a shotgun team, and have one of the most diverse rushing attacks in the league from their gun alignment; the Niners want to be an under-center team, and have a rushing attack that focuses more on executing a few base concepts well against all fronts. They did get more diverse as the season went on in San Francisco, but generally, the philosophies are opposite.

Pederson and Scangarello are accordingly tasked with divorcing Shanahan’s philosophy from his scheme, excising those route distributions and misdirections that can fit into the philosophy of the Eagles’ offense, and grafting them into place. As Pederson emphasized, this is not an overhaul, but rather a tune-up.

Scangarello is well-suited to this role, as he had to do much of the same in Denver for his short stint as their offensive coordinator. Scangarello never fully installed the Shanahan offense in Denver because he never had the time nor personnel to do so. He had two strong-armed slingers in Joe Flacco and Drew Lock when the Shanahan offense is best captained by surgical pocket-passers. He had an insufficient offensive line and a running back in Phillip Lindsay who worked best on man-blocking concepts.

As such, Scangarello ran a more traditional West Coast offense — far more analogous to Pederson’s system than Shanahan’s. Both Lock and Flacco threw off of play-action less frequently than Wentz did, but all were outpaced by Garoppolo, who averaged a stunning 3.5 yards more per passing attempt on play-action than he did on traditional dropbacks (Wentz was 0.5; Lock was 2.0; Flacco was -0.1). Even with a healthy usage of 21 and 22 personnel, Scangarello more regularly spread out his pass-catching weapons instead of working in Shanahan’s condensed sets.

With all of that considered, Scangarello still snagged concepts and theories directly out of the Shanahan playbook. He worked with jet motion to create play-action passing lanes, worked pistol sets instead of under center alignments, and even sprinkled in some split back and 50-series pass protection, another callback to the traditional West Coast roots that Shanahan, Scangarello, and Pederson all share.

When identifying plays the Eagles might snag from San Francisco, these are the ideas that stick out. They aren’t characteristically Shanahan-ian — they aren’t the plays you’d put on a feature reel of the concepts that make his offense uniquely his. But they work, and they work off of the same tenants that Shanahan bases the rest of his offense on: intermediate/middle of the field spacing, and manipulating and targeting linebackers.

Screen Game

The other aspect of the Shanahan offense that the Eagles seemingly want to pull is from the screen game, as Pederson named it when listing the features he likes from that system.

The screen game from the Niners is extremely diverse — I’d wager that, in terms of the variety of players targeted on screen patterns, and the different designs/formations to get into those targets, the Eagles and Niners are among the Top-5 in the league. It’s unsurprising that Pederson wants to steal particular designs from Shanahan, in that it won’t require a philosophy change for Pederson — he’s already motion-heavy and a big-time screener. It’ll just be new and modern weapons in the arsenal.

One screen stands out from the Niners’ arsenal this past year: the Pinball Screen. Here it is twice for chunk gains.

This is an exciting little nugget because of the layers of deception baked in. The jet motion with zone action from the offensive line is a confusing read to parse, as you’d expect zone flow to go away from jet motion on a traditional wide zone run or PA boot concept. The back also crossing the mesh point and working away from his offensive line adds to the deception, and as the quarterback rolls out his direction, it looks like a quick play-action pass to the flats for the RB 1-on-1 in space.

First and second level defenders, initially working with the offensive line and then realizing that the OL is lying to them — as it often does in the Shanahan offense — peel back to the quarterback and the running back, vacating the middle of the field and forgetting about the jet motion receiver.

I know Pederson’s going to like this concept because it works nicely with a middle screen the Eagles like to use to hit Dallas Goedert. On this screen, the Eagles use play-action, jet motion, and a false puller (remember, the Eagles and Niners’ run offenses are different) to freeze linebackers as they try to process the scrum.

Once they realize Wentz is dropping back, they bail hard to get into intermediate throwing windows, while pass-rushers take advantage of the Eagles’ run-action on the offensive line to attack rush lanes. Wentz drops it off for Goedert in open space, and he does the rest with YAC.

Consider now the freedom to run a similar look, but have the offensive line stem to the jet motion (Jalen Reagor) and block for a screen there, while perhaps flaring Goedert out immediately as the eye candy that pulls defenders to the wrong side of the formation. You can now use a common play-action, jet-motion series to get into multiple screen looks.

Shanahan and Pederson have been riffing off each others’ screen game for a while, mind you. Shanahan’s thrown delay screens to Kittle just as much as Pederson has to Goedert, and Matt Breida nearly scored on a quick RB screen that Pederson and Corey Clement put on the Broncos back in 2017.

I’m not going to claim who was the chicken and who was the egg here — nor will I claim that the metaphor is a perfect fit — but the reality is that both guys love the screen game, and love to get deep into deception and window-dressing to create easy YAC opportunities for their athletes.

This is where the philosophy aligns for Pederson and Shanahan, and as such, I’d imagine the Eagles were going to take screen ideas from the Niners whether or not they hired Scangarello.

Running Game

Pederson threw this item in at the end of the laundry list, which matters, if you ask me. As I said in the intro, you either uproot your offense and plant a new tree, or you graft effective concepts into your existing system. If the Eagles wanted to uproot their offense, they’d have to begin with installing a full-on wide-zone running offense.

It’s not entirely outside of the realm of possibility. While Brandon Brooks’ tackle-like frame and power isn’t necessarily suited for such a role at right guard, he could hold his own given that he’s a plus athlete, and the other four positions on Philly’s line are well-suited for life on the run. Given Miles Sanders’ athletic ability, he could be a delightful outside zone runner,

The Eagles under Pederson have always had a mobile offensive line, but used that more so for creative pulls, screens, and climbs in the RPO game. Basing the running game out of wide zone blocking is possible, but would require a significant gear shift in a truncated offseason.

But nothing they’ve signaled about the offense and its changes indicate they want to uproot and replant. They don’t want to become a wide zone rushing team so much as they want to take the advantages Shanahan gets from his wide zone approach — horizontal spread, forcing linebackers to flow, PA game with crossing patterns — and graft those common, fundamental concepts into their own offensive philosophy. The Eagles want to spread the field, manipulate linebackers, and pass out of play-action — every team does. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and while you only need to master one way, it helps to study the other techniques as well.

As such, what will they take from the Niners’ running game? Some notes for wide zone blocking and likely an increase in it as they look to co-opt the Shanahan offense, but it won’t be a wholesale change and it won’t become a cornerstone of their offense. Shanahan’s rushing attacks are extremely well-coached and successful across the course of his career, and Pederson is understandably attracted to unlocking those secrets, if not only to help the defensive side of the ball as well.