You might not realize it, but the New England Patriots are in a very good position. They sit at 8-1 coming off their bye week, comfortably in first place in the AFC East and atop the conference standings. In addition, history would indicate that the team is poised for another win on Sunday in Philadelphia. After all, during the Bill Belichick era the Patriots are 14-5 coming off their bye week.
But working against them is the aftertaste from a week ago. A loss on the road to the Baltimore Ravens has many wondering if, given a loss in their toughest test to date, this version of the Patriots is ready for a playoff run. Especially given how the vaunted defense struggled against the Ravens’ run game? Is what Baltimore does on the ground so different that it is truly unique, or are is the New England defense suddenly going to face difficulty stopping the run? We might get our answer Sunday against the Eagles and their ground attack. Here is a look at what Philadelphia does on the ground.
Working on the Interior
Any running game that looks to establish any level of success needs to vary the approach, both between gap/power schemes and zone schemes, and working both inside and outside. While a team can have success running a majority of one scheme versus the other, a varied approach is often the best way to keep defenses on their toes, and guessing.
We can start with some of the strong work we have seen from the Eagles’ running game in the interior. Take this 3rd and 1 play from Week 5 against the New York Jets. Philadelphia’s offense aligns with quarterback Carson Wentz (#11) in the shotgun and Howard (#24) in the backfield to the right of the quarterback. The Eagles use 11 offensive personnel, putting three receivers to the left:
This is an inside zone running play to the left, with the offensive line flowing in that direction at the snap. Tight end Dallas Goedert (#88) comes in motion from the trips towards the right, and he will be responsible for the backside edge defender:
Watch how the blocking comes together. The critical component comes at the point of attack. Center Jason Kelce (#62) and right guard Brandon Brooks (#79) have to first handle the nose tackle. Once they have him under control, Kelce needs to work to the second level to occupy the linebacker trying to fill that gap. Look at this still from shortly after the handoff, where you can see the center using one arm to help stabilize the nose tackle in concert with Brooks, while his left arm is starting to engage the crashing linebacker:
At this point there are still some threats to Howard, most notably safety Jamal Adams (#33) who is trailing Goedart in motion across the formation. But the safety will overrun the hole - understandable since he is trailing a TE across the football - and that gives Howard the opportunity to plant his foot, get skinny through the crease, cut behind the backside of Brooks and get upfield for a big gain:
This is a well-designed running play executed perfectly. It does begin with the blocking at the point of attack from Brooks and Kelce, but Howard does a great job of reading the flow of the play, cutting into the available crease and getting skinny through the hole, enabling him to avoid a last-second tackle attempt from the defensive tackle.
This next play is another example of Howard working in concert with his blocking. Facing a 1st and 10 to open the third quarter against the Jets, the Eagles’ offense again lines up with Wentz in the shotgun, this time with Howard to the left of the quarterback. They show a six-man surface with a tight end aligned next to the left tackle:
This is a gap/power design, with Brooks pulling to the left edge. Howard uses counter footwork here, taking steps towards the quarterback and then taking the handoff to follow his right guard towards the left side:
Watch for the following elements on this play. First, the job of Kelce to fan out to his right and occupy the defensive tackle, allowing Brooks to pull to the edge without a problem. Then, watch as the running back reads the blocking from his right guard and keys off his leverage on the edge defender, plowing his head forward and getting skinny for this five-yard gain:
Here is another example of how the Eagles can rely on Howard and the zone running game from their victory over the Buffalo Bills. On this 1st and 10 play from the fourth quarter, they use 12 offensive personnel and put Wentz under center with both tight ends in a dual wing alignment on the right side of the formation:
Here is the design of the play:
Again, the elements of this inside zone running play are what you would expect: The offensive line flows in unison to the left and the running back will read their blocks. But pay attention to the backside, with Goedert on the line and Zach Ertz (#86) in the wing. They execute an “eat” call, with Goedert blocking outside to the defensive end, while Ertz folds inside of him and works to the second level, to take on the safety in the box.
As this play unfolds again watch the mastery of Kelce in the interior, and how Howard reads the blocking and leverage from Brooks:
Kelce has a difficult block to execute here, with a defensive tackle shaded to his outside. The DT initially gets penetration, but Kelce is able to establish a leverage advantage due to upper body strength. That allows Howard to get through the line of scrimmage, where he reads the block from Brooks on the second level. The RB cuts off of the backside of his right guard, and bursts upfield for a 20-yard gain.
On both gap/power and zone schemes, the Eagles can be effective running in the interior. A lot of that has to do with how Howard reads the blocking in front of him, but you also have to give credit to Kelce in particular. We will do exactly that in a moment.
