Darren Sproles may no longer have the same explosive talent we are accustomed to seeing from him at this point in his career, but given his skill set and the role he could play in Chip Kelly’s offense, the new Philadelphia Eagles running back can still create positive matchups within the game plan.
Today, let’s look at how Kelly can utilize Sproles next season, talk about specific game situations that cater to his ability and break down the matchups that will allow the Eagles to get the most out of the veteran back in 2014.
The Matchup Game
When watching Kelly’s offense on tape, the first thing that stands out is the use of personnel and alignment to get the proper matchup on the field.
Some examples include: the tight end position, with Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, when the Eagles have their Ace/12 personnel (2WR-2TE-1RB) on the field; the multiple alignments (plus pre-snap movement) Kelly utilizes to get the football to his wide receivers; the bunch/stack formations or the Hi-Lo concepts that create one-on-one situations for the running back releasing on the wheel or angle—and those are only a few.
Think of Sproles as just another option for the Eagles out of the backfield or removed from the core of the formation as a receiver. As Kelly noted, per Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com, the diminutive speedster is an incredibly versatile talent.
"Darren Sproles is an unbelievable offensive weapon. He can do it all, run, catch, plus he’s a proven winner. And on top of that, he can bring all of those dynamic skills to the return game as well."
As Sheil Kapadia recently wrote in his All-22 breakdown at Birds 24/7, Sproles’ impact should come via the passing game under Kelly, where he can win versus a linebacker or safety in space.
Going back to the tape, here are a few of examples from New Orleans where Sproles was put in the proper situation to win as a receiver:
Three-Step Slant vs. Pressure
With the Cowboys showing open (weak) side pressure (single-high look, safety rolled over the slot), Drew Brees can identify the blitz and throw “hot” to Sproles, who is matched up against a strong safety playing from an off-man position.
Given the cushion—plus the quickness Sproles can generate at the top of the route stem on the break—Brees has a clear throwing lane to unload the ball, avoid the pressure and pick up a positive gain.
Option Route vs. Cover 1
This is as basic as it gets, with Sproles removed from the core of the formation versus the Seahawks Cover 1 “Robber” look.
However, in a 3rd-and-medium situation, the option route is a smart, high-percentage concept. The Saints will clear out cornerback Richard Sherman on the 9 (fade) route (create space) with Sproles working off the linebacker's leverage.
This is an easy read for Brees that allows the Saints to pick up the first down.
Swing (Pick) Route vs. Cover 1
The Saints get the look they want from the Rams (Cover 1) to target Sproles on the quick swing route versus a linebacker (Alec Ogletree) in coverage.
With the ball on the near hash and the wide receiver in a reduced split at the top of the numbers, the Saints can essentially “pick” Ogletree and dump the ball to Sproles.
With Ogletree working under the “pick” from receiver Marques Colston, Sproles can secure the catch, get vertically up the field and move the sticks.
These are just a couple of examples from the Saints tape. However, when breaking down Sproles’ ability to win those matchups based on his skill set/formation flexibility, you can see why the Eagles traded a fifth-round pick to secure the running back.
Projecting Sproles’ Scheme Fit in Philadelphia
Given LeSean McCoy’s talent, production and big-play ability in the Eagles' running game, we shouldn’t expect Sproles to steal carries from the No. 1 back in Philadelphia.
That doesn’t mean Sproles can’t run the football in the Eagles’ packaged plays (inside zone) or align in the dot (behind the quarterback) to find lanes in the split zone scheme, though.
However, we should focus on how he fits in the Eagles' route concepts, where Kelly can align Sproles in multiple spots on the field to take advantage of that lateral quickness plus vision after the catch.
Here are some concepts to think about:
The Hi-Lo series (Hi-Lo, Hi-Lo Crossers, Hi-Lo Opposite) shows up often in Kelly’s game plan, as it forces defenders to work through traffic and match to their coverage versus inside breaking routes in Cover 1.
Plus, with the running back releasing out of the backfield on the wheel concept, defenders are caught in a trail position against speed up the numbers.
Here’s a pre-snap look of the Eagles' Hi-Lo Mesh scheme out of Posse/11 personnel (3WR-1TE-1RB) versus the Cowboys in Week 17.
With DeSean Jackson in motion and a tight split to the closed (strong) side of the formation, the Eagles can create inside traffic (crossing routes) and get the exact matchup they want: the running back versus a linebacker.
Now, let’s check out the same concept versus the Redskins’ Cover 1 scheme.
Again, the Eagles get the same matchup (running back versus a linebacker) that puts the defender in an adverse position (back to the football) with no help from the free safety over the top. That's a big play for the Eagles.
The Eagles' boot schemes show up inside of the red zone (Cover 1; Cover 0 from opposing defenses), and Kelly will mix his personnel/alignment to get the best matchup to the flat.
In this situation versus the Cowboys, the Eagles motion Jackson into the backfield (Pro Split), with Foles using play action (riding Jackson through the mesh point). That forces the second-level defenders to stick their eyes in the backfield, and it also allows McCoy to burst to the flat.
The linebacker gets stuck in the wash and can’t recover to match his coverage (McCoy). As a result, Foles can now dump the ball off the boot action for six points.
Sproles can run the ball out of the gun in the Eagles' packaged plays (multiple reads for quarterback), but how about removing him from the core to run the bubble screen? He has the skill set to find running lanes in the open field with blockers out in front.
This is a similar type of play the Eagles ran in Week 1 last season with Michael Vick in the lineup.
The Eagles quarterback rides the running back through the mesh point and has the option of keeping the ball, throwing the tight end seam or looking up No. 2 on the bubble screen.
Here is the same situation with Foles at quarterback versus the Vikings out of Slot Open formation (trips to the open side).
Foles can hand the ball to the running back on the inside zone, keep it or target Jackson on the bubble screen.
Immediate Impact in 2014?
Due to the concepts we just broke down, plus the screen game out of the backfield (shoot and slip screens), Sproles is in the right system with Kelly when we look at the proper fit for the veteran back.
There is no question that McCoy is the featured player in this offense at the running back position, but the skill set Sproles brings to Philadelphia shouldn’t be undervalued.
Whether that is moving the sticks on third downs, winning versus a safety in the open field or producing an explosive play on the wheel route, Sproles can still contribute because of the matchups he can create within Kelly’s system.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.