Biggest Changes in the Philadelphia Eagles' Play-Calling for 2009

Derek MooreCorrespondent IMay 11, 2009

Eagles fans have long criticized Andy Reid's pass happy philosophy.  Last year he left some fans scratching their heads(many beating their heads) after a completely unbalanced offense produced a tie to the lowly Bengals, a blowout at Baltimore, and a hideous 10-3 loss at Washington.

While there doesn't figure to be any major changes in the Eagle's offensive playbook this season, there might be a slight shift in play-calling due to personnel changes, especially on offense.

Long time players such as Runyan, Tra Thomas, and Buckhalter are gone.  But new faces such as Jason Peters, Stacey Andrews, Leonard Weaver, Jeremy Maclin, and Lesean McCoy should allow the Eagles to run a more balanced(but still pass first) offense, as well as being more consistent overall from week to week.

Play-calling might also change up a bit on the defensive side of the ball.  Jim Johnson plans to coach despite being diagnosed with cancer, and he will still run the same aggressive brand of defense.

But added depth in the secondary might convince him to change up the rotations as well as use different personnel packages.

Here is a closer look at how the newcomers will effect the play-calling on both sides of the ball:


Run the Ball More In General(miracles happen)

The Eagles only ran the ball 427 times in 2008, compared to 606 passing attempts.

That ratio figures to be more balanced this season, and here's why:

Despite late season success running the ball against Arizona and New York, the Eagles had a very ineffective ground game.  Especially in short yardage situations.

They only averaged 4.0 yards per carry for the season.  The only teams to do worse were the Rams, Bears, Lions, Steelers, Bengals, Cardinals, 49ers, and the Colts.

The Cardinals, Colts, and Steelers, along with the Eagles, were all playoff teams, with the Steelers winning the Super Bowl.  So obviously yards per carry isn't an exact indicator of team success.

But all nine of those teams have one thing in common:  None of them had a very good run-blocking offensive line.

Not even Indianapolis or the Super Bowl champion Steelers.

And especially not the Eagles. 

Shawn Andrews missed most of last season, and that killed the interior running game.  Offensive tackles Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas were also in their mid thirties, and they couldn't create holes for the ground game like they used to. 

Both Runyan and Thomas were still great pass blockers, because pass protection relies heavily on technique.  They just could no longer make holes for Westbrook.

In addition to that, Dan Klecko, who was converted from defensive tackle to play fullback, struggled for most of the year.  Tight ends L.J. Smith and Brent Celek couldn't block very well either.

Take all that into consideration, and it's easy to see why Big Red abandoned the run so many times last year.  It also explains all of Westbrook's nagging injuries.  Running backs usually get hurt if they don't have decent blocking in front of them.

Don't believe it? 

Look at the nine teams listed again.  What were their situations at running back last year?

A lot of those teams lost their starters to injuries. 

An argument can be made that running back is an often injured position, but better blocking helps prevent injury.  It reduces the amount of hits and especially the hard hits a running back takes.

The Eagles did a great job addressing their run blocking needs this off season. 

They acquired Jason Peters, an all pro left tackle, from Buffalo.  They also signed Stacey Andrews from the Bengals and fullback Leonard Weaver from the Seahawks.

Shawn Andrews is also coming back from injury, which will aid the run game.

Reid will still continue his pass first philosophy.  But this year he will run the ball a lot more than he usually does, because he has the personnel to do so.

More Halfback Screen Plays

The screen play has always been a staple in Andy Reid's offense, but last year there was a dramatic drop-off in the number of called screen plays. 

Once again, Westbrook's nagging injuries and the lack of physical blocking from fullbacks, tight ends, and offensive tackles were probably the main reason the Eagles rarely called screens.

Assuming that Stacey Andrews moves to right guard, Shawn Andrews and Jason Peters will give the Eagles an athletic tandem at tackle that will allow Reid to call as many screens to Westbrook or McCoy as he wants.

More Play Action Passes

Last season the Eagles lacked a good running game, which hurt the effectiveness of the play action pass.  It also hurt the vertical passing game.

Westbrook now has a revamped offensive line along with a good fullback, and he should have gaping holes to run through.  That means defenses will pay much more attention to the running game, which in effect opens up the play action pass.

Considering the Eagles have three speedy receivers in Curtis, Maclin, and Jackson, the Eagles should have a lot of success throwing it deep this year. 

And, if safeties respect the deep ball, then that will open up the running game and the short passing game (quick outs, curls, drags, screens, bubble screens etc.)

Last year Reid often tried to use the short passing game in order to supplement the run, but this didn't always work, especially if a defense dropped seven defenders back into pass coverage.

