By Nick Shook
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The 2017 season has witnessed the rise of the unexpected — at least in the NFC.
Two of the conference’s underachievers in 2016 — Los Angeles and Philadelphia — have risen to the top. Sure, every year sees some turnover, some surprises and some disappointments. But the clips at which these two teams are playing is impressive.
Both put up 50-burgers on their opponents last week, and Week 10 is Philadelphia’s bye, which means the players are free to do a little traveling if they so desire. Eagles offensive lineman Brandon Brooksstopped by the NFL Media compound on Tuesday and we sat down to talk about why this Eagles offense is finding success.
“You want one word for why the offense is rolling the way it is?” Brooks asked. “Carson.”
He’s talking about Wentz, of course, the second-year quarterback who is setting the league on fire with his play. He’s a big part of why the Eagles are 8-1. But he’s not the only reason.
Let’s take a look at Philadelphia’s 51-23 win over the Denver Broncos. You might think, hey, what’s the good in watching tape of a game they won with ease?Well, everyone needs a pick-me-up every once in a while, and it’s about time we examine a team that’s playing well. Leave your negativity at home.
Philadelphia’s offense is successful because of its versatility, starting with its offensive line. Instead of employing traditional, powerful but slower linemen, the Eagles have a line filled with blockers who can move. As a result, Philadelphia excels in the zone running game.
Philadelphia also got one of the league’s better zone blockers when it signed Brooks in 2016. The guard wasn’t born with the ability to execute with effectiveness and reliability, though. He stepped into an advantageous situation when drafted by the Houston Texans in 2012, when Gary Kubiak was in charge.
Kubiak, of course, has plenty of experience with a zone-based running scheme, serving as offensive coordinator under Mike Shanahan for Denver’s great running teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. By the time he brought it to Houston, he had an ideal runner for it in Arian Foster and veteran linemen Chris Myers, Wade Smith and Duane Brown. Brooks practically learned by osmosis.
“Zone blocking, you have to have a certain type of offensive lineman,” Brooks said. “With the zone, it’s not necessarily about powering dudes off the ball. You’ve just got the beat a dude to a spot and then front side, stretch it, back side, cut. As simple as that is, to perfect that is pretty tough. It has to be choreographed all the time. Learning how to run that at a young age [helped me out].”
The zone also happens to be the perfect offense for one-cut wrecking ball Jay Ajayi, recently acquired from Miami via deadline trade.
“[Ajayi] was a beast in Miami,” Brooks said. “Running hard, running fast, super smart back too. Can pick up protections, knows what’s going on from a big-picture standpoint. Jay’s the real deal. When you add Jay to the team, it’s just like damn.”
Ajayi didn’t waste time in introducing himself to Philadelphia, ripping off a 46-yard run on a zone-read play that was executed to near perfection.
Brooks and teammate Jason Kelce deserve the nods on this play. Kelce deftly hooked safety Justin Simmons to create an inside seal, and Brooks moved all 335 pounds across the field, meeting linebacker Brandon Marshall at the second level and blocking him into defensive back Bradley Roby. In getting the good ol’ two-for-one in the process, Brooks cleared the way for Ajayi to outrun deep safety Darian Stewart to the pylon for a score.
“[I was] just trying to track the linebackers down, knock them to the safety and tried to show off the speed a little bit,” Brooks said with a sly grin. “Ain’t got as much has as Jay does, though.”
Five-flat 40 time aside, Brooks didn’t need the straight-line speed on another scoring play in the first half.
Rookie running back Corey Clement chipped the rushing Von Miller before slipping out to catch a screen pass from Wentz. He then cut it up field and ran right off Brooks’ left hip past multiple defenders and Roby — who was just out of reach due to a poor pursuit angle — and into the end zone.
Speaking of that necessary choreography, the timing with which all three linemen vacated the box to get out in front was remarkable. Their internal clocks were about as in sync as possible, even with each in a different situation at that exact moment. As a result, Kelce and Johnson got out in front of Brooks, allowing him to survey before targeting a defender.
“I saw Kelce and Lane get out first,” Brooks recounted, “had the open gaps and I saw them do that and saw them hold their guys down and just turned it up field and it was a first-color kind of situation.”
By first-color, he means block the first man who’s not wearing the same color as you. It’s a simple concept that’s difficult to execute in line with teammates. The Eagles do it better than most, which is why record-wise, they’re the best in the league.
The versatility of Philadelphia’s offense is even on display when linemen aren’t quite as much of a factor, such as the quick passes thrown out of shotgun sets, which take the pressure off the linemen to sustain blocks and allow the Eagles to establish a rhythm in the passing game. It’s the effectiveness on other plays, though, and the job the unit does selling different plays as those that makes this team liable to explode at any moment.
“We do a lot of different stuff out of a lot of different formations,” Brooks said. “It’s not like ‘this is what they do well, so we’ve got to stop this.’ We get it, it’s the National Football League. Not everything is going to work every day. This ain’t working, well, we’ll do this. Something’s going to work.”
Take this passing touchdown to Alshon Jeffery.
Run-pass options — or RPOs — are all the rage in broadcasting right now. They’ve been around for over a decade, but they’re the buzzword in 2017, especially because they’ve finally leaked into the NFL after being in the college game for 10-plus years. Here’s one right in front of you — and it works because Denver is forced to respect the zone run.
Wentz makes the wrong read on the designated read man — Miller, on the edge — in not handing off to Ajayi, but fortunately for Philadelphia, Jeffery was reading to react as well. Having single coverage based on pre-snap alignments, Jeffery was free to read and run a go route if he deemed it proper to do so. When Wentz pulled the ball out of Ajayi’s arms, it was time for Jeffery to hightail it down the sideline.
Wentz recognized Miller hadn’t crashed down, meaning he needed to get rid of the ball quickly or else meet Miller head-on. Also aware of the single-high safety pre-snap look from Denver, Wentz tossed the ball in the open space between Aqib Talib — who was a beat slow to react, thanks to earlier running successes — and Darian Stewart to Jeffery, allowing the receiver to make a play. Jeffery caught the well-placed pass and sprinted to the end zone for a touchdown.
On that play, the majority of the offense (receivers included) blocked it like it was a run. Kelce was four yards downfield when Wentz released his pass. It’s difficult for a defense to stop a pass play when 75 percent of the offense is executing it like it’s a run.
This play is the culmination of everything mentioned above. Philadelphia’s versatile line allows it to do a lot of different things, which makes it difficult for defenses to predict. Add that with the playmaking ability of players like Wentz and Jeffery, and you have an offense that’s tough to game plan for, and even tougher to stop.