Now Howard is not the only threat the Eagles have on the ground. Chicago will also need to contend with rookie running back Miles Sanders. On this 1st and 10 against the Jets, Sanders (#26) is in the contest and aligns behind Wentz, who is under center. Philadelphia has two tight ends in the game and they show a seven-man surface, with Ertz and Goedert on opposite sides of the formation:
Philadelphia runs a zone play to their left side:
If you have ever thought “hey, I wonder what it looks like when a rookie running back starts to trust his offensive linemen” then watch how Sanders follows his center on this play:
When Sanders takes the handoff he sees a cluster of bodies in the interior, and often you might see a young running back try and bounce this to the outside and rely on his own athletic ability. Instead, Sanders trusts that Kelce is going to clear a path and he runs right behind #62...and his faith is rewarded with a very good gain.
Building off the previous point with Sanders, take a look at this plan from Philadelphia’s Week 9 victory over the Chicago Bears. The Eagles face a 2nd and 1 early in the game, and line up with Wentz in the shotgun and Sanders standing to his right. They run a counter design to the right side, with left guard Isaac Seumalo (#73) pulling:
A few factors play into the success of this design. First, the execution from Seumalo on the pull. Second, the execution from Brooks and right tackle Lane Johnson (#64) on their combination block at the point of attack. Third, the footwork, vision and trust from the rookie RB. Watch as they come together for this big gain:
Seumalo’s pull takes on the play-side linebacker. Johnson and Brooks get a combination block at the point of attack and the tackle is able to scrape to the second level, cutting off the backside linebacker trying to flow to the football. Finally, Sanders reads the blocks perfectly and uses some fancy footwork of his own to finish this run off.
Howard and the Cutback
As you might expect, the Eagles run a fair bit of outside zone as well. But something to watch out for is the vision from Howard on these designs, and his penchant for working his “bend” read where he can identify and exploit cutback opportunities. As a refresher, on outside zone running plays the running back has three potential reads: Bang, bounce or bend:
If the blocking sets up well at the aiming point, the running back executes his bang read and just hits the initial point of attack. If things are congested inside, he can bounce the run outside. However, if the backside defenders over pursue, he can bend his path and cutback against the flow of the play.
That is exactly what Howard does on this run against the Bears:
The vision and processing speed from the running back here are perfect. Howard sees how the right side of the line, led by Johnson, really seal off the backside defenders. In addition, Ertz does a tremendous job of handling the backside edge defender, which creates a huge crease for Howard to exploit on his bend read.
In the second half against Chicago, the Eagles run outside zone again to the left, and once more the running back makes his bend read:
We all know that Belichick stresses the importance of Patriots players “doing their job.” Staying home and fighting the urge to over pursue against Howard will need to be an area of focus this week in practice, and on the field Sunday afternoon.
The Importance of Kelce
Studying this running attack I quickly started to wonder if the focus for this piece should be Jason Kelce. There is a reason that any rankings piece on the best centers in the game contains Kelce’s name near the top, such as this piece from the preseason by Doug Farrar. It is because of what we have seen already in this piece, as well as what we will see in a moment. It is because he is that good.
We just saw some of it in the previous run by Sanders. The rookie trusts implicitly that 62 is going to clear a path for him, and Kelce does exactly that. We also see it on countless other plays from the Eagles this season.
Take, for example, this inside run against the Minnesota Vikings. Kelce first has to handle the nose tackle, and he blasts him off the ball into a place where the left guard can take over. Then he climbs to the second level and seals off linebacker Eric Kendricks (#54) as well:
On this run from Howard against the Dallas Cowboys, watch the awareness and quickness from Kelce and Brooks on the interior. The Cowboys put a shaded nose tackle in the A-Gap between the two, and then send Jaylon Smith (#54) on a biltz right at the snap. The center and guard read it perfectly and block both defenders, freeing Howard for a 16-yard gain:
That is processing speed defined for the interior offensive line.
I asked Michael Kist, who covers the Eagles for Bleeding Green Nation and is the co-host of the popular podcast The Kist and Solak Show on Bleeding Green Radio, about what it is that makes Kelce so important to their offense. “Jason Kelce is the catalyst for the Eagles’ offense” he told me. “His athleticism allows him to thrive in space when asked to climb to the second level or get on the hoof for screens and his technique allows him to deal with much larger defensive tackles. This gives the Eagles the freedom to run any type of gap, zone, RPO, and screen concepts they can draw up.”
If you can try and watch Kelce for a bit on Sunday.
Great moments are born from great opportunity, to steal a phrase from Herb Brooks. Thanks to some results around the league this Sunday, the Patriots are in perfect position to have a fantastic second half of the season. They will face some of their biggest tests on their schedule over the next few weeks. Getting the back half of the season started off on the right note begins with handling this tough Eagles’ rushing attack...and perhaps letting people know that their run defense is much better than they showed two weeks ago.