Wheel route abundant in Eagles' offense

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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.”

NFL Preseason Wrap: Both offenses sluggish in Giants win over Jets

NFL Preseason Wrap: Both offenses sluggish in Giants win over Jets

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Ryan Fitzpatrick threw a touchdown pass to Eric Decker and the New York Jets' defense stifled Eli Manning and the New York Giants' starters in a 21-20 preseason loss Saturday night.

Both teams' first-string offenses did very little in the last regular-season tuneup for most starters, but Fitzpatrick connected with Decker for a 22-yard score three plays after Darrelle Revis intercepted Manning on a pass intended for Odell Beckham Jr. in Giants territory in the second quarter.

Fitzpatrick finished 9 of 16 for 76 yards with the score and lost a fumble in the red zone before being replaced by Geno Smith just before halftime.

Manning was 10 of 15 for 65 yards and an interception while playing one series into the third quarter. The Giants' starters managed just 61 total yards against Todd Bowles' defense.

The Giants (1-2) didn't get past the 50-yard line until a facemask penalty on Brandon Bostick on a punt return put them at the Jets 47 with 2:36 left in the third quarter (see full recap).

Siemian solidifies QB job in Denver's 17-9 win over Rams
DENVER -- Trevor Siemian threw his first touchdown pass of the preseason and tightened his grip on the Denver Broncos' starting quarterback job in a 17-9 win over the Los Angeles Rams on Saturday night.

After showing off his strong right arm over a first half that included a 1-yard pass to Virgil Green, Siemian accepted hugs from his teammates and gave way to rookie Paxton Lynch, who was also impressive in his half of play.

That left Mark Sanchez as the odd man out on this night and, plausibly, come cut-down day. If he's not on the 53-man roster, the Broncos will save $3.5 million and the seventh-round draft pick they would have owed the Eagles.

It was Sanchez's job to lose when training camp began and he's apparently done just that with a slew of turnovers in the preseason, although coach Gary Kubiak had steadfastly declined to name a starter up to this point.

An afterthought while taking just one snap - a kneel-down - as a rookie last season, Siemian has emerged as the best option to lead Denver's defense of its Super Bowl title with Peyton Manning on the links and Brock Osweiler in Houston (see full recap).

Smith, Chiefs look sharp in 23-7 victory over Bears
CHICAGO -- Alex Smith looked sharp in leading three scoring drives in the first half and the Kansas City Chiefs got a 23-7 preseason victory over the Chicago Bears on Saturday.

Smith completed 20 of 30 passes for 181 yards before Nick Foles came in to start the third quarter. The defense strangled Chicago's offense, and the Chiefs (1-2) came away with the win after dropping their first two exhibitions.

Kansas City has one more tuneup against Green Bay before opening against San Diego on Sept. 11. But in what is generally the final dress rehearsal for the starters, the Chiefs dominated.

"I certainly feel like we're ready as far as game speed, as far as getting the trials, getting enough plays," Smith said. "I felt like we got in a lot of different situations - the goal line, short yardage, red zone, got a little two-minute today. That's kind of what you want, I feel like, in the preseason."

Kansas City got two second-quarter field goals from Cairo Santos and a 1-yard touchdown run by Spencer Ware in the closing seconds of the half to take a 13-0 lead. But the score didn't reflect just how lopsided the game was (see full recap).

Mariota, Carr both sharp in Titans' 27-14 win over Raiders
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr look ready for the season to start after a successful preseason dress rehearsal.

Mariota led Tennessee to scores on all four drives he played and Carr threw two touchdown passes for Oakland and the Titans beat the Raiders 27-14 on Saturday night.

"All in all, guys have put in the work," Mariota said. "We've built a pretty solid offseason in the preseason. Now it's just putting it all together once the season starts."

With the starters getting their most playing time in the third week of the preseason, the offenses looked in midseason form while both first-team defenses struggled mightily.

That left Raiders coach Jack Del Rio frustrated, especially about a first-team run defense that couldn't slow down DeMarco Murray or Derrick Henry on the ground (see full recap).

Sam Bradford, first-team offense roll in preseason win over Colts

Sam Bradford, first-team offense roll in preseason win over Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – After the Eagles’ 33-23 preseason win over the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night, Sam Bradford was asked one question he didn’t quite know how to answer.

What didn’t go right for the offense?
 
