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Fans knew Duce Staley as Andy Reid’s first franchise running back, a blue-collar and passionate halfback who anchored the ground game early in Reid’s tenure.
Offensive linemen knew Staley as an extra blocker in the backfield, someone whose blitz pickup was as central to offensive success as his ability to move the chains.
Staley, recently promoted to running backs coach under new head coach Chip Kelly after a two-year stint as special teams quality control coach, is making it his mission this year to round his pupils into better form.
To him, the process begins with improving pass protection and mastering the art of film study.
“Oh, no doubt. Picking up the blitz is an attitude,” Staley said Monday. “That’s one thing I’ve learned since I played in this league, and Ted [Williams, former running backs coach] and I used to talk about it all the time. You’ve got to have that want to. You’ve got to have the will to go up there and meet a guy face to face and punch him in the mouth.
“I told the running backs last year, ‘When you come off that field, make sure you’re the one that’s doing the whipping and not [being] the [whipped one]. You’re not the guy that got dropped on your neck.’
“I had heated conversations about that, even when I played with other backs or other fullbacks, halfbacks, about picking up the blitz because in this offense, in this league, you gotta pick the blitz up or you can’t play.”
Staley, a third-round pick of the Eagles under Ray Rhodes in 1997, rushed for a career-best 1,273 yards in 1999, his first year under Reid, and went over 1,000 yards three times in eight seasons with the Eagles. He moved onto Pittsburgh in 2005 and won a Super Bowl with the Steelers.
As Reid’s West Coast offense evolved behind quarterback Donovan McNabb, Staley’s ability to keep extra rushers off McNabb’s back became the halfback’s hallmark. His understanding of blitzes and opposing schemes enabled the Eagles to match their opponent power-for-power in the trenches on shotgun formations by having interior offensive linemen matched up against defensive linemen and leaving the “A” gap void.
The unprotected space allowed linebackers or defensive backs to shoot through the gap, but Staley ensures that there were no free rides to the quarterback.
Staley was the first in a Reid pipeline of West Coast halfbacks who mastered the art of pass protection, followed by Correll Buckhalter and Brian Westbrook, who shaped himself into one of the NFL’s best at blitz pickup.
LeSean McCoy, the Eagles’ current Pro Bowl halfback, never had to pass protect in college at Pittsburgh but has improved since his rookie year. Still, McCoy is far from the level of his predecessors.
He and rookie Bryce Brown each had their pitfalls last year as teams threw one blitz after another at the Eagles, another reason for the struggles of the offensive line. Staley promises that they won’t be liabilities in 2013.
“I’ve told them. Even when I wasn’t the running backs coach, we’ve had those conversations,” Staley said. “One thing about this league, you know, we’re not the only organization that has a film room. You know, they’ve got film, they’ve got projectors all across the NFL. Your body of work is on that reel, so you never want to be known as a guy that shies away from contact. None of the guys I have will.”
Speaking of film study, Staley also plans to have his halfbacks become better students of the game. It’s not just about watching film. It’s about what the film tells them and how they parlay what they detect on tape onto the field.
“I tell all the young guys when they come in, ‘You have to learn to watch the film.’ And I don’t mean you’ve got to learn where’s play on the clicker and stop on the clicker,” Staley said. “You’ve got to know what you’re looking at, you’ve got to know who you’re looking at, you’ve got to know how they’re attacking you.
“That’s one of the things I learned at an early age. So I look at McCoy and McCoy watches film, but those guys have to understand how to study film and take what they watched all week long and when they go under the lights on Sunday they’ve got be able to say, ‘OK, I see the alignment. OK, I know he does this, this or this.’ And narrow it down and play fast.”