Offense doesn't need to be at warp speed

Eagles' DeSean Jackson runs with the football against Chicago Bears' James Anderson in the first quarter on Sunday, December 22, 2013. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )
Eagles' DeSean Jackson runs with the football against Chicago Bears' James Anderson in the first quarter on Sunday, December 22, 2013. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )
Posted: January 04, 2014

Remember when the Eagles set FedEx Field on fire with a 53-play first half in the season opener against the Redskins? When it seemed the only way defenders could slow Chip Kelly's up-tempo offense was to fake injuries?

Since that game, Kelly's offense hasn't had a half with as many plays or matched the ferocity of that outburst. That isn't to say the Eagles haven't been as productive or better.

The first half of the Raiders game, the fourth quarter in the snow against the Lions and the entire game against the Bears were as explosive and more efficient. But they weren't as fast.

Maybe it had something to do with seeing Kelly's up-tempo offense on a grand NFL stage for the first time. He said after the game, in all seriousness, that he thought the Eagles could be quicker.

But since that game, and seemingly over the last month, the Eagles haven't utilized tempo as much as they had earlier in the season and not as much as many thought they would throughout Kelly's first season.

Not that it has mattered.

"I've kind of realized we're not relying on it as much as we have. I think all of thought that we would use it more after the Redskins game," Eagles guard Todd Herremans said this week. "But we still sprinkle it in. A lot of it depends on the situation. At any point in time on the field we're ready for tempo.

"But we've been winning so I haven't really been thinking about it too much."

Much was made before the season of Kelly's up-tempo offense and how more NFL teams were expected to employ the tactic. He insisted it was just one facet of his scheme. Like almost every other claim he made to counter perceptions, he was right.

But the fact that Kelly has only "sprinkled" in the up-tempo - the supersonic speed at which there is only a 15-20-second span in between plays - drifted under the radar because the offense has been successful using it only sparingly.

The biggest reason Kelly, typically, a reactive play-caller, has scaled back on tempo is because defenses have done a better job of adjusting to the pace. Early opponents were often caught with the wrong personnel or had to check back to base packages, but that hasn't been the case of late.

"I think teams have done a good job of matching up when we get lined up fast," Kelly said. "They are still being able to bring what they want to bring. I don't think we have caught anybody off guard."

The Eagles could try to up the tempo against the Saints on Saturday. Rob Ryan blitzes as much as any defensive coordinator, and a quicker pace could occasionally pull his finger off the trigger.

The last time Kelly hit the gas consistently was against the blitz-happy Cardinals on Dec. 1. The results were mixed, according to several Eagles.

"Arizona faced the tempo the best," Eagles center Jason Kelce said. "They were prepared to run the blitzes regardless of how fast we were going. Last week [against the Cowboys], we tried to get to it a couple of times, but the refs held us up a little bit."

Kelce said his coaches thought the offense was going too slow in Dallas. Kelly said the tempo could improve, but he feels that way about every aspect of his team. Before the season, there was the concern that the officials wouldn't keep pace with Kelly's offense.

"However they spotted is how we played," Kelly said. "Again I don't have any control with how they spot the ball. When they put it down we are ready to play."

After the first game, when the Eagles ran 77 plays, they were on pace to finish the season with an NFL-record 1,232 plays. Ultimately, they ended the year with 1,054 plays, 102 behind the league-leading Broncos and 84 behind the Patriots - two teams with up-tempo offenses.

Kelly has said it's never been about number of plays, only number of points. Like all good coaches, he has found other ways to light up the scoreboard.

DEFENSE WORN DOWN?

The Eagles defense has played an NFL-most 1,150 snaps this season, but linebacker Connor Barwin, who has played 94 percent of the plays, and other full-timers insisted they felt fresh heading into the postseason.

"I'm sure the extra plays have some effect, but honestly, I feel pretty good," Barwin said this week. "The biggest thing is guys like me, DeMeco [Ryans], Cary [Williams] - we haven't had any real injuries. And then these coaches are real smart. My practice reps have been cut down the last month."

Generally speaking, the defenses that played the most snaps this season were those that allowed the most yards and the defenses that played the least allowed the least.

The Eagles finished the year ranked 29th in total defense. The Saints played an NFL-low 943 snaps and ended the season ranked fourth.

