One of the biggest questions facing the Eagles after their 24-17 win over the New York Jets came in the form of a running back debate. Did Ryan Mathews perform because he is better suited to this Offense than DeMarco Murray, or did he perform well because of an improved Offensive Line?
With Murray in the picture for the first two games, it’s hard to draw any conclusions other than the simple fact that the running game was non existent. Murray rushed for 21 yards off of 21 carries, a number that is woefully disappointing when you look at the bigger picture. However, Murray did play in 56% of snaps. In Week 3, he played in no snaps whatsoever due to a hamstring injury. It just so happened that Mathews racked up 108 yards on 25 attempts and even scored a receiving touchdown. So, did the O-Line play a big factor?
The Line still gave up the penetration they did in the first two games but the reason why the Line has been receiving so much credit is for its work in the passing game. Chip Kelly often kept a running back or a tight end close to Bradford to give the O-Line a helping hand against one of the leagues best Defenses, it certainly worked. Whilst Bradford is probably going to want a few of those passes back, he was still able to create scoring drives and give his team the lead in a game nobody expected them to win.
A lot of Ryan Matthews success this week has to come down to Chip Kelly. Kelly acknowledged after the game that the Eagles changed their style back to basics. ” The Jets have some big bodies up front so we had to get outside a little bit more, run some outside zone just trying to get away from those big bodies.” So what does that mean? It means that the Eagles were playing a more East-West style of play as opposed to the North-South that DeMarco Murray is so renowned for. It’s also the style of play that LeSean McCoy was so lethal in running and the gameplan that arguably made the Eagles Offense so dangerous to start with.
Ryan Mathews seemed to excel in the outside zone plays that Kelly referenced. Hid first outside carry was for 27 yards alongside two broken tackles and he went on to pick up 40 yards rushing on 8 outside zone attempts. That’s the kind of Football that the Eagles like to play and it was evident against the Jets.
The other criticism that many fans have had so far is that the Eagles cannot run the ball out of the shotgun. Why? Because if a running back is already five steps behind the line of scrimmage, he has to make up five yards with an O-line relinquishing a lot of ground and then somehow find positive yardage.
When DeMarco Murray was charging forward time after time, he was being hit for negative yards or minimal gains when running out of the shotgun. Against the Jets, an interesting thing to note was that 13 of the 36 total handoffs were taken under center. It’s where McCoy was most comfortable last year and Mathews himself said that “I think I can see the field a lot more when the quarterback is not in shotgun formation.”
Even more interestingly was that Mathews was consistent in both areas. The former dual season 1,000 yarder rushed for 42 yards under center from nine carries and 66 yards in the shotgun on sixteen carries. Is that a testament to who the better suited running back is?
If the Eagles have attempted to run the ball out of the Shotgun to play to DeMarco Murray’s strengths, then it’s evident it hasn’t worked. The perfect example of this was against the Cowboys. The Eagles tried numerous stretch run plays that all backfired instantly. Without the right parts, Murray becomes very limited and lacks the acceleration that Matthews has to succeed in a versatile running game.
As soon as the ball is snapped under center for a much higher percentage of the game, the yards dramatically increase and suddenly the Eagles have a running game. No new signings to the Offensive Line, no new formations…just back to how the team ran the ball a year ago.
If the Offensive line is leaking and giving up ground, then running the ball out of the shotgun is not going to work. The only way to truly see who the more suited back is, is to see Murray run some outside zone plays upon his return to see who handles them more efficiently. Murray doesn’t like having to get to the outside to then cut in..he much prefers to punch through gaps and burst down the field. In an Offensive Line like the Cowboys it’s easy to see why he was so successful. But we’re not the Cowboys. This is a weakened Offensive Line with now even less depth than they started the year with and now Chip Kelly is realising that this is a group you cannot alter the expectations or demands of because one player doesn’t fit your scheme properly.
We are not saying that DeMarco Murray is worse than Ryan Mathews. We’re saying that Mathews is much closer to the type of back the Eagles need. Murray needs an Offensive Line who can punch holes for him to burst through. Ryan Mathews on the other hand noted the more he dances around, the more he gets hit which makes him the perfect blend of McCoy’s elusiveness and Murrays toughness.
Matthews was able to succeed because the team Chip has built is a team that matches the style of running back that Mathews embodies. There were some great tactical decisions and we’re sure that if it was Murray running those same plays then he still would have succeeded. But how much? Would he have rushed for 100 yards? Would he have broken the same tackles? Would he be as comfortable running under center?
The team have an elite arsenal of running backs and if Chip can learn how to utilise all three as he is so crucially doing, then the Eagles may just have the most dynamic running game in the league. But the first step in establishing such a title has to come from playing to the teams strengths and not one player.