Ready or not, here come Chip Kelly, the Philadelphia Eagles and their go-go offense.
On Sunday at NRG Stadium, the Houston Texans will face an offense unlike any they’ve seen all season. Arguably unlike any other in the NFL.
In their second season under Kelly, the Eagles are calling an offensive play every 21.94 seconds, far and away the fastest in football. Second-fastest have been the Cleveland Browns, who get a play off once every 25.25 seconds, or about three seconds slower. The quickest-moving team the Texans have faced is the Raiders, who rank ninth, but they didn’t work at nearly that pace in Week 2. In terms of tempo, the Bills (12), Colts (14), Giants (15), Titans (21), Steelers (22), Washington (26) and Cowboys (32) all pale in comparison.
“Anybody who’s seen an Eagles game knows that they move quick,” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “That’s one of those things that you need to make sure that you prepare for throughout the week.”
Tempo strains a defense both physically and mentally, and for the Eagles this season, that has meant a lot of points late. Though they enter Week 9 having scored only 6.1 points per game, 19th in the NFL, Philadelphia earlier this season led the league in fourth-quarter scoring. Houston ranks 10th in the NFL in fourth-quarter defense, having allowed only 3.4 points per game in the final periods this season.
“You really need to make sure that your communication is on point,” Watt said of playing an offense like Philly’s. “You need to make sure that everybody knows what they’re doing, that they get lined up and that they do it properly.”
Communication will be key, especially in the secondary, where cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson and safeties D.J. Swearinger, Kendrick Lewis and Danieal Manning will face a stacked arsenal of weapons in wide receivers Jeremy Maclin, Riley Cooper and second-round rookie Jordan Matthews, tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz, and running backs LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles.
“Definitely have to have a lot of communication, going against guys like this with that up-tempo offense” Jackson said. “They’re banking on us busting a coverage or somebody not being in the right gaps or them being able to steal a play however they can steal it. For us, we definitely have to communicate and all be on the same page every point in the game.”
Even if the Texans are able to maintain focus and understand their assignments, they still have to run with the Eagles for a full 60 minutes. Which presents different challenges for different position groups.
Jackson thinks the secondary will be OK.
“I think we’ve been fine as far as conditioning and being able to go all four quarters as a team and as a defense, so in that regard I think we’ll be fine.”
As for the defensive line…
“Yes, yes, oh man,” nose tackle Ryan Pickett said if it would be a challenge. “With the quick tempo and then when they do run it, they run a lot of zones outside and a lot of plays outside, so they’re trying to wear you down up front. It’s not, per se, a defensive lineman’s favorite game with all the quick passes and screens and tosses, but we’ve just got to be patient and do our job and let the game come to us.”
“Well, we weigh a little bit more, so I would say that it has a little bit more of a toll on us,” Watt said. “But as an athlete you prepare yourself during the week, you prepare yourself in the offseason to get yourself ready for a situation like that, and then you try to do a good job of rotating and making sure you get guys in and out and keep people fresh.”
Oh, and the Eagles make it tough to substitute defensive players.
Another advantage inherent to a Kelly-coached team is how well his scheme glosses over injuries. Despite entering with a beat-up offensive line, with Pro Bowl center Jason Kelce only this week returning from sports hernia surgery earlier this season, All Pro guard Evan Mathis being still sidelined with an MCL and veteran guard Todd Herremans trying to play through a torn biceps, the Eagles have gotten adequate production from their backups, Matt Tobin, David Molk and Dennis Kelly.
“One thing they’ve done a good job of is filling in those spots,” Watt said. “They’ve had injuries along the way, and they’ve done a good job of putting guys into places and they know what they’re doing and they fit in well. Obviously, every team wants to be as healthy as they can be, but I think they’ve done a good job of dealing with a tough situation, losing guys to injury.”
However new and different and innovative the Eagles offensive tactics are, they’re not unbeatable. Philadelphia is 5-2 this season, having lost to the San Francisco 49ers and, last week, the Arizona Cardinals, who rank 18th and 5th in scoring defense, respectively, after allowing 19.9 and 23.6 points per game. The Texans give up on average 20.8 points per game, eighth-best in the NFL.
Both of those losses were on the road, where Philadelphia has scored only 23.7 points per game, compared to 33.0 points per game at home, putting all the more premium on Texans fans giving Houston the home field advantage they’ve had.
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