Even though most coaches and their coordinators believe in their base system (ex. Power Running Game for Minnesota Vikings) and their “system” playbooks are usually based on years of repetition and familiarity.
Each year there are always a few new NFL trends out there waiting to be unearthed and incorporated into team’s playbooks. In 2008, the Miami Dolphins showed the world it’s version of the Single Wing formation called the “Wildcat” and pretty soon the entire National Football League (NFL) jumped on board.
After the Dolphins had success against the Patriots in Week 4 (38-13 win where they churned out 216 rushing yards–eventually ran 12 percent their entire offensive plays in 2008 out of the formation), the tricky Wildcat popped up everywhere. The Wildcat was incorporated in some fashion in almost every NFL team’s playbook including the Philadelphia Eagles who ran eight times out of formation with receiver DeSean Jackson.
And to think the Dolphins only tried the Wildcat formation after their quarterbacks coach David Lee (coached the formation at the University of Arkansas under the name the “WildHog”) got inventive trying to find a way to utilize running backs Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown on the field at the same time.
Here are some changes that I envision in the Philadelphia Eagles’ playbook in 2009 due to shifts in team personnel and coaching staff.
Fresh Defensive Linemen should equal Pressure, Pressure, and More Pressure –
Taking a page from the 2007 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, the Eagles now go at least six guys deep on the defensive line (Darren Howard – Team leading 10 sacks in ’08, Trent Cole – 9 sacks, DE Juqua Parker – 5 sacks, DT Mike Patterson, DT Broderick Bunkley, DE Victor Abiameri, DE Chris Clemons, DE Bryan Smith and returning former fullback DT Dan Klecko). The increased depth and versatility in the Eagles front four from getting Smith and Abiameri back healthy plus the return of the cat-quick Klecko to their defense will allow for a rotation of fresh bodies throughout games.
Sure the Birds’ NFC Number 1 ranked defense had 48 sacks in 2008, but the majority of the sacks came from all over the defense and by the end of the season many of the D-linemen were battered and bruised. If you remember the Eagles only sacked Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner twice in the NFC Championship Game (once each by DE’s Trent Cole and Victor Abiameri early in the game).
But overall the venerable passer had all-day in the pocket especially in the Cardinals game-winning drive in the 4th quarter as he threw for 279 yards and two scores in the game. With the depth along the Birds D-line, Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson and interim Defensive Coordinator Sean McDermott will now be able to throw fastball after fastball at quarterbacks.
Look for more natural pressure from the Eagles’ front four and less blitzing, which often times leaves the secondary exposed to big plays. We will see if the Eagles 2009 D-line can duplicate the NFL high 53 sacks that Steve Spagnuolo’s 2007 Giants defense produced, but you know McDermott and Johnson are studying their former colleague’s schemes.
Two-headed monster in the backfield –
Around the NFL there is a growing trend of having at least two quality running backs playing in games to keep defensive coordinators guessing. Last year several teams including the Carolina Panthers, Tennessee Titans, and NY Giants (Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward both over 1,000 yards in 2008) utilized two backs keeping constant pressure on defenses with fresh legs in the backfield at all times.
Who could blame them as today’s NFL usually necessitates having two running backs because the position is so demanding (inside power runs, match-ups, mismatches, hands, blitz pickup, etc). However some reason over the years the Eagles have always leaned heavily on soon to be 30-year old RB Brian Westbrook (only 936 rushing yards in 14 starts in ‘08) causing the Pro Bowl runner to slowdown at the end of the season.
In the NFC Championship Game, Westbrook was clearly not himself finishing with pedestrian numbers (2 receptions for 26 yds, 12 rushes for 45 yds and 1 fumble) but during the game former Eagles running back Corell Buckhalter still was not called on as he only had 4 rushes for 21 yards. For some reason throughout Buckhalter’s Eagles career (only 76 carries In 2008) he was not counted on to fill the role as Westbrook’s compliment.
Often times Buck would wait an entire game to get a chance that usually would never come. I believe with the addition of University of Pittsburgh versatile running back LeSean McCoy (5-11, 210, 4.49) in the 2nd round of the 2009 NFL Draft will allow the Eagles to finally have a true 1-2 punch in the backfield.
