What will the next wrinkle in Chip Kelly’s offense be?


When the Eagles acquired Darren Sproles in the offseason from the New Orleans Saints, a majority of the NFL landscape wondered what Kelly could do with Sproles in an already electric offense, especially if he was in the backfield next to LeSean McCoy.

While most people didn’t expect to see much out of Sproles in the preseason, it was slightly alarming how little of a role that Sproles had this preseason. Neither him or McCoy really saw any meaningful touches, which in hindsight, might have been a big reason for why Nick Foles was so inconsistent in the preseason. Foles’ inconsistencies haven’t necessarily disappeared through the first two regular season games–I broke them down last night–but Sproles’ explosiveness has been a big reason for the Eagles being able to overcome those inconsistencies, and escape with a 2-0 record.

What makes Sproles’ early season dominance (I can say that, right?) so special is that it isn’t like Sproles is just now bursting onto the scene. Nicknamed “the lightning bug” Sproles became an extremely valuable dual-threat out of the backfield for the Chargers in the late 2000s, including scoring the winning touchdown during the Chargers’ 2009 playoff upset of Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. He had over 70 catches in his three seasons with the Saints.

Sproles isn’t new–he’s 31– yet despite moving into a new offense at what should be the twilight of his career, Kelly has Sproles looking as explosive as ever. He’s mixing him in as a runner again, Jason Kelce is blowing fools up as Sproles explodes on screens, and the team’s backup running-back has been their most valuable weapon in their offensive arsenal through the first two games of the season.

I know, it’s early. Teams will catch on to how the Eagles are using Sproles. Not every screen is going to turn into a 40 yard plus gain. Chip Kelly may cycle Sproles’ in and out of the gameplan, so he stays fresh and so that Chip can pull him back out on opposing defensive coordinators later in the season. So what’s next from Chip? 

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One of the best things about the Eagles playing on Monday Night, is that it allows me to sit back and really focus on the rest of the NFL on Sunday. I normally turn NFL Redzone on during the Eagles’ games on my laptop, but get so invested in the Eagles’ game, that I don’t feel like I’ve watched much of the rest of the NFL’s 1:00 games. I’ll catch some on NFL Rewind during the week or just the games replayed on NFL Network, but nothing is the same as watching the games live without a vested interest, and trying to see the little things or offensive trends. So I did that this weekend.

The most interesting thing I noticed came out of the Saints-Browns game. Numerous times in the game, including once for a touchdown, Sean Payton lined Jimmy Graham up on the outside against Joe Haden, and had Drew Brees make no bones about who he was throwing to–and it worked. Graham torched Haden, who is probably one of the top fives corners in the game, because Graham is 6’7″ and Haden is 5’11”. Despite how good he normally is in man-coverage, eight inches was too much to make up for Haden.

The Saints are 0-2, but if they turn their season around like most people anticipate, lining Graham up on the outside a few times a game might be dangerous once they get to the playoffs. Richard Sherman is “only” 6’3″. Patrick Peterson is 6’1″. Aqib Talib is 6’1″. You get it. Lining up a massive tight-end on the outside, either forces a undesirable matchup that can be exploited on the outside, or forces the opposing defensive coordinator to pull a safety (who still won’t be as big as the tight-end) or linebacker (who likely can’t run with a tight-end on the outside), which opens the middle of the field up. Don’t think Chip Kelly hasn’t taken notice of that.

Despite the fact that Sproles has propelled the Eagles to two 30 plus point games to start the season, the loss of DeSean Jackson‘s ability to stretch the field has been noticeable. Riley Cooper isn’t getting open nearly as much, and Jeremy Maclin hasn’t hit his stride yet. Jackson’s game-breaking speed gave them an advantage that most teams don’t have and opposing ones have to stay honest on, and that’s gone. While I fantasize what this offense could be with Sproles and Jackson, the Eagles have other advantages, and it’s just a matter of Chip pulling the right strings.

Look around the NFL? Who has a better tight-end duo than the Eagles? Maybe the Patriots with Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright, but those two are still getting their feet wet together. The one time in his year and two games that Chip Kelly really used both Zach Ertz and Brent Celek extensively in a game was against the Cardinals, in what turned out to be a crucial December win. Ertz caught five balls for 68 yards and Celek had four catches, as the Eagles beat the Cardinals in a game where DeSean Jackson was held without a catch.

Why Kelly hasn’t gone to more dual tight-end sets is beyond me, but the way that he replaces what he lost in Jackson has become clear. It only has to be a few times a game, but lining Ertz up as the X or Y receiver would really open up the middle of the field.

As I stated before, if you throw to Ertz on the outside, who isn’t 6’7″ like Graham but is still 6’5″, it isn’t ideal for the defense. Lining Ertz up on an island with a corner in the redzone, might solve some of the Eagles’ first half redzone issues. Lining Ertz up on the oustide, also could serve as a nice decoy. If you line him up outside, Celek and Jordan Matthews become inside options again, and when Celek makes catches in the middle of the field, the offense usually rolls. You could even line Ertz up on one side, line Celek up as a traditional tight-end, and not throw to either, and have a bubble screen set up on the opposite side of Ertz. Lining Ertz up on the outside would open up the middle of the field, could propel Celek or a screen, or could create a mismatch on the outside that leads to a big play for Ertz.

Chip is an offensive genius, and I will continue to say that. He had a quarterback struggling to make accurate throws last night, so on two crucial third and longs sets up plays where McCoy and Sproles are able to run the ball virtually untouched for massive gains. Even on nights where the offense doesn’t run perfectly, Chip calls plays that make your marvel.

The next one of those plays may involve a shift of Ertz to the outside, which would only open things up even more for an offense that has shown signs of being special, without having even put together a full game yet.