A reported 23,000 fans showed up to the Linc Sunday to watch the Eagles practice, and while there were games and photo ops and autographs galore, the most exciting thing people in attendance might have experienced was … misdirection.
Screen passes. Play action. Working to get the stable of running backs in space and using newly-signed LeGarrette Blount as much as a battering ram as, well, a decoy.
“You don’t want to be predictable by personnel,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich told reporters this weekend. “If all of a sudden LeGarrette comes in, you don’t want them just to think run. But we actually like that predicament because we try to use it to our advantage. So LeGarrette comes in the game, he’s a workhorse runner. We know teams fear him running the football. So play-action.
“Are we going to run many drop-back passes with him in the game? Probably not,” Reich said. “And it doesn’t matter — you can tell every team in the league that we’re going to run the football and we’re going to run play-action, that in itself. All you’ve got to do is run a handful of play-action to keep them honest because the play-action plays tend to produce — you get those linebackers stepping up to stop him, it creates huge holes in the secondary.”
Reich talked about last season’s yards per attempt numbers — the Eagles ranked 29th in the NFL — when discussing how Blount being in the game but not handling the ball can still help make the offense more explosive.
“If you get a good running game like that and those linebackers start stepping up,” Reich said, “all of a sudden, we get a lot of 20-yard completions by those guys. We’ll take that problem.”
Having Blount in the backfield will certainly be a good “problem” for the Eagles offense to have. Last season they were woeful in red zone scoring, finding the end zone just 49 percent of the time, the 24th-best rate in the league. On third-or-fourth-and-short situations, the Eagles converted 52.6 percent of their 78 attempts, the fifth-worst first-down rate in football.
Reich addressed those specific short-yardage situations and how Blount can still help when defenses stack the box to stop him.
“When you have a guy like that in there,” Reich said, “and there’s a little bit more concentration on him, it does allow you to be a little bit more creative to try to create some big plays off that in short-yardage situations. We’ll certainly look to do that this year.”
The concern for any offense is becoming predictable. Reich flat-out admitted the team won’t be in drop back situations when Blount is in the game, relying on runs or play-action passes. Last season, without a battering-ram back like Blount, the Eagles still ranked 12th in the NFL in play-action percentage, running the misdirection play 19 percent of the time on offense. Per Football Outsiders, The Eagles gained 8.3 yards per play using play action and just 5.4 yards per play without it. According to FO, the Eagles had the second-fewest yards per play when not using play action in 2016. So it’s not as if Blount is going to change the offensive game plan much. He’s just going to make it more effective.
Coach Doug Pederson spoke with reporters Sunday and addressed what Blount has already started to mean for his offense. Remember, we’re one week into preseason camp.
“I think just knowing and kind of watching him last year, what he did with New England on their Super Bowl run, just the impact that he had in the red zone. I constantly find myself going back and watching those touchdown runs that he had.”
For a guy who trades on coachspeak, that’s the kind of coachspeak Eagles fans should be excited to hear. Pederson scheming for Blount is one thing, but constantly going back and watching what New England was able to do with Blount last year is entirely another.
With the Patriots last season, Blount carried the ball 299 times in the regular season and another 35 times in the playoffs. His production dropped as the season went along, which led to fewer carries in December, January and into the playoffs, but of his 299 regular season carries, 68 came in the red zone, 25 of which resulted in a first down, including 16 touchdowns.
The Eagles only had 16 touchdowns on the ground last year as a team, 15 of which came in the red zone (and 26 first downs) on 77 carries. Pederson knows Blount can change that. He also made sure to check off all the early-camp talking points (the real coachspeak) when praising what Blount can bring to the Eagles this season.
“He’s a big, physical, downhill runner.”
“He’s got great vision.”
“That big body in the backfield I think can, for a defender, present a big problem.”
What Pederson didn’t say is, Blount might also be able to catch?
Blount has just 56 receptions in his eight-year NFL career, including just 19 during his four years in New England. And it’s not like the Eagles are going to need Blount to catch the ball out of the backfield this season with Darren Sproles, 2017 draft pick Donnel Pumphrey and second-year back Wendell Smallwood also slated to get reps. But, as Reich said, keeping defenses honest when Blount is in the game will be important, and what better way to keep a defense honest than to play-action pass to a guy with good hands who rarely catches the ball?
More than likely, Blount won’t see much work in the passing game outside of the occasional shovel pass or reception when a play breaks down and Wentz is looking to dump the ball off rather than taking a hit himself. But how the rest of the backs fit into the rotation this preseason may shed some light on how the running back rotation will work come September.
“We want to get them all touches,” Pederson said of his running backs. “We want to get them all reps during camp. Again, we’re in an evaluation process. We’ve got to see what these guys can do. We want to see LeGarrette [Blount] obviously in our system running our plays. We know with Darren [Sproles] and Wendell [Smallwood] coming off the injury from last season, so getting him back out there. Just a matter of getting them equal time. But at the same time, seeing how this time of year how they will play out and how they will fit into our offense going into the regular season.”
That answer was regarding a question about the veterans, but surely Pumphrey will be worked into the mix at some point in the season too, if not right away. Which is another reminder that it’s the one week into camp.
“These guys, they just have to get their opportunity and get enough carries,” Reich echoed. “I think it’s ‘to be determined’ exactly how that running back rotation works out, but those guys have been looking good so far.”
Whatever the Eagles can do to take the pressure off Wentz having to throw the ball 607 times again will undoubtedly makes the Eagles better on offense. Last year, Ryan Mathews was the team’s leading rusher and he had just 155 carries. Sproles, who is well into his mid-30s now, had 94 carries and 71 targets (52 receptions) in the passing game. Smallwood and the other backup backs combined for 132 carries.
Blount won’t need another 299-carry season like he had last year in New England. That’s crazy to expect. But if he gets 200 touches, that will take the pressure of the other backs, and allow for Wentz to throw the ball a lot less. And a few of those seven one-score losses might turn into wins.
(Quotes via the Philadelphia Eagles public relations staff and first-hand transcriptions.)