McCoy is an elusive runner with great lateral moves and as a receiver he runs great routes and has soft hands, should get about 10 to 15 touches a game to help B-West. His career college totals were 2,816 yards and 35 touchdowns rushing and 65 catches for 549 yards receiving in just two seasons at PITT.
I can envision plays where offensive coordinator Marty Mornhingweg flexes Westbrook out in the slot and has McCoy in the backfield leaving defenses wondering who is getting the ball. Also watch for McCoy, Westbrook, and possibly Lorenzo Booker to contribute on 3rd downs catching the football.
Utilization of a “True Fullback” –
To say the least, the Eagles were abysmal in short yardage situations during the 2008 Season. I hate to bring it up, but the Eagles week four 24-20 loss to the Chicago Bears was a prime example.
The Eagles had just one TD in four red-zone opportunities, were 1-for-3 in goal-to-go situations , and converted just 2-of-13 third-down situations. Everyone remembers that game, because over and over the need for a “true” fullback in the Eagles offense was glaring.
Though defensive lineman turned fullback Dan Klecko was willing, unfortunately he either was unable to deliver a key block or run the football when needed most. Though he will never admit it, head coach Andy Reid and his staff had to see how weak they were on 3rd/4th down and shorts plus in the redzone running the football.
In the off-season the Eagles brought in former Seattle Seahawks bruising fullback Leonard Weaver to remedy the situation. The Birds will now have a bruising lead blocker so they can use more “I” formation running with running back Brian Westbrook running behind Weaver.
No matter how much Reid has not been a proponent of running the ball in the past, he has made steps this off-season to get bigger on the offensive line (OT Jason Peters and the Andrews brothers) plus added a blocking fullback. Hopefully the Birds will now push their way to more first downs and touchdowns in short yardage situations — the Eagles were 7-0 in ‘08 when they out-rushed their opposition
Spreading the field on offense –
The NFL game is now all about match-ups on offense. Offensive coaches now know that if they can get a player like Brian Westbrook (running back with speed and hands) in a foot race with a safety or linebacker they will almost find a big play every time.
With the addition of WR Jeremy Maclin (first round from Missouri), RB LeSean McCoy, TE Cornelius Ingram (5th rd from Florida) and WR Brandon Gibson (6th rd from Washington State) in the 2009 NFL Draft to go along with Westbrook and receivers Kevin Curtis and DeSean Jackson, the Eagles now have the speedy weapons that quarterback Donovan McNabb has so craved. The Eagles can now put multiple receiver and running back combinations together where they have speed to spread out defenses and cause mismatches.
Fans should look for offensive coordinator Marty Mornhingweg to put together four wide receivers (Jackson, Curtis, Maclin, and Hank Baskett) and one back (Westbrook or McCoy) formations on the field causing a defense to use all of their DB’s in coverage leaving the running back one on one. I could even imagine where the Eagles running an Arizona Cardinals’ type formation where they have five receivers and no running back bringing a run and shoot look to Philly.
The Eagles could also use tight ends Brent Celek, Cornelius Ingram, and Eugene Bright as H-backs out of the backfield the way the Indianapolis Colts use Dallas Clark. The combinations are endless (reverses, receiver screens, slants, etc) for Reid and Mornhingweg, but they must be creative and not revert back to the “Todd Pinkston” offense. The Eagles averaged 6.2 yards per pass attempt in 2008 ranking them 12th in the NFL.
The Wildcat and other trick plays will be back in the playbook –
With the selection of Mizzou ultra-speedy receiver Jeremy Maclin in the first round, the Eagles added a legitimate 4.4 forty player. Maclin is electric with the ball in his hands, so look for him and DeSean Jackson to form a speedy dangerous receiving duo for years to come.
A great open field runner, Maclin In ‘08 had 102 catches for 1,260 yards and 13 touchdowns as a receiver and 306 rushing yards with two TDs. Look for the Eagles to use more of the Wildcat formation (ran it eight times in 2008) as Maclin and Jackson both have familiarity with the taking direct snaps.