The No. 1-ranked Seahawks and the No. 2 Panthers have played the sixth- and fifth-lowest number of snaps.

An offense's time of possession can affect how often a defense has to take the field. The Eagles finished last in the league in time of possession. Turnovers can limit the number of plays a defense endures, too.

The Eagles finished tied for third in the NFL in takeaways and yet they played an average of seven more plays than the league median and 12.9 plays more than the Saints.

Over the course of a season, those extra plays can pile up. The Eagles, though, have been proactive with their conditioning and sports science programs and believe they'll be as fresh as the Saints.

INSIDE THE GAME

Jeremy Maclin said Thursday that he was ahead of schedule in his recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and that he anticipated being ready for the start of spring practices on April 21.

Maclin has some paperwork he must deal with, though, before he can be penciled in as a participant at the start of the Eagles' offseason workouts. The wide receiver is slated to become a free agent on March 11 when the new league starts.

The Eagles, of course, have until then to work out an extension with Maclin if they hope to bring him back for 2014 and possibly beyond. Receiver Riley Cooper is also slated to become a free agent.

So what was up with the Brad Smith option play the Eagles unsuccessfully ran on first and goal against the Cowboys?

The play was designed for Smith, after Nick Foles handed him the ball, to throw back to the quarterback. Coach Chip Kelly and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said it was devised to counter a man-to-man defense.

The Cowboys were in a zone, however, and Foles was covered. Smith scrambled to his right and tried to hit an open Zach Ertz in the back of the end zone, but he threw behind the tight end.

Smith was asked if the Eagles had practiced the play with Foles covered.

"No, I don't think we did that," Smith said. "When you practice it you expect him to be open. That's what we were hoping."

Shurmur said Foles had the option to check out of the play.

"But in that case there, there was no reason to," he said. "We felt like if it wasn't there, we had other choices."

With James Casey's increased playing time, Zach Ertz has seen less of the field in three of the last four games.

The reason, quite simply, has been that the Eagles have been running the ball more. Brent Celek is the primary run-blocking tight end, but mostly when there needed to be two Casey got the nod ahead of Ertz.

While Ertz' blocking remains a work in progress, he's still a weapon through the air and has caught four passes for 70 yards over the last two games despite the limited snaps.

"I'm trying to make the most of my opportunities," Ertz said. "I've been in there for more pass plays recently. I don't feel like a rookie anymore and I feel like I'm in the game plan every week."

INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM

Cary Williams is old school. While the NFL continues to tilt toward offense, the cornerback said he still believes that "defenses win championships." Williams, of course, won a title with the defense-dominant Ravens last season. "If you play good defense against quarterbacks out in this league," he said, "you win games." . . .

Kicker Alex Henery has connected on nine straight field goals with three of his last four coming from 47 yards or longer. Three of his five kickoffs against the Cowboys on Sunday were touchbacks. With chilly temperatures expected Saturday evening, though, he doesn't expect to be able to kick as far.

"The ball just doesn't travel as far," he said. "The leather gets so hard that it's impossible to hit it far." Henery said the coldest games he kicked in were in college when Nebraska traveled to Boulder, Colo. to face the Buffaloes in November. . . .

It's possible that Cowboys running back DeMarco Murray will be fined by the NFL office for using the crown of his helmet to run over Damion Square, but that didn't lessen the pain the Eagles defensive lineman felt on the play.

Asked if the collision looked worse than it felt, Square said, "Nah, it hurt," as he pointed to a bruise on his chest. . . .

Two of the three Louisiana-born Eagles didn't grow up Saints fans. Defensive linemen Bennie Logan, who was a New York Giants fans, said he only briefly followed the Saints when running back Ricky Williams was with the team. Punter Donnie Jones wasn't a fan of either the Saints or the NFL growing up. Logan, who is from Coushatta, La. and Jones, who is a native of Baton Rouge, La., both went to LSU. Receiver Damaris Johnson is from Destrehan, La.

BY THE NUMBERS

71.5

Percentage of plays (774 of 1,054) in which the Eagles offense used three or more wide receivers this season. The Saints used three or more receivers 41.4% of the time (447 of 1,079).

76.6

Percentage of short middle passes Drew Brees has completed this season, tops in the NFL.

31

Offensive holding penalties committed by the Saints this season, tops in the NFL along with the Raiders. The Eagles had 21 and the league average was 21.3.

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