Philadelphia Eagles All-Pro LeSean McCoy often reminds people of Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders. Not unlike Sanders, McCoy is practically untouchable in the open field, and he has an uncanny ability to turn broken plays into huge gains. Their greatness is they could make it look as though they broke down an entire defense by themselves.
Of course, McCoy is never alone out there. For one thing, the NFL’s leading rusher through 14 weeks is blessed to play behind one of the best offensive lines in the league today. That, and the Eagles wide receivers and tight ends are fully committed to the cause of running the football.
Take Jason Avant, for instance, one of the Birds’ unsung heroes this season. A 30-year-old slot receiver with a dismal 29 receptions on 63 targets this season, Avant has drawn criticism for his ineffectiveness in the passing game. Yet despite being held without a catch against the Detroit Lions during Philadelphia’s 34-20 win on Sunday—not to mention McCoy running for a franchise-record 217 yards—No. 81 may have made the play of the game.
After all, it was Avant’s block that helped spring Shady’s 57-yard gallop to the end zone to put the Eagles on top for good. The veteran receiver took out not one, but two Lions defenders to plow the road for his running back. Let’s walk through the play.
Avant is going to engage nickel cornerback Bill Bentley roughly five yards away from the line of scrimmage—it’s hard to tell exactly with a foot of snow covering the yard markers. It’s not where the block starts though; it’s where Avant finishes, which is with Bentley in the lap of safety Louis Delmas.
The eighth-year veteran drives his man some seven or eight yards backward into the Detroit secondary, which is going to cause problems. Delmas is the last line of defense, and he’s trying to keep the ball-carrier in front of him, but McCoy sets up the safety by faking like he’s going to bounce the run outside before making a devastating cutback up the middle.
Delmas may not have been able to recover anyway, but he has zero chance after bumping into his own teammate. That’s how one man blocks two.
Later, Avant discussed that play, and his willingness to block in general, with Philadelphia Daily News columnist Les Bowen:
"It was one of those plays where I knew he was coming behind me and I just tried to grab my guy and run him into the safety. Shady actually made a cut and was able to put me in a position to block both," Avant said.
Avant (6', 212 lbs) said it isn't that unusual for him to advocate for running to his side.
"Usually, I'm bigger than most nickels," he said. "If we can get past the front line, I just feel normally it's an advantage in the run game. One of the reasons we run the ball so well out of the three receiver [sets] is that I'm usually bigger than the nickel."
It’s far from just Avant though, nor is this merely a recent development. If we go back to Week 1 and watch McCoy’s first touchdown run of the year, we’ll find Avant and Riley Cooper clearing passages for the running game from the beginning.
This play doesn’t even start to their side. Avant and Cooper are playing possum when the ball is snapped, just sort of jogging around the field until McCoy makes a man miss and cuts it back in their direction.
Avant sprints ahead of McCoy and takes out one of the defender’s legs. Cooper never even turns around to look for the ball; he just keeps his man in front of him. Coop’s isn’t even much of a block, but at 6’3”, 222 pounds, it doesn’t have to be. He seals off the smaller cornerback without incident.
The offensive line got things started by clearing a huge hole at the point of attack. McCoy even beat one man himself. But it was Avant and Cooper who allowed this play to go 34 yards for the decisive score.
Even the diminutive DeSean Jackson (5’10”, 175 lbs) is doing what he can. You won’t see him laying out defenders down the field like some of the bigger players on the team. Yet in a surprising upset, Jackson has actually graded out as the best run-blocking receiver for Philadelphia this season, according to metrics by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
As with the play involving Cooper above, it doesn’t always have to be a pancake block to be effective. Sometimes, all it takes is being willing to get in a guy’s way.
Last but certainly not least, there is tight end Brent Celek, who Pro Football Focus charts as the 11th-best run-blocking tight end in all of pro football this season (subscription required). He’s so good, head coach Chip Kelly almost thinks of Celek as an extension of the offensive line, listing No. 87 right alongside the true unsung heroes of the Eagles' offense at Monday’s day-after news conference. Via PhiladelphiaEagles.com:
71, 65, 62, 79, 69, 87. We've got some guys that can block, and we've got a very, very talented running back. … This whole deal is a personnel‑driven thing, and we've got some really talented guys on the offensive line. We've got a really talented tight end when it comes to blocking.
Kelly has been effusive in his praise of Celek’s blocking on multiple occasions this season, particularly after games when the Eagles were able to run out the clock in the end, such as at Tampa Bay and Green Bay. He’s not featured as much in the passing game as he was under Andy Reid, but his contributions are no less important.
With 1,305 yards, McCoy needs five more to set a new career high. He’s got 84 yards on the league’s second-leading rusher with three weeks to go. If Shady finishes the year as the NFL rushing champion, he won’t be buying gifts for just the offensive linemen. He better pick out Rolexes for the Birds’ wide receivers and tight end, too.