Maclin is also excellent as a runner on reverses too and he has an ability to make people miss in space. I would like the Eagles to see if Maclin can fill the Antwaan Randle El role in their offense and if he is comfortable throwing the football (was 1 for 2 passing in 2007 for 0 yards and 1 INT).
I could see lateral passes behind the scrimmage and throwbacks, the Wildcat, reverses, and receiver throws all added to the Eagles playbook if Maclin, Jackson, or Hank Baskett can throw the ball. Another tidbit regarding a former passer on the Eagles roster is that tight end Cornelius Ingram was originally a quarterback during his first two years with the Florida Gator, so he also is comfortable with the ball in his hands.
Versatility from linebackers –
NFL defenses are now built on hybrid players and schemes at the linebacker area. 4-3 teams often incorporate 3-4 schemes and pass rushing into their systems, because the 3-4 has come back in vogue in the NFL due mainly to the success of teams like the Super Bowl Champion Steelers for generating pressure.
3-4 defenses rely on interchangeable players, who can rush the passer and cover, so defensive coordinators want guys that can play all three positions (SAM, MIKE, WILL). The key is an athletic player with the ability to stay on the field for all three downs (think Patriots LB Adalius Thomas).
For years the Eagles linebackers have failed to make the game changing plays that are so common around the NFL. As a unit the Birds linebackers only produced 5.5 sacks and one interception in 2008.
However the continued maturity of middle linebacker Stewart Bradley and strongside linebacker Chris Gocong should give the Eagles two guys who have the versatility to both rush the passer and drop in coverage. Gocong especially could be a wildcard when it comes to getting pressure on the quarterback.
The former 2006 3rd Round pick was former small college sack leader at Cal Poly and he is adept at putting his hand in the dirt and getting after the passer. The Eagles in 2009 also might use smaller defensive end Chris Clemons more in the “Joker” role in their defense as he has experience as a stand-up linebacker on third downs.
The one spot in the unit that will probably need to be tweaked in training camp to provide more depth for a 3-4 look is the “WILL” linebacker. The Birds have Omar Gaither and Akeem Jordan at the position now, but I have heard rumors that they may bring in a veteran like former Rams weakside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa. Other LB’s who should contribute at the minimum on special teams are MLB Joe Mays, OLB Tracy White, and OLB Tank Daniels.
Interchangeable pieces in the defense’s secondary —
With so many teams running three, four, and five receiver sets (see Arizona Cardinals from the 2008 NFC Championship Game), the Eagles have added personnel to cope with pass-happy teams. The Eagles added versatile defensive backs Victor “Macho” Harris from Virginia Tech (5th round of the draft) and Ellis Hobbs (Draft Day trade with the Patriots) to assist their current core of CB Sheldon Brown, CB Asante Samuel, and CB Joselio Hanson.
Harris has the ability to play corner and safety, so he will be extremely valuable in nickel and dime packages. Hobbs, a former teammate of Assistant DB’s coach Otis Smith when they were with the Patriots, has very good man-to-man skills and should help in replacing former Pro Bowler Lito Sheppard (traded to Jets) plus provide insurance against injuries.
With so many versatile corners on their roster, the Eagles should easily be able to make adjustments for any personnel package and produce turnovers – 15 INT’s in ’08 ranking the Eagles 11th in the NFL. Eagles secondary coach and interim defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will also have a couple of versatile safeties in the mix in 2009.
Though veteran Brian Dawkins left for Denver, near Pro Bowl player Quintin Mikell will take the lead of the Eagles deep coverage unit. Mikell, Harris, free agent pick-up Sean Jones, and 2nd year player Quintin Demps should be interchangeable at free and strong safety positions.
By having three quality safeties, McDermott and Smith will not have to rely on having a traditional free safety that only plays the deep ball and a strong safety that only plays closer to the line of scrimmage.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award -winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)Posted in NFL Tagged: 2009 Eagles Trends, 2009 NFL Season, 2009 Philadelphia Eagles, Donovan McNabb, Football, NFL, Philadelphia Eagles, Sports