Wheel route abundant in Eagles' offense


Wheel route abundant in Eagles' offense

Chip Kelly’s newest weapon is showing off in training camp, embarrassing a defense powerless to find an answer. And his name isn’t Jordan Matthews, Ifeanyi Momah or Cary Spear.

It’s not even a he, actually. It’s an it.

One of the most prominently featured patterns throughout the first three Eagles practices is the wheel route, a simple but prolific route designed to get running backs involved in the passing game.

Time and time again last week, quarterbacks dropped back, surveyed the landscape and found that their best target was the guy who’s usually carrying the ball.

“You’re seeing it a lot, right?” LeSean McCoy said. “The thing is, how do you stop speedy, athletic, shifty backs that can run and also run routes?”

That’s the question Kelly hopes defensive coordinators can’t answer this season as he attempts to defend his first-year NFC East championship and advance past the first round of the postseason with an offense that no longer flaunts premier big-play wideout DeSean Jackson.

In McCoy and Darren Sproles, Kelly has two of the league’s best dual-threat weapons. Both are in the top five for catches by a running back since 2009, so it makes sense that he’d open the playbook to incorporate them more into the passing game.

The wheel route can create dangerous mismatches, especially against man defense, by pitting a sure-handed halfback in space against an outside linebacker or safety.

In the Eagles’ wheel route, the halfback usually lines up next to the quarterback in shotgun, giving a pass-protection look. After the snap, the running back heads for the sideline, giving the impression of a screen or quick flare, but suddenly rotates upfield -- hence the term “wheel route” -- to catch the defense off guard.

“You want it versus man (defense),” Sproles said. “When you get a linebacker on you, you got a good chance.”

After Jackson’s release, people naturally wondered how the Eagles would replace the wideout’s vertical threat, how they’d counteract defenses that would be more aggressive on blitzes without having to worry about getting beaten deep.

Jackson’s career 17.2 yards-per-reception average is third-highest among active wideouts. Since 2008, he and Mike Wallace have the league’s most receiving touchdowns of 30 or more yards.

Instead of trying to find Jackson’s clone, Kelly diversified his offense. He traded for Sproles, one of the best route-running tailbacks in league history, and dealt power rusher Bryce Brown to clear the way for Chris Polk’s integration into the offense.

McCoy last year totaled 539 receiving yards, seventh-most among running backs. He averaged 10.37 yards per catch, the highest of any running back with at least 27 receptions. Since 2007, Sproles leads all NFL running backs with 375 receptions, 3,371 receiving yards and 27 receiving touchdowns. Polk played wide receiver in high school and last year caught a 34-yard pass against Dallas on a wheel route.

What Kelly lacks in blazing outside speed, he compensates with more dimensions to his spread, no-huddle offense. He can insert Sproles for McCoy to get an even better pass catcher at running back. Or he can put McCoy and Sproles in the backfield together, forcing defenses to pick their poison. Or he can put Sproles in the slot and run the wheel route from an inside receiver position.

We haven’t even mentioned Polk yet.

And those are just obvious personnel groupings. With Kelly, opponents have come to expect the unexpected.

“We have a lot of guys that can do more than run the ball,” Polk said. “Especially if a [linebacker] is on us. We feel we should win that matchup anytime. We’ve gotta get open.”

Eagles linebackers have already felt the sting of Kelly’s new toy. On Sunday, the second day of camp, outside linebacker Bryan Braman drew Sproles in coverage during a scrimmage. Sproles headed toward the right flat, then suddenly burst upfield while Braman’s momentum took him toward the sideline.

A rhino had a better chance of tracking down a cheetah. Forty yards later, a perfectly thrown ball by Foles settled in Sproles’ hands while Braman ate dust. Later, a wheel route by Polk turned into a big gain when linebacker Casey Matthews tumbled into a defensive back while trying to rotate over.

“I love those routes,” Polk said. “If it were my call, I’d love to run all of them. I just love catching and running, especially when it’s man-to-man. My eyes open up, you start salivating. It’s a great feeling.”

Return TD earns Josh Huff NFC Special Teams Player of the Week

Return TD earns Josh Huff NFC Special Teams Player of the Week

One big play earned Josh Huff an award. 

The Eagles' kick returner has been named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after taking a second-quarter kick 98 yards for a touchdown on Sunday. 

Huff's kick return gave the Eagles their first lead (8-3) over the Vikings in their eventual 21-10 win at the Linc. 

During the return, Huff ran through kicker Blair Walsh, the first Viking to make contact with him, then flipped into the end zone from the 2-yard line. 

“It’s just something that happens,” Huff said of the flip on Sunday. “Everybody says I should have stuck the landing, but I’m not a gymnast.”

Huff's season as a receiver had been somewhat disappointing before Sunday's game. But against the Vikings, he caught four passes for 39 yards, including a couple that went for first downs. And, of course, he had the big special teams play that swung momentum and earned him a special shout-out from Doug Pederson in the head coach's speech to the team after the game. 

Huff's average of 38 yards per kick return is first in the NFL among players with at least five returns. 

The kick return touchdown is the second of Huff's career. He returned one 107 yards against against the Titans on the first play of the game when he was a rookie. He was also named the conference's Special Teams Player of the Week for that return. 

The award makes Huff the first Eagle to win the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week since Darren Sproles in Week 3 last year. 

The Eagles are the only team in the NFL that has returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season ... and they have two. Wendell Smallwood returned one the previous week. This is the first time in franchise history the Eagles have returned a kickoff for a touchdown in consecutive games. 

“It’s super cool,” Smallwood said on Sunday night. “Now teams have to pick their poison. They can’t go away from one. They can’t say they’re not going to kick to Smallwood, then they kick to Huff and he takes it. I think we’re going to get a lot of teams’ attention.”

Report: Eagles make inquiry about Bears WR Alshon Jeffery

Report: Eagles make inquiry about Bears WR Alshon Jeffery

The Eagles could be looking for a bigger name outside.

In need of a deep threat — and reportedly in talks about a trade for 49ers wideout Torrey Smith — the Eagles are interested in Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and attempting to make a move for the 2013 Pro Bowler, according to a report Tuesday night by Benjamin Allbright of Mile High Sports Radio.

We followed up with Allbright, who clarified the Eagles simply made an inquiry.

Jeffery, much more of a do-it-all, dynamic wide receiver than the one-dimensional Smith, is 26 years old and can become a free agent at season's end. He'll warrant good money, but would make the Eagles better in more ways than one compared to Smith.

The 6-foot-3, 218-pounder put up 89 catches for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013, followed by 85 catches, 1,133 yards receiving and 10 scores in 2014.

This season, he has 520 yards receiving and has yet to find the end zone playing for the quarterback-challenged Bears, who are 1-6 and more than likely thinking about next season.