“It’d be tough (answer),” Bradford said. “I think I could probably give you a better answer after we watch the film.”
 
It wasn’t a tough question to answer just because he hadn’t yet watched the film. It was a tough question to answer because it didn’t seem like much went wrong for Bradford or the first-team offense on Saturday night (see Instant Replay).
 
Bradford was incredibly efficient, completing 17 of 20 passes for 167 yards, two touchdowns and an interception that clearly wasn’t his fault. Aside from the end of the half, the first-team offense scored on its last four possessions.
 
Thanks to the offensive line, Bradford stayed clean. The running backs – Ryan Matthews and Kenjon Barner – averaged 10.3 and 6.5 yards per carry, respectively. And the wide receivers actually made some big-time plays (see 10 observations).
 
“Obviously, tonight, to come out, to execute the way we did, it was nice,” Bradford said. “I was really happy with the communication up front, with the line of scrimmage. I thought our tempo in and out of the huddle was really good again tonight, getting to the line quickly. Overall, I thought the execution tonight was great. It’s obviously something that we can build on moving forward.”
 
Bradford finished the game with a passer rating of 114 and he was probably even better than that. He didn’t have a bad throw on the night. The interception was a bobbled drop from Nelson Agholor, one pass soared over Dorial Green-Beckham’s head after the wideout stopped running the route and the third was a pass broken up by a nice play in the third quarter.
 
Bradford averaged just 9.8 yards per completion, but was clearly on his game in Indy, even outplaying Andrew Luck.
 
“I thought tonight obviously culminated everything, his hard work that he's put in all through the offseason and through training camp,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Again, I made the decision way back in OTAs to split all the reps three ways all the way through training camp. This was the first week that Sam's had 100 percent of the reps and it showed tonight.”
 
Of course, playing well in the third preseason game isn’t anything new for Bradford. No one can forget his magical 10-for-10 performance last year against the Packers, when the Eagles were very prematurely crowned Super Bowl champs.
 
So Bradford and the offense looked good on Saturday night … but it’s just the preseason.
 
Now, they turn their attention to the Browns and the opener on Sept. 11.
 
“I think everyone in that locker room realizes that before Week 1 gets here, we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” he said. “Obviously, this is a big week coming up for us to get a jump on Cleveland, try to get some extra work in. I think it was nice to execute the way we did tonight. We can build on that, but I think we all realize the regular season is a different animal and we’re going to have to take it to another level.”

10 observations from Eagles-Colts

10 observations from Eagles-Colts

BOX SCORE

INDIANAPOLIS -- There wasn’t much not to like Saturday night.
 
There was Nelson Agholor. And Cody Parkey.
 
And that may be it.
 
The defensive line was unstoppable, Sam Bradford was razor sharp, Josh Huff made a bunch of big plays, the secondary got another takeaway, Ryan Mathews and Kenjon Barner ran the ball with authority, the first offensive line looked solid and even Chase Daniel threw the ball around pretty well.
 
The usual caveats apply. Yes, it’s only the preseason. Yes, the Colts were missing half their defense. Yes, we all know what happened after Green Bay last year.
 
Still. Looking good beats looking bad. Especially in the third preseason game. And the Eagles in just about every phase looked very good in their 33-23 win over the Colts (see Instant Replay).
 
So let’s dive into my 10 Instant Observations at Lucas Oil Stadium.
 
1. We got a nice, extended look at the Eagles’ defensive line against a real offense, and it was one heck of a dominating performance. That group, with everybody rotating in, generated tremendous pressure on Andrew Luck, didn’t allow anything against the run and really controlled the football game. Brandon Graham, Bennie Logan, Vinny Curry, Connor Barwin and of course Fletcher Cox all played at a high level, with Cox even lining up at defensive end on occasion. This group is the strength of the football team, and judging by the way they played Saturday night, it is quite a strength. They were tremendous.
 
2. I felt like this was really an important game for Nelson Agholor. It’s not like he’s going to get cut. As a first-round draft pick a year ago, he has some built-in protection. But with the Colts missing half their secondary, it seemed like a real opportunity for Agholor to shine, to build up some confidence and make some big plays down the field. Which we’ve been waiting for since he got here. Instead, he booted the only ball thrown his way and it turned into a Colts interception, big return and three points. Bradford never threw his way again. We keep waiting for Agholor to show up, and it just isn’t happening. What a disappointment so far.
 
