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Cowboys' Game Plan Week 15: The Eagles Offense

The big question about preparing for this offense is whether or not the Eagles will come up with a different game plan for the Cowboys' defense.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

As I have mentioned before in previous articles, Chip Kelly does not run the "Pistol" offense, however, he does use the pistol depth extensively. The pistol formation or pistol offense has the running back lined up in the "I" formation at about seven yards deep with the quarterback lined up about five yards deep. The Shotgun normally has the quarterback lined up about seven yards deep and the running back directly to his right or left at that same depth.

Kelly actually has kind of a combination of the shotgun formation and the pistol formation as the quarterback is at the pistol depth of about five yards deep and the running back is lined up to his side at about six yards deep. This can be easily seen in most of the screen shots below. I mention this because there are so many misconceptions about his offense and especially about what his offense is all about.

While Kelly uses the zone-read play, he does not use the read-option play. The zone read is about attacking one defensive player, usually the defensive end, and trying to get a numerical advantage at the time of the hand-off, while the read-option can involve the quarterback running with the ball and then pitching the ball to a back after reading the defenders' commitment to him or the back.

In FIG-1 below I show one of the 21 zone-read plays that the Eagles ran against the Cowboys. The blue arrow shows how Mark Sanchez is "reading" the action of the left defensive end and then based off of how the LDE commits, he will either hand off to the RB or he will keep the ball and either roll out and pass or run.


FIG-2 shows one of the times the Eagles lined up with their "21" personnel. The red arrow shows how Darren Sproles motions to the strong side and Sanchez passes to him for four yards. The concept is that the receiver will try to seal the outside of the DB (in the blue circle), and that will also shield off the LB who will try to get over to get the RB before he can get shielded.


As we see in FIG-3 the LB was late getting there and so the CB, Brandon Carr, made the tackle. Notice that Chip Kelly has what he wants, and that is to defeat the defense by gaining a "numbers" advantage. There are two Eagles in the blue circle against only one Cowboy in the red square.


FIG-4 shows Sanchez lined up at the pistol depth and LeSean McCoy lines up one yard behind and to his left. In the vast majority of times the RB will cross in front of the quarterback for the hand off, and usually the play will go to the side he is running towards, which in this case would be towards the right.

Again, this happens to be one of the 21 zone-read plays that the Eagles ran.


FIG-5 is a continuation of the play in FIG-4 above. Notice that the Cowboys' defensive end crashes down the line to try to tackle LeSean McCoy instead of maintaining the edge, and Sanchez pulls the ball and takes advantage of this assignment failure and goes behind the DE and scores.


FIG-6 shows another example of a win the "numbers" game for Kelly. Notice that there are four Cowboys defenders in the three red circles, and two of them are in the box. One might think that one of the two in the in-the-box circle should move out to take the slot receiver, but that would be incorrect as the safety needs to come down to take the slot receiver because the two in-the-box defenders need to defend the zone-read possibility.


In FIG-6a we see what happens when the Eagles have a numbers advantage as the slot receiver, Jordan Mathews, takes the short pass and then Kelly shows why he loves big receivers - the receivers will block the smaller corners and try to seal to provide an open lane to the outside for Mathews. We can also see that the two in-the-box defenders can not possibly get there in time and the safety did not cover either.


FIG-7 shows how the weak side back goes in motion and this time correctly draws a defender (red arrow) with him. The concept was to hand off to McCoy and go outside to where the defender just vacated. In this case Barry Church held McCoy to just one yard gain.


FIG-8a shows how once again the zone-read influenced the defensive end to lose contain (red arrow) and Sanchez was able to keep the ball for a five-yard gain.


FIG-9 is another example of how important "assignment" football is. Sanchez (blue) runs the zone-read and the defensive end (red) takes the bait, but worse yet, the DB (dark red) takes the wrong angle. Instead of going straight up field to set the edge, he also commits to the inside run.

I should mention that our BTB leader Dave Halprin has a very good article on this very subject of the Cowboys making the mistakes of poor "assignment" football in this article published December 8th. In the article he shows additional examples of how the defense made numerous mistakes.


In college Chip Kelly was known as a coach who was excellent at putting in new wrinkles each week and especially for the next time he faced the same opponent. But there are also times where he would stick with what worked. So, in case he will use the zone-read again this time, we will look at how some teams have been successful at containing this play. Notice I said play, and not offense.

First, there are several ways to counter the zone-read, such as shown in this article that discusses the "Gap-Exchange" method, but the key is to play sound assignment football by maintaining gap-integrity. The basic premise of defeating the zone-read is to take away the idea that the defensive end has to make a decision by having him always do the same thing, such as always taking the running back, and have someone else assigned to the quarterback. The defense also needs to focus on stopping the running game, and that means stopping McCoy and Sproles.

Next, while two excellent defenses, the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams, both use a lot of man-to-man coverage and mix in a lot of creative blitzing, one of the problems with going to man-to-man is that the defensive players will have their backs towards the quarterback which means a successful scramble will gain a lot more yards.

Not only do the Rams and Cardinals use a lot of man coverage, but so did the Seattle Seahawks in their last meeting and we all know how successful they were. However, in fairness, they do have more talent on defense and that certainly has to be factored in as a big part of their success. In addition, press-man coverage can disrupt the timing of the Eagles pass plays.

Some interesting stats that came out of my analysis of the last match-up:

  • The Eagles ran 62 plays at pistol-depth to only 15 plays from under center. And of those 15 plays under center, six came on their last possession when they were just running out the clock.
  • They only ran five of what would be called normal play-action passes.
  • They had ten possessions that resulted in two touchdowns, four field goals, three punts and a kneel down.

So, it will be interesting to see if Rod Marinelli will be conservative or go to a more attacking style, with lots of stunts and blitzes and press-man coverage, and in addition if he can make sure our defense does a much better job of playing the zone-read,  and playing better assignment football.

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