What do you get for the offense that has everything?
In 2013, Chip Kelly and his innovative, fast-paced Philadelphia Eagles offense took the NFL by storm, ranking second overall in yards per game and doing so at a clip that left defensive coordinators and commentators dizzied and grasping for answers.
The scheme and almost-maniacal level of execution helped quarterback Nick Foles put together a Pro Bowl-caliber season and helped LeSean McCoy reach a level of play lofty even for him. The sort of numbers they put together became a national storyline each and every week.
What if I told you it could get even better?
In Week 2 of the preseason, the Eagles may have lost 42-35 to the New England Patriots, but the offense was able to move the ball well (albeit with a few turnovers). Foles finished the game 8-of-10 for 81 yards and a touchdown while spreading the ball around to just about anyone with an eligible number on his jersey.
Now there are hurdles to clear this season and questions to answer. What if Foles takes a step back after playing out of his mind last year? What if the loss of wide receiver DeSean Jackson (now with Washington) leaves the team without enough options at wide receiver? What if a year of tape on Kelly's scheme gives defenses a chance to catch their breath?
None of that matters if tight end Zach Ertz becomes the player the Eagles drafted him to be.
Winning in the Seam Opens Up a Variety of Options
Kelly's offense is not about outthinking anyone; it's about out-preparing for everyone.
Where that mindset begins and ends is usually with the crazy number of reps in practice. At its core, Kelly's playbook doesn't need to be as big as Jay Gruden's or as complex as Josh McDaniels'.
Instead, it's a smaller number of plays that are drilled until the muscles of Kelly's players practically cry out to run them again.
I've often used the analogy that Kelly's offense is really just about a handful of bread-and-butter plays but that Kelly bakes the best-possible bread, milks the cow, churns the butter and then shoves buckets full of the aforementioned bread and butter down his opponent's throat until that team chokes on it.
This kind of scheme can't be thrown together willy-nilly, however, and each play in the set needs to be a logical extension from the plays before it. Start with something simple—maybe a zone read or a dive. Off that, you start talking about play actions, counters and other constraint plays (to keep teams honest) like screens.
When the playbook begins to take shape that way, it's less about playing mind games with opposing defenses and more about imposing your will and setting traps they'll almost certainly fall into.
For an a example of what that can look like, check out this passage from ESPN The Magazine's Seth Wickersham (via ESPN.com):
Vick then glanced left to throw a bubble screen, another Eagles staple. But as Denver's secondary flooded that way, Vick fired to tight end Brent Celek, who was left wide open on a post route by a defense overextended by four basic concepts.
The play went against the Eagles' tendencies twice and set up McCoy to find space on the simple zone run three snaps later.
That's just one example, but it highlights what Ertz can bring to the table in the light of this kind of game management.
Celek may not relinquish much of his "starting" role, but he's known more as a ridiculously tough blocker (as seen here against the Patriots) than a threat in the passing game. Ertz also showed what he can bring to the table in the game as he caught both of his targets for 26 yards and a touchdown.
Last season, many saw Jackson as the focal point of the offense, but that will almost never be the case with Kelly at the helm. The running game is where things begin and end. After that, Kelly would almost always prefer letting matchups decide where the passing game takes advantage.
For Ertz, that means dominating in the seam.
At Oregon, Kelly would kill opponents w/TE seam passes of inside-zone play action. Ertz could kill it w/B.Celek in "12" packages— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) April 26, 2013
Jackson won on the perimeter, and that's great because it loosens up the safeties as they have to float over to whichever side of the field he streaks down.
Ertz, though, presses those same safeties right up the field and makes their bodies turn as they struggle to cover him one-on-one. As he breaks off the line, the unlucky man assigned to cover him can't know if he's gearing up to block or head toward the goal line.
Worse yet, when dealing with a player of Ertz's straight-line speed and length, it's almost impossible to do anything but assume he's headed for the end zone. Off that ability to truly press the seam, the entire route tree is opened up from corner and post routes to chain-moving stop routes.
It also makes the run game that much more dangerous as described by Grantland's Chris Brown:
“We’re in two tight ends on this [left] side, so there’s concerns from a passing standpoint, but we have two tackles to the other side,” Kelly explained after the game. “With two tight ends to the left, the secondary support is on that side, so there’s no secondary [run] support to [the right] side.”
In other words, because defenses try to match the “strength” of an offense’s formation, Green Bay’s safeties followed the tight end and wide receiver left, which gave the Eagles a numbers advantage to the right: four blockers to handle just three defenders.
No offense to Celek, who has done a great job in his career of outplaying his expectations as a pass-catcher and taking advantage of teams that forget to cover him, but Ertz's natural ability will simply draw more attention.
Winning in the Red Zone Could Vault This Offense from Great to Historic
If the Eagles really want to take this offense to the stratosphere, they can't leave any points on the board.
Remember how I talked about their second-ranked yardage way up in the intro? Well, that was only good enough for fourth overall in points—10 points per game behind the epic display that was the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos.
Now, fourth overall isn't exactly anything to be embarrassed about, but the shame here is that things could've gone so much better. According to TeamRankings.com, the Eagles ranked only 13th in the league in red-zone touchdowns—punching it in on only 53 percent of their red-zone possessions.
Denver? It scored on almost 73 percent.
Against the Patriots, it was almost too easy where Ertz broke back on a sharp cut, catching a pass and using his strength to power himself into the end zone. It was textbook tight end play and one of the reasons the position remains so important even as it almost blends with the receivers in many schemes.
Saw Ertz do that all week: Makes himself big, boxes out defenders, makes contested catches. I think he leads Eagles in rec. TDs this year.— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) August 16, 2014
I'm not the only one who believes Ertz could have a huge impact in this regard. From PhillyMag.com's Sheil Kapadia:
Ertz had five touchdowns in the Eagles' last nine games last year. Four of those came in the red zone where guys have to be able to catch the ball in traffic and make contested catches.
Ertz is going to be the most utilized pass-catching weapon the Eagles have in the red zone, and it would not surprise me one bit if he led the team in receiving touchdowns.
Take that play that Chris Brown referenced earlier with the off-balanced set. Now, imagine you're a linebacker or safety who has seen that five times in the previous quarter, and you just aren't going to let it score from five yards out. So, you plow into the backfield—trying to blow the play up from the backside, right as Ertz scores on a simple swing route.
Or, take the same exact look and just run through the opposite scenario: The middle linebacker points at Ertz, who has probably put a couple of touchdowns on tape already, and you're not going to let him be anywhere near your zone, so he comes off the line, and you try your best to shuck him away and knock him off balance. By then, he doesn't even have to try to block you; McCoy's already in the end zone.
Take that exact same formation, and let your mind wander—that's a poor man's way of going through the exact same process that Kelly started when the Eagles brought Ertz in last offseason. It's a veritable treasure chest of situational possibilities in a scheme that is ready to use just about any of them at a moment's notice.
Let's separate Ertz from the scheme for a moment, realizing he would be set up for red-zone success wherever he was. From his NFL.com draft profile:
Tracks the ball well and does a nice job adjusting his frame to make the tough catch, extending and plucking. Looks like he has glue on his hands with some of the catches he is able to make. Does a nice job selling his patterns, getting good depth in his routes and immediately looking for the ball out of his breaks.
This isn't me telling everyone that Ertz will make us all forget about Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski. There are certainly deficiencies to Ertz's overall game. That said, his skill set is tailor-made to succeed in Kelly's offense and in the red zone, where the Eagles need him the most.