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Eagles’ Offense At Its Best With Short Passing Game

Nov 2, 2011, 11:11 AM EDT

The Eagles' offense has been more efficient while committing fewer turnovers over the past two weeks, sparked by a change of philosophy in their passing attack.

When Andy Reid came to Philadelphia in 1999, he brought along a version of the West Coast Offense from Green Bay. However, at various times throughout Reid’s tenure — including much of 2011 — his offense often appeared as though it were running an entirely different scheme altogether, one predicated on challenging opposing defenses vertically.

In recent weeks, the coaches seem to have gotten away from trying to hit a home run on every drive. They shortened Mike Vick’s drop, relying instead on a quick release and timing routes, while mixing in a healthy dose of the run. The Eagles are finally executing the West Coast Offense the way it was designed, and it’s the single biggest reason for their improved consistency over the last two games.

Let’s briefly refresh our memories of what the West Coast Offense actually is, as you may have been trained to think of it simply as chucking the ball a whole lot. Basically, it’s a system where the majority of the receivers’ routes are closer to the line of scrimmage. The quarterback is supposed to drop back, read the defense, and quickly fire a low risk, high-percentage pass.

If I’m oversimplifying this myself, it’s because that’s the important part, or at least what’s different about the Eagles’ attack all of a sudden. Ever since they lessened the focus on the down-field assault and started utilizing more quick hitches, hooks, slants, and screen passes, passing plays are developing faster, and the offense is operating much more efficiently, subtracting all the negative plays and turnovers in the process. Here’s why:

Improved protection
The offensive line has looked pretty solid the past two weeks, and while it’s partly due to their rookie linemen beginning to settle into a comfort zone, and partly due to guys stepping up no matter when or where they are asked to play, there’s another clear-cut difference from now compared to the first five games.

They aren’t be asked to protect nearly as long.

Whether it’s a base four-man rush or an overload blitz, neither has been as effective because by the time the rush reaches the quarterback, the ball is usually out. Dallas tried like hell to bring the heat on Sunday night, but Vick continuously had the answer, checking down or throwing the ball away or scrambling. When the Eagles were losing all those games a month ago, there were too many times where pressure equated to a backbreaking sack or turnover.

Dominant receivers making plays with the ball
DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin are two of the better wide receivers in the NFL, and Jason Avant is very productive in the slot. They also have a pair of athletic tight ends, and LeSean McCoy who can do damage out of the backfield as well.

You’re telling me when the other team dials blitz, there isn’t somebody almost automatically open immediately after the snap?

The Eagles’ receiving corps is built to beat one-on-ones. Yes, they can also burn the defense 90 yards down the field, but that’s provided the quarterback has all day in the pocket. Nobody would argue they should eliminate those shots entirely either, but these guys can do damage underneath. Sometimes a short completion will only result in a seven-yard gain, and sometimes they will break loose and turn it into a big play. First thing’s first though — get the ball into the hands of the Pro Bowlers, and let them work.

celek.flight

Celek emerges
Instead of being forced to help in pass protection on many downs, Celek has more freedom to get into the passing game. You can see already how big of a factor he can be in this offense, catching seven passes for 96 yards and a score on Sunday night, and four balls for 42 and another TD two weeks ago.

I can’t think of a negative about getting the number one tight end more involved, and it seems when the ball is coming his way, the offense operates so much more smoothly. Celek is only a year and a half removed from a season where he caught 76 passes for 971 yards and eight touchdowns, so it’s no secret he can play.

Trust the O-line to give Vick three seconds, and get Celek out into space where he’s at his best.

Sustaining drives, killing clock
An efficient passing attack predicated on completing short passes does two things. Number one, it creates manageable down and distance. Number two, the raised completion percentage keeps the clock moving.

A seven-yard pass to Maclin may not be as exciting as an 80-yarder to Jackson, but more often than not the deep ball is going to fall incomplete, giving the offense 2nd and 10, while Maclin’s route is a high-percentage play that puts the offense in a friendly 2nd and 3. That sort of down and distance opens up the entire playbook, which keeps the defense guessing, while leaving a minimal gain to convert in order to move the chains.

Which brings us to part two, dominating the time of possession. This comes with a number of its own benefits, such as keeping your own defense fresh, and forcing the opponent’s offense to stand helplessly on the sidelines. As we saw with Dallas, it was almost impossible for the Cowboys to implement their game plan, as they only had the ball for about 18 minutes. Couple that with falling behind early, and the Eagles were able to control the flow of the game by controlling the clock.

Vick’s improved decision making
All of this has resulted in smarter decisions by Vick. His 75% completion percentage on Sunday night was his best of the season, as he found open receivers quickly and got rid of the ball. The clock in his head also seemed to be working faster — if he hadn’t dumped the ball after his first couple of reads, he started looking to escape the pocket, usually before the pass rush was already on top of him.

The most critical result has been fewer turnovers, which of course equates to fewer drives ending without points, and fewer giveaways that put the defense in the difficult position of defending a short field.

The offense was supposed to be the strength of this team, and while the defense will continue to be the bigger question mark for the time being and quite possibly the remainder of the season, the onus is on Mike Vick and his mates to put the other unit in a better position to succeed, and it’s on Reid and Marty Mornhinweg to design a game plan that plays to their strengths.

They’ve finally done that the last two weeks. It wasn’t just the emergence of LeSean McCoy, or the absence of turnovers — it was a change in philosophy, and one they should stick with because it works.