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.”

Eagles Mailbag: Linebackers, stats for Zach Ertz and Derek Barnett

Eagles Mailbag: Linebackers, stats for Zach Ertz and Derek Barnett

I answered half of your questions yesterday, but we got a lot, so here are the rest: 

Well, the Eagles' linebackers were pretty good last year. At least they certainly weren't the problem. 

Jordan Hicks is returning for his third season and has Pro Bowl potential. The last thing he needs to improve is his run-stuffing ability. If he does that, he'll be very good. Nigel Bradham had an under-the-radar season in 2016. He worked very well with Hicks and is entering the last year of his deal. Now, he has a trial coming up in July for a felony assault charge, but as long as that doesn't keep him off the field, he should have another good year. Then, Mychal Kendricks, for as much as he gets criticized, isn't a bad third option for a third of plays. 

I'd agree that after those three, there's a clear lack of depth. Najee Goode, Joe Walker, Steven Daniels, Nate Gerry. Not super deep. But Goode is a decent backup, they liked Walker from last year before the ACL tear, Daniels is a wild card and Gerry is switching positions from safety to linebacker. 

Running back. No question. Carson Wentz would be decapitated in a quarter if I was at right guard. 

At least at running back under Doug Pederson, I wouldn't get the ball very often. And when I'd get the ball, I'm so small and so slow, maybe I'd be like a changeup in baseball and linebackers would miss me altogether. Until they hit me and I leave the field crying. 

Ertz: 80 catches, 900 yards, seven touchdowns. Those would be very slightly above the numbers he's put up in recent years, but in his second year with Wentz, that's reasonable. And seven touchdowns is a lot, but I don't think it's crazy. 

Barnett: Six sacks. This would be a pretty good rookie season. I'd set the over/under number at 6½, so I have Barnett slightly under just because he'll have to fight for time with a few players. 

Blount: This one is tougher — 700 yards rushing, 10 touchdowns. No, I don't expect Blount to have another 1,000-yard season. That's a lot of touchdowns, but Ryan Mathews was able to pick up eight last year and Blount should be better in short-yardage situations. 

1. I don't even know what a breakout season is anymore. Ertz is a good tight end. He's not Rob Gronkowski. He's never going to be Rob Gronkowski. So break out? Maybe not. But he's a solid piece of the offense, who needs to score more touchdowns. 

2. No. 

3. Yeah. At this point, I expect Dorial Green-Beckham to be the odd man out. Vinny Curry will be on the team and will have a cap hit of $9 million this year. 

Hi, Corey. Big fan. If Donnie Jones isn't a household name, I'd start to question your household. 

Eagles Mailbag: Fletcher Cox, OTA evaluations, Nelson Agholor

Eagles Mailbag: Fletcher Cox, OTA evaluations, Nelson Agholor

The Eagles have completed one round of OTAs and will kick off another next week, starting Tuesday. 

OTAs are basically light practices in shorts and there's not a ton to gain from watching them, but they're not completely worthless. We already learned who some starters are for now and got a chance to see some new players on the field. 

Training camp will be here before you know it. 

To your questions: 

This is an interesting question because I think if I'm his teammate, I'd be a little annoyed. Especially if I'm some backup player making league minimum and the $100 million man doesn't show. 

But it really isn't like that. Even talking to players off the record, they don't seem to be bothered that Fletcher Cox wasn't with the team during a week of OTAs. Basically, players assume if a guy isn't there, they have a reason and are working out on their own. 

Guys especially understand if a player misses because of contract reasons — get paid, fellas. Obviously, that's not the reason Cox is missing. He signed a $100 million deal last offseason. And Cox's absence allows some other guys to get more reps, which is good for younger guys. 

It definitely doesn't look good from the outside that Cox isn't there. And it's pretty obvious Doug Pederson wants him at the facility. But the players inside the locker room? They're more understanding. 

Let's pump the breaks on the Nelson Agholor OTAs praise. Sure, he looked pretty good in the one day we got to watch of practice this week, but Agholor has looked good in shorts before. 

Does he have a shot at being a starter? Maybe a very slim shot. But the chances he actually beats out Torrey Smith for a starting gig seem minuscule. Perhaps you're thinking Smith is completely shot after looking that way in San Francisco, but it's hard to imagine he can't beat out Agholor for the job. 

That said, Agholor will be on the team this year. His contract makes cutting him nonsensical. And it'll be interesting to see how he performs without the pressure of being a starter. To me, it would make sense to occasionally work him into the slot, something the coaching staff hasn't done much of in the last couple years. 

https://twitter.com/EPiechotaNBA/status/868151169490624513

I put these together because I want to make this point first: We have been allowed to watch only one of their three practices, so we don't have a lot to work from. But I'll give you what I can. 

Barnett: He looks impressive in shorts, at times beating Lane Johnson, who is a very good tackle. That bend we've heard so much about was evident really early. Remember Joe Douglas' talking about ankle flexion? Well, it's absolutely there. It's clear Barnett is a technician, but I'll reserve my judgment until training camp when the pads go on. 

Wentz: Thought he looked fine. I saw some folks saying they saw differences in his mechanics ... Eh. Hard to say in one practice. What I did see were a few beautifully tossed balls and some chemistry forming with Alshon Jeffery, who ought to be the team's No. 1 target this year.