3.  On the other hand, there’s Josh Huff, who showed exactly why the Eagles feel he can be such a weapon. The former third-round pick, such a disappointment the last two years, had a tackle-breaking 38-yard catch and run, a 22-yard catch and a nine-yard touchdown run. When Huff isn’t doing something stupid, he can look downright electrifying, and that’s the Josh Huff we saw Saturday night. Can he do it in the regular season? I still think he can. He’s teased us before and maybe that’s what Saturday night was. But it was certainly encouraging to see.
 
4. Green Bay last year, I know, I know. Still, Bradford was exceptionally sharp and really looked in command of the offense. Yes, the Colts were missing a bunch of cornerbacks – six defensive backs in all and a seventh got hurt during the game – but Bradford distributed the ball, showed good pocket presence, used a bunch of different weapons and most importantly put points on the scoreboard. Bradford was 17 for 20 for 167 yards with two TD passes and an INT off Agholor’s hands. He should have had just two incompletions. Bradford engineered touchdown drives of 63, 71 and 68 yards in addition to a 54-yard field goal drive. (For those of you who care about these things, Bradford’s career Week 3 preseason stats as an Eagle are 27-for-30 for 288 yards with five touchdowns and one INT and a passer rating of 132.4)
 
5. Haven’t said much this preseason about Ryan Mathews, but he looks terrific running the football. Mathews got only three carries Saturday night but ran for 31 yards. He’s turned 10 carries this preseason into 64 yards – a 6.4 average. We all know his injury history, but with Barner also looking sharp – 6 for 39 Saturday night, 19 for 115 (6.1 average) this preseason – hopefully the Eagles can limit Mathews’ carries, keep him healthy and get good production from both backs. With a handful of carries per game from Darren Sproles as well.
 
6. I didn’t mention Beau Allen earlier in my post about the defensive line, but the former seventh-round pick, now in his third year with the Eagles, made a couple big plays with the first unit Saturday night and has quietly had an impressive preseason. The 330-pound defensive tackle isn’t just earning a roster spot, he’s earning playing time.
 
7. A few words about Trey Burton. Has this kid ever dropped a pass in his life? Five catches for 35 on Saturday night. They aren’t huge numbers, but he’s just smooth and consistent and steady. Burton was just a special teamer last year and obviously Zach Ertz and Brent Celek are going to be the top two tight ends in most situations, but I still think a kid with the combination of speed, size and hands that Burton has is too valuable to get rid of, and hopefully the Eagles find a way to use his talents on offense.
 
8. You don’t want to get too carried away with preseason, but interesting to note that the Eagles’ defense has allowed just one touchdown and has nine takeaways. I don’t care when the games are, that’s impressive. I’ve been impressed not just with the takeaways but with coverage, tackling, speed, angles to the ball. They just look disciplined, smart, fast and athletic.
 
9. Cody Parkey of 2014 vs. Caleb Sturgis is a no-brainer. You keep Parkey. But this isn’t the same Cody Parkey as the record-setting 2014 Pro Bowler. Maybe he’s not totally recovered from the groin injury that derailed his 2015 season. Whatever it is, Parkey is not the same guy who made 89 percent of his field goal attempts as a rookie. Sturgis has routinely out-performed Parkey in training camp, and the disparity between the two was on full display last night, with Sturgis easily making both his field goal attempts – a 32-yarder and a 47-yarder – and Parkey missing a PAT. Parkey has only attempted one field goal this preseason – he made a 40-yarder in Pittsburgh last week – but right now the Eagles really have no choice but to keep Sturgis, who made an unspectacular but acceptable 82 percent of his field goals last year. Parkey may have more upside and maybe he’ll regain his form somewhere else. But the Eagles can’t afford to wait.
 
10. Chase Daniel has put together a couple nice games in a row. Yes, working against scrubs, but his performance in the preseason opener vs. Tampa Bay was so bad it’s encouraging to see Daniel functioning like a real quarterback. He followed a 10 for 16 for 82 yards in Pittsburgh with 9 for 12 for 104 yards and a sharp 28-yard TD lob to David Watford in Indy. Considering Sam Bradford’s injury history, it’s a little reassuring to see some solid quarterbacking from Doug Pederson’s hand-picked backup.