Eagles' ground game seeing big gains from big-gain plays

Posted: January 03, 2014

SOMEBODY ASKED Jason Avant recently about the fact that the Eagles' offense led the NFL this season in plays of 20-plus yards, with 99 of them. Avant's explanation wasn't what you might expect from a wide receiver.

"We always had 'em in the pass game," under the previous regime of Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg, Avant said. "Now the run game is gashin' 'em. I bet if you look at those stats, LeSean [McCoy] and [Chris] Polk and Bryce [Brown], they're getting an unusual amount of big plays in the run game . . . I think that's the difference, that the running game is getting a lot of large chunks."

Indeed, 19 of those 99 20-plus-yardage plays were runs. McCoy's nine in that category placed him second in the NFL this season only to Washington's Alfred Morris, who had 10.

Jim Johnson, the Eagles late, revered defensive coordinator, used to say that the NFL is a passing league now, and that an opponent compiling running yardage didn't bother him that much, unless that yardage came in big bunches. A 44-yard run, obviously, is just as lethal as a 44-yard pass, and way more lethal than 11 4-yard runs.

"It starts up front," Eagles offensive-line coach Jeff Stoutland said, which is what you might expect an o-line coach to say. "Then, when the running backs feel the sense of, 'Hey, these offensive linemen are really getting after it, they're creating a new line of scrimmage,' they run harder. And I think the receivers all realize that when we do open up the run game, and there are opportunities like these long runs, defenders become closer to the box, which opens up opportunities for us in the passing game."

This last point was something Avant also noted - "play action doesn't work if you don't ever run the ball." But when you run it as much as the Eagles do - McCoy led the NFL with 314 carries, as well as leading it in rushing yards, with a franchise-record 1,607 - play action has to be honored. So receivers have incentives to block, to maximize the run game.

"When we get the 4-yard run, here's a receiver coming in, cracking the safety, splitting it, allowing us to go another 15, 20 yards," Stoutland said.

"When the ball gets past the second level - that's around the 8-, 9-yard mark - any big run is on the receivers," Avant said, as the Eagles prepared for Saturday's night's wild-card game against the visiting Saints.

Another factor, center Jason Kelce said, is the way teams tend to defend the Eagles.

"We see a lot of man-to-man coverage," Kelce said. "When teams are man-to-man, it makes it harder to initially break through the defense, but when you do, or if a [defender] gets out of his gap for just a second, everybody's locked in, and there's not as much help on the back end . . . if you can break 'contain,' there's just one guy to beat after that, and LeSean's pretty good at making at least one guy miss. That man coverage has definitely helped that number go up."

Kelce also noted that Chip Kelly's offense makes defenses play from sideline to sideline.

"We spread teams out," Kelce said. "When you spread teams out, running lanes become bigger, there's more field for the defense to defend, so when Shady makes a tackler miss, or somebody gets just a little bit out of their gap, that hole's a little bit bigger. That's definitely helped us out, from an offensive line perspective."

Avant said some of it is as simple as giving a weapon as lethal as McCoy so many more opportunities to break runs, but also, "when you practice the run, you get good at it."

"In former years, we never even practiced the run in practice, it was just something we incorporated every now and again," he said. "We practice it every day, which makes us better at it."

Polk mentioned the Eagles' pace, which sometimes catches opponents flatfooted, against the run or the pass, and certainly can tire them out. A case in point would be the Dec. 8 win over the visiting Lions in the snow, in which what was then the NFL's second-ranked run defense allowed McCoy second-half touchdown runs of 40 and 57 yards, en route to a franchise-record 217-yard day.

"The guys up front are healthy and blocking well," McCoy said, when asked about breakaway runs. "Just the one-on-one opportunities, I feel I'm getting the best of those guy, in one-on-one opportunities, and that's not easy, because you've got to get there. The guys up front are getting there. Coach Kelly, the designs he has, the plays, using different decoys, just to get the matchups."

The message was mixed on rookie safety Earl Wolff. Coach Chip Kelly said Wolff won't play Saturday night if he doesn't practice. Wolff, battling an aggravated knee injury, didn't practice Tuesday or yesterday. But Wolff said he still thinks he can play, and expects to take part in today's practice, even though, as he noted, that is little more than a walkthrough and won't give the knee much of a test. If Wolff can't play, the Eagles might go back to rotating Patrick Chung and Kurt Coleman, as they were doing before Coleman's hamstring injury . . . Special-teams cog Colt Anderson did practice yesterday and said he feels ready to return from the knee injury that has kept him out of the last two games . . . Center Julian Vandervelde (back) did not practice . . . LeSean McCoy seemed to be looking to set a tone for younger teammates in his news conference yesterday. "We're made for the playoffs. Everybody's so excited to be here, but we should be here," McCoy said . . . Remember, if you purchased playoff tickets online, you have to print them out and bring them to the game, you can't just show the confirmation email at the gate.


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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