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Examining The Philadelphia Eagles Running Game

The Eagles lead the NFL in rushing. Shady McCoy is second in the league in rushing. How is this happening? What made Andy Reid embrace the ground game?

The Eagles lead the NFL in rushing. LeSean McCoy is second in the league in rushing. These statements are pretty hard to fathom for Eagles fans who have followed the team during the Andy Reid era. The team finished seventh in rushing yards in 2002 and ninth in 2003. Both years there was a running back by committee approach and quarterback Donovan McNabb was hurt or missed games. There had to be a focus on the run game.

The 2011 Eagles are loaded with elite skill players. Quarterback Mike Vick is healthy. There is no group rushing attack. This year Shady McCoy is the workhorse back and arguably the Eagles best offensive player. There has been an evolution in regard to the Eagles run game and how/why it works.

Reid built the run game around the I-formation for most of his career. Duce Staley followed Cecil Martin up the middle a lot. Brian Westbrook ran behind Jon Ritchie, amongst other fullbacks. McCoy is second in the NFL in rushing, but fullback Owen Schmitt isn't on the field for even half of the plays. This is the new NFL.

Pro football teams have learned from college football. It is much easier to run against a defense that is spread out. In order to do this, the offense must also line up in a spread set. To make the run game truly effective, the offense should be able to throw the football from the spread set. The Eagles do all of this well.

Defenses fear wideouts DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Those guys have tremendous speed and playmaking ability. You could see in the Dallas game that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan kept his safeties very deep for most of the game. A lot of teams do that when facing tghe Eagles. That leaves nine defenders for the offense to deal with. If you consider that the cornerbacks and wide receivers cancel each other out, you're down to seven defenders in the "box" area. Since the Eagles run so many three-receiver sets, one of those guys is usually a corner (who is covering Jason Avant). You now have six linemen/linebackers to go up against five offensive linemen and a tight end. That is one blocker for each defender. That is a win for the offense and all of this has happened before the ball is even snapped.

Think about how the first play of so many games is a deep ball to Jackson or Maclin. Those passes haven't been getting completed this year, but those passes have a major impact. Coaches study the tape and see the receivers getting down the field. That causes the coaches to be hesitant about only keeping one safety back. Those deep incompletions are part of the success of the running game. And don't think that is something random. Reid has a plan for everything he does (never, ever read the notebook about what to do after eating bad tacos).

Think about this. The Eagles haven't handed the ball to McCoy yet. They haven't blocked anyone. But they have already set up a favorable situation and begun to win the battle of the run game vs the run defense.

McCoy had some success running from spread sets in his first couple of years. Still he was more of an option than the primary focus of the offense. McCoy's effectiveness in part came from the fact that teams didn't care about stopping the Eagles run game. They focused on Vick and the receivers. McCoy averaged less than 14 carries per game in 2010.

One of the reasons the Eagles didn't run more was lack of consistent production. McCoy hit for some big runs, but there were plenty of plays when the run game delivered "okay" results and that's all. The new spread running attack was great in theory, but one problem was the blocking. The Eagles had mammoth linemen that could overpower players at the point of attack, but who weren't going to make blocks at the second or third level.

Enter Howard Mudd and the new line. Jason Peters is huge, but is a great athlete. Evan Mathis and Danny Watkins are the guards. Both guys are just over 300 pounds and good athletes. Center Jason Kelce is one of the most athletic linemen in the entire league. Todd Herremans is now at right tackle. He lists at 320 pounds, but doesn't look that big. He's a good athlete just like the other guys. Suddenly, blocking on the second and third levels isn't an issue. It is actually now a strength of the line.

Now we're seeing McCoy consistently getting good gains. Last year he had seven runs of 20 or more yards. This year he has eight such plays in half the games and with 72 fewer carries. Reid can count on his running game to deliver the kind of yards he wants. McCoy leads the NFL in yards per carry (for players with 100 or more carries). He only has one run of more than 40 yards so this isn't a case of huge runs offsetting minimal gains. McCoy is getting a good mixture of 5, 10, and 20 yard gains. Less explosive, but more consistent.

McCoy is a huge key to the success of the new run game. I've already talked about the scheme and the blockers. McCoy is a gifted tailback, but he isn't a run of the mill back. If McCoy played in a standard offense that did line up in the I-formation and pounded the ball between the tackles he would be productive, but not necessarily special. The Eagles new system fits him perfectly.

The new run game is a horizontal attack. McCoy gets the ball and then is able to read blocks and run to daylight. His greatest skill is his lateral explosion. Most runners can move laterally, but not like McCoy. He's able to stop on a dime and then explode to his right or left. He can then fly up the field. Seeing the hole or cutback lane is half the battle. Getting there is the real challenge. McCoy excels at this.

I think plenty of fans see McCoy running in space with no one near him and they assume the defense just stinks. That's not always the case. On many plays the line gets a flow going in one direction (usually the right). The coaches build in a cutback lane. McCoy then is able to make the explosive cut to the backside of the scrum and there is a major gap in the defense. McCoy has the burst to get up the field quickly and he's up to the second level in a flash. These plays are helped a great deal by the fact that guys like Mathis and Kelce can get to linebackers and block them. That eliminated the initial pursuers and McCoy just has to deal with the players in front of him.

The Eagles have made this play even better by pulling a tight end from the strong side and having him block on the back side. Brent Celek and Clay Harbor blocked DeMarcus Ware like this quite a few times on Sunday night. They sealed Ware and gave McCoy a definite path to the second level. In order to keep defenses honest the Eagles have added some wrinkles. Sometimes McCoy does stay on the front side of the play. He has to do that so teams can't fully count on him trying to cut back. The Eagles added a screen pass to the pulling tight end last week. That's just something else that teams will have to account for.

You can see that the Eagles have the right scheme, blockers, and runner. There is a cyclical nature to this. Each element makes the other elements better. What puts the run game truly over the top is the presence of Mike Vick. Defenses still get very nervous about him. The Eagles run out of the shotgun and it looks just like the read-option that college teams use so effectively. There was a play Sunday night when Vick bobbled the ball and couldn't make a clean hand-off to McCoy so he kept it and ran for a first down. Opposing players and coaches see this and it plants a seed that Vick must be accounted for. The Eagles occasionally will leave a defensive end unblocked to see if he'll go for McCoy or if he'll focus on Vick. This allows a blocker to go get on someone else.

The Eagles have two games this year with more than 230 yards on the ground. The team had one game last year with more than 200 yards. The next such game is all the way back in 2007. No Reid team has ever had three games with more than 200 yards in one season. It will be interesting to see if the team can keep up this pace. This definitely isn't the same old offense. Remember the eight straight carries against the Giants at a time when the Eagles were losing?

Reid hasn't suddenly become a running coach. He'll always be a pass first guy. What he has done is adapt the running game so that it is now more of a high percentage play. Instead of the old saying "three yards and a cloud of dust", Reid is going with the theory of 5.4 yards and plenty of running room on the back side. The results speak for themselves. Can you imagine how crazy it would be if the Eagles led the league in rushing for the season and McCoy won the rushing title? 2011 has been one strange season, but that would really be off the charts.