In 2013, the football-watching world wanted to know if new Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly's offensive wizardry would work in the NFL. The answer was an emphatic yes: Nick Foles, LeSean McCoy, DeSean Jackson and Co. averaged a fourth-best 27.6 points per game.
This season, we all want to know if they can do it again.
In their third preseason game, the Eagles faced the always-fierce Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Foles, McCoy and new change-of-pace tailback Darren Sproles looked great. Philadelphia scored the first 24 points of the game, eventually building a 31-7 lead before surrendering two late Steelers touchdowns.
If what the Eagles managed to do against Pittsburgh is any indication, they are again primed to race through the NFC East—and, maybe, the postseason.
Foles took a little while to warm up. He looked tentative in reading and executing and a little shaky when he pulled the trigger. Through all but the last play of his first two series, he'd completed just four of his 11 passes for 45 yards.
On the second drive, thanks to one of those ever-prevalent defensive holding calls on a critical 3rd-and-5, the Eagles managed to get down to the Pittsburgh 22-yard line. Two straight Foles incompletions left the Eagles facing 3rd-and-10 from there.
If he failed to convert, the high-powered Philadelphia offense would be left to hope for three points after an 11-play, 58-yard drive.
That's when Kelly donned his wizard hat.
The Eagles lined up in a three-receiver, two-back shotgun set, with rookie receiver Jordan Matthews as a tailback, he and McCoy bracing Foles:
The Steelers were in a 2-4-5 nickel package, with linebackers Jason Worilds and Lawrence Timmons set to blitz. Rushing four and dropping seven on 3rd-and-10 makes plenty of sense, but Kelly and the Eagles anticipated this. As Kelly likes to do, four linemen match up with four rushers one-on-one, setting up a conventional pocket—but leaving right guard Todd Herremans free to release into the flat.
Foles' fake to Matthews does just enough to freeze the linebackers in coverage, keeping plenty of space open underneath for McCoy. Here's where the magic happens:
The center, left guard and left tackle all go turnstile at once, letting their men past them. Now it becomes a classic screen pass. Center Jason Kelce and guard Evan Mathis pirouette into the flat, leaving three Steelers with a free shot at Foles—but Foles has already gotten rid of it:
Now McCoy has half a field to himself and three blockers in front of him. There can be only one result:
It's one thing for a quarterback to halfheartedly fake in one direction and throw in another. It's an entirely different thing for the offensive line to help sell a straightforward swing pass before pivoting to screen block the opposite way.
Kelly used misdirection to both create a man-on-man numbers advantage and ensure plenty of open space to maximize that advantage. It's classic Kelly.
With the momentum and confidence of the big play in his favor, Foles got hot. After the touchdown, he went 14-of-17 for 112 yards—that's an 82.4 percent completion rate. He did throw an interception, but that was the result of Sproles tripping over a lineman while Foles lobbed him a screen pass.
Foles told Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer he's felt the passing offense pick up speed throughout the preseason.
"I felt like we improved every week as a unit, and as a team," Foles said. "We went out there and got in a rhythm faster and started moving the ball."
Will the 2014 Eagles exceed last season's 10-6 record?
The best part of the night, though, wasn't Foles and the passing game at all.
It was the way McCoy, Sproles, new acquisition Kenjon Barner, rookie Henry Josey and 2013 practice-squadder Matthew Tucker rolled over the Steelers on the ground. The five Eagles tailbacks combined to take 31 carries for 183 yards and three touchdowns, averaging a whopping 5.9 yards per carry.
It's this combination of power running, clever passing and in-game adjustments that make the Eagles so difficult to stop—and why Kelly's one of the best football minds in the game.
There are still some questions about Foles' consistency over the long haul, and superficial injuries to both McCoy and No. 1 receiver Jeremy Maclin raised a brief Twitter panic about the Eagles' depth.
That said, there's only one conclusion to draw from this excellent Thursday Night Football performance: Kelly's Eagles aren't a one-year wonder.