In 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense was built around a very simple concept: Run the ball effectively and often, force defenses to have eight players in the box, then take advantage of single coverage. For the biggest part of the season, it worked.
When the teams began to find ways to stop the run, Nick Foles and the wide receivers were called to help the offense advance downfield. Riley Cooper relied on his height and DeSean Jackson on his speed and the two were able to exploit the big windows in coverage. Jackson in particular was either beating the coverage deep or ran comeback routes when cornerbacks gave him more space.
One way or the other, the Eagles were able to move the chains. It’s no wonder that the Birds ranked fifth in “three-and-out” percentage, with less than 20% of their drives ending early (stat taken from sportingcharts.com).
This year, however, Jackson won’t be on the team. Philadelphia will rely on Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin to do most of the work outside. Rookie Jordan Matthews will see the field mostly in 11-personnel packages (three WRs, one TE and one RB). The rest of the wide receivers will be used mainly in special teams and as backups.
The question is, if the teams were not afraid to play with a single “high” safety when Jackson was there as a deep threat, what is going to happen in 2014? The most likely answer is that defenses will focus even more on stopping what is coming out of the Eagles backfield.
This is why the Eagles wide receivers need to make defenses worry about the passing game. They have to keep their opponents off balance and not allow them to contain the running game. I am not doubting Maclin nor Cooper, but without Jackson and his speed, this is going to be a challenge.
We shouldn’t, however, leave Chip Kelly and Pat Shurmur out of the equation. Both coaches know that their opponents had a whole offseason to study the Eagles 2013 games. Even if there were no personnel changes, Kelly and Shurmur would still had to change their strategy a little bit and introduce new plays. Now that they do not have a wideout with Jackson’s speed, those changes become even more necessary.
Darren Sproles shouldn’t be overlooked, too. The current Eagles wide receivers are good, but no fast enough. I firmly believe Kelly’s decision to trade for Sproles had to more to do with his receiving ability and his prowess as a slot receiver. It is very likely Kelly would try to balance out the loss of Jackson with the addition of a new dimension in his offense. That is what Sproles brings, because he can run with the ball, but he can also be a receiver lined up either in the slot or in the backfield.
To take it a bit further, if Sproles was not on the roster, I don’t think Jackson would have been cut.
This is (more or less) how I expect the Eagles to balance out the loss of Jackson. Their current wide receivers might not enjoy the same success the 2013 squad did if the strategy remains the same. The concept won’t change, however the team strategy will. New plays, will be introduced in both the passing game and in the running game – and of course, there is the “X-factor” that is Darren Sproles.