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Versatility Defines Eagles Offense

Posted Jun 2, 2014

Who lines up where? How does a defense know how to zero in on Zach Ertz when the second-year man could line up in a handful of spots in the Eagles offense? The beauty of this offense is in its multiplicity ...

Who lines up where? How does a defense know how to zero in on Zach Ertz when the second-year man could line up in a handful of spots in the Eagles' offense? The beauty of this offense is in its multiplicity.

Head coach Chip Kelly is lauded for his approach to offense, for the way he uses every inch of the field and takes advantage of spacing and attacks weaknesses and puts defenses on their heels in the course of the game. Kelly calls a game brilliantly, setting up a late-game call with an earlier move, thinking two and three and four steps ahead of the defense.

No question, as the Eagles work in their second week of Organized Team Activities and bring everyone up to speed in preparation for Training Camp, the Eagles have a lot of good things going with the offense. They led the league in rushing last year. They led the NFL in explosive plays. They ranked fourth in points scored.

And they've added more pieces that can be used in a variety of ways, accentuating the importance of versatility in personnel -- in the groupings of players they can use through the course of a game and in the multiple ways each player can be employed.

This is exciting stuff, visionary in many ways. The Eagles traded with New Orleans in March to acquire running back Darren Sproles, and the idea of Sproles being used as a change-of-pace running back to spell LeSean McCoy is a fun prospect. Combine that skill with Sproles' ability to play many positions around the formation and to allow the coaches to line him up in space against a linebacker on drag route across the middle conjures visions of big, big chunks of yards gained.

"I think, if anything, they encourage it more here, that distinct spot where a tight end or back has to line up, those few positions they can rotate to, is not really a rule here," said quarterback Mark Sanchez, who played for five seasons with the New York Jets prior to signing with the Eagles as an unrestricted free agent in March. "If anything, they rather that you move around. And that's what makes these guys so dangerous. They've drafted guys that way, that can kind of do both things. It kind of lends to the players' strengths."

So, then, it is accurate to suggest that this is an offense without rules? That there are no boundaries and that anything goes for the Eagles offense? Is it that extreme?

"There are some rules, I mean, plenty of rules," said Sanchez. "They just do it in a way that makes guys free. They have a little bit of freedom. They have some ownership in it and they really seem to enjoy it. The energy here is great. Both sides match up -- both the skill set of the players and the coaching. It's a very good fit."

A terrific example is Ertz, who is what the modern-day NFL tight end is all about. He started his NFL career behind the rest of his offensive mates when, as a rookie, Ertz missed all of the team's Organized Team Activities waiting for his Stanford class to graduate. Ertz caught up and by the end of the 2013 season was a prime target for an offense that became the standard in franchise history.

Ertz is back for more in Year 2, and there are many ways he could be used. He's fast enough to line up wide in the formation. He can stand up in the slot. He can start in the backfield and go in motion. And, yes, Ertz is improving as an in-line blocker and can release off the line of scrimmage to work in a rotation with the deep tight end group that includes Brent Celek and James Casey.

Versatility, says Ertz, is what this offense is all about.

"I think that's the biggest thing," said Ertz. "Our offense is all interchangeable, whether it's the receivers, tight ends or running backs. You have to be able to play all over the field. That's a big thing for Chip and for everybody else."

Think about it. McCoy and Sproles are as multi-purpose as backs can be. The tight ends can all run and they all work hard on improving their blocking. There is nothing one-dimensional about them. And the receivers are counted on to learn all three positions and to block in the running game.

The Eagles return most of the same personnel they used a year ago, so Kelly and offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur have some options with their personnel groupings and the way they deploy the players. There is some youth mixed in at wide receiver, and if Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff want to contribute as rookies, they have to get up to the challenge mentally first, and then physically when the pads go on.

"It's huge," said Matthews, when asked about versatility. "I think everybody understands that you can't be one dimensional in this offense, that you have to be able to do a lot of different things. That's why you have so many versatile guys in the offense. I'm just trying to find my way to best fit into that."

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