All in all, the Eagles will still be a pass first team.  But this year they will have much more all around success and be more balanced, both in the running game and the passing game.


More Nickle and Dime Packages

With all the depth the Eagles have in their secondary, Jim Johnson should use more nickle and dime packages.

Right now the Eagles have five serviceable corner backs.  Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown are the best starting duo in the NFL, and Ellis Hobbs should be great as a nickleback. 

Or perhaps Jack Ikegwuonu lives up to his potential and becomes the nickle corner.  Hanson also played well when Lito was benched last year, but this year he figures to be buried on the depth chart.

The Eagles could potentially have a very dangerous dime package as well, especially if Ikegwuonu is up to speed.  If they brought in four corners and two safeties, they would have Samuel, Brown, Hobbs, Ikegwuonu, Sean Jones, and Mikell all on the field at the same time.

There is not another team that could even come close to matching that dime package.

One interesting possibility is for Johnson to put Demps, Jones, and Mikell on the field all at the same time.  An offense wouldn't know whether or not the extra safety was going to be blitzed or simply drop back into coverage.

The loss of Brian Dawkins was a big blow to the Eagles, as he was commonly the eight man brought into the box.  But Sean Jones can assume that role, as one of his strengths is making plays at the line of scrimmage.

All of this depth in the secondary should help when playing a pass happy team like the Saints in week two.  

It definately helps the Eagles schematically, as they ask their corners to do a lot of pressing and man to man coverage.  Having a high amount of quality corners will aid that philosophy.

More Blitzes for Gocong

For those who don't know much about Chris Gocong, he plays strongside linebacker, and he has made a lot of progression in his two years as a starter. 

He is a converted defensive end, and making the switch from the trenches to linebacker is not an easy one.  Linebackers have to be instinctive, especially in the Eagles complicated defense where players often have multiple assignments.

As a defensive lineman, Gocong could just attack upfield.  But when he made the switch to linebacker, he had to learn how to read plays, and how to play the run and the pass. 

When the ball snaps, instead of just mauling an offensive lineman, he has to read what is called a key(basically looking at what the offensive lineman do). 

If the offensive lineman fire out of their stance, it is probably a run.  If the guard pulls, usually it is a run. And if the offensive lineman retreat into pass protection, it is most likely a pass play(but could also be a draw).  And so on and so forth.

All of this happens in seconds, and Gocong has to process this information as well as remember the defensive play, where he is supposed to go, and where he is on the field.

Gocong has done a good job making the switch to linebacker, and has played great against the run.  But his cover skills have been questioned, as well as his pass rush ability.

At the start of the season, Gocong struggled in covering tight ends.  Teams were spreading their tight ends out in space to counter the Eagles aggressive style of defense. 

But Gocong gradually improved his coverage skills, and Johnson changed a few things schematically, such as dropping the safeties into a zone coverage more often instead of blitzing them constantly.

He also did not provide enough of a pass rush when he was blitzed.  He definitely has to improve on this aspect of the game.

One area where he played well all season long was against the run.  Gocong was a very consistent run stuffer, and he is one of the reasons that the Eagles defense has been considerably better against the run the past few years.

Anyways, this will be Gocong's third year as a starter.  He should have progressed in all of the above areas.  And if that's the case, Johnson will probably blitz Gocong more so that he can provide more of a pass rush.

One play Jim Johnson could call for Gocong is called an Under Smash.  This is a common fire zone scheme used in the NFL, though the Eagles did not run this play very often last year.

In an Under Smash, the strong side linebacker (Gocong) lines up right next to a defensive end, and sometimes they line up with their hand on the ground.  Gocong should have no problem with this, as he is a former defensive end.

When the ball snaps, the defensive end on the other side drops back into coverage, while the strong side linebacker, middle linebacker, and the other 3 defensive lineman attack the quarterback.

To see a diagram of this play, click here:

Obviously this is just one play.  But it fits in well with what the Eagles do, and it will give Gocong an opportunity to rush the passer, something the Eagles coaches want to see from him.

Look for Gocong to record several more sacks next season.


Special Teams

The Eagles should be great in the return game this season. 

Whether it's Ellis Hobbs or Quintin Demps returning kicks, and whether Desean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin return punts, the Eagles will have very good special teams. 

No more losing games because of special teams.  The returners the Eagles have now are miles ahead of the former Eagles return men, like the slow footed Reno "he might get there someday" Mahe.

A rule change in the interest of player safety will make returning kicks more challenging, however.  This year no more than two players can form a "wedge" on kickoff returns.

This means the Eagles might have to get creative with their blocking schemes, as will all the other teams in the NFL. 

Maybe the Eagles will get really creative and put Quintin Demps and Ellis Hobbs back to return kicks at the same time.  That sure would be interesting.