By Ben Sullivan
What a difference a half made.
After a sloppy, scoreless first 30 minutes, the Eagles rebounded to a win at home against the young, inexperienced Jacksonville Jaguars.
But this Eagles offense has changed from last year. DeSean Jackson and Bryce Brown are out. Jordan Matthews and Darren Sproles (photo above jump-starting the Birds with a 46-yard TD run) are in. And second-year tight end Zach Ertz is the now featured tight end.
And while LeSean McCoy is the leader of the offense, and Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper still command the starting spots on the outside, it’s Ertz, Matthews and Sproles who have become the key to the passing offense.
Ertz finished with just three catches, one of them a 26-yard touchdown, and was targeted on just five of Nick Foles’s 45 passes. But his presence in the passing offense as a seam-stretching threat, as well as his positioning in the short-area routes, consistently drew attention from linebackers and safeties, opening up much-needed throwing lanes.
On the field for around 65 percent of the Eagles’ snaps, Ertz was asked to play in the slot 25 times, as an inline tight end 19 times, as an outside receiver on five plays and as an H-Back four times. Ertz got his statistical reward with a touchdown, but the defense was clearly honed in on where he was each and every play.
Coach Chip Kelly’s offense, especially when working off of the read-option, loves to attack the middle of the field, with either speed receivers in the slot to split safeties, or big targets to adjust past the linebacker level. The Jaguars expected and reacted to the read-option mid-field pass, but Ertz’s presence there provided one-on-one vertical opportunities for Maclin and underneath routes for Matthews throughout the game.
While his numbers weren’t outstanding (two catches, 37 yards on four targets), Matthews’s stat-line could have been a lot different had Foles connected with him with better success in the first half. While his snap count dropped a bit after the first half (still finished with 51 snaps, all of them in the slot) thanks to Ertz getting more work in the slot and the running game having success, Matthews is the team’s featured slot receiver in an offense that puts a premium on mid-field threats.
Two errant throws by Foles, had they been thrown better, could have turned into four catches for 100-plus yards and a touchdown. Matthews displayed crisp routes on the interior, getting to his top speed quickly and taking advantage of safety/linebacker match-ups.
Matthews’s true value in the offense, other than being a gifted route-runner in the short area and finishing blocks in space, is his patience on in, drag and seam routes to establish position and give Foles a throwing lane. While it didn’t produce today, his versatility is much more highly valued and utilized by the Eagles offense than Maclin or Cooper, and his expected targets, and eventually touches, are sure to only go up from here.
Last but not least, the traded-for Sproles clearly showed he’s the Eagles’ most versatile player. Along with being the primary punt returner, Sproles finished with 24 snaps — six of which were with McCoy also on the field — had four catches for 14 yards, and finished with 11 rushes for 71 yards, including a 46-yard touchdown run.
Sproles spelled McCoy with great success, playing the same laterally explosive style that McCoy boasts, showcasing his ability to break a big play at any point. His touchdown run came in the no huddle, with the Jaguars not quite set up when the ball was snapped, and Sproles running up the middle for a 49-yard touchdown.
And in the passing game, on one particular play in the third quarter, Sproles ran a wheel route, opening up the underneath route for McCoy. While it only resulted in an eight-yard gain, it was a clear indication that not only will the Eagles be using both as the complementary runners, but also using both together in the passing game. It’s a scary thought for defenses that, despite the Eagles having the ability to run a one receiver, two tight end and two running back set, all of them could be dangerous receiving options.
The Eagles offense will be run through McCoy. It will still offer big plays by Maclin and potentially, Cooper. And Foles will still need to be the efficient passer he was a season ago.
For Kelly, it’s about keeping the offense unpredictable and the opposing defense off balance. He opted to let Jackson and Brown go, opting for a new stable of playmakers. The second-year Ertz, the rookie Matthews and the new addition Sproles all have quickly made their presence felt in the Eagles’ offense and have already assumed control as the deciding factors in a highly productive offense.
They’re Kelly’s new pieces. It’s not the big moves that always win in chess. It’s the efficient, consistent and strategic moves throughout the game that ultimately lead to victory. Using those non-primary options is how Kelly’s offense was able to find success in the second half. And relying on Ertz, Matthews and Sproles to set-up the scoring plays and drives won’t be fading away anytime soon.