Beating the Eagles Starts with Stopping DeMarco Murray on 1st Down

Arguably the biggest free agent acquisition of the 2015 season, people expected fireworks from DeMarco Murray joining Chip Kelly’s offense. The circumstances of Murray’s acquisition, Philadelphia’s abrupt parting with LeSean McCoy,  and the addition of Ryan Matthews, only intensified expectations. Through the first four weeks, the bold experiment appeared an utter failure.  The Eagles offense was hard to watch, and the running game was virtually non-existent. 

Murray was both ineffective and then hurt, and then ineffective again through these struggles where he averaged 1.6 yds per carry through the first two weeks.  It wasn’t just Murray who struggled, however. The Eagles rushing attack generating only 70 yds rushing in those two losses, including gaining only 7 yards on 17 attempts against the Cowboys in Week 2. 

The Eagles rushing attack wasn’t effective through the first four games for a variety of reason, and their record showed it. Starting just 1-3, the Eagles only win came in the one game where they rushed for over 90 yds. Clearly the offensive line and Murray’s injury played a role, but Chip Kelly was also quick to abandon the run early. The Eagles rushed only 89 times in the first four games, and 38 of those were in their one victory over the Jets. 

The Eagles have started to turn things around as of late, winning three of their last four, and Murray has been a part of that success.  When asked about Philadelphia’s early struggles, Kelly commented:

“Common theme when we are not successful [on third down] is a lack of success on first and second down, and so that we are getting into longer third down situations,” Eagles head coach Chip Kelly said. “I think if we can be a little more consistent on first and second down, it would put us into more manageable third downs, we'd be in a good situation.”

Murray’s late success has raised questions concerning Kelly’s use of the back and commitment to the run game early. Kelly defended:

“Yeah, but if you have 22 carries for zero yards, we better call another play. You know what I mean? So, I mean, I would love to get everybody in a right lather and going, but when we’re not having success running the ball at all. Then, it’s tough to say, ‘Hey, we’re just going to make sure we get him 22 carries and he’s lathered up.’ I mean, it’s the entire group. And it’s not just one player that’s involved in it; it’s the entire group involved in us being successful rushing the football.”

As the Eagles have started to right the ship in the last month, the relationship between the Eagles rushing attack and their overall success has been clear.  When they’ve rushed the ball well, they’ve won.  When they haven’t, they’ve lost. There’s more to it, however, than just the overall rushing attack, and even just DeMarco Murray's role. As Kelly observed, Philadelphia’s success has been directly determined by their success on first and second downs. A closer look, however, reveals both Philadelphia’s commitment to the run and their overall success depends on their 1st down rushing success.

@Jets
Att 18
YDS 86
YPC 4.7
Shotgun 10 (55.5%)
@Skins
Att 9
YDS 50
YPC 5.5 (2.8 on 8 carries)
Shotgun 9 (100%)
vs Saints
Att 21
YDS 129
YPC 6.14
Shotgun 11 (52%)
vs Giants
Att 13
YDS 45
YPC 4.15
Shotgun 8 (61.5%)

In all three of the Eagles victories, they have rushed the ball well on 1st down.  In the 3 losses, they’ve failed to pick up yards on first down, causing Kelly to abandon the ground game near entirely.

The Eagle’s most decisive wins have come over the last two weeks, where they have won by an average of 21 points. Murray has clearly been important, carrying the ball 42 times for 195 yds with 2 rushing TDs.  He also had 2 receiving touchdowns in those victories.

The correlation between both Murray and 1st down rushing success is also easily seen in the Eagles last loss. Murray returned after missing a game and a half against division rival, the Washington Redskins. In his first rush, Murray ripped off a 30-yd run.  Not only was it his first carry, it was also on first down.  Kelly, however, strangely looked to beat the Skins through the air, passing the ball 28 times.  The Eagles rushed only 18 times for 87 total yards in the loss, and Murray finished the day with just 8 attempts.  Kelly did rush the ball on 9 out of 13 first downs, but he didn’t commit to the run overall.

Last week against the Giants, Kelly once again hesitated to build his game plan on the rushing attack, and under any other circumstances, it would have resulted a loss.  Sure, the Eagles may have beaten the Giants by 20, but it wasn’t because of their success passing the ball.  Bradford three 3 interceptions and 1 touchdown in his 38 pass attempts. Philadelphia’s victory came more from tough defense and a terrible offensive performance by the Giants than an effective passing attack.

 Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly

For Carolina, stopping the run has to be top priority against the Eagles. Fortunately, it’s something the Panthers have done pretty well throughout the season.  Carolina is ranked  5th in rushing yards allowed, 13th in rushing yards allowed per game, and 4th in allowed rushing 1st downs this season.  Opposing teams have acknowledged this run-stopping ability, carrying the ball only 24.8 times per game.

Results against 1st downs running attempts haven’t been as impressive for Carolina, however. The Panthers dominated the Texans on 1st down carries in Week 2, and if if you factor in that 23 of Houston’s 30-yds on 1st down came from broken down plays where quarterback, Blake Bortles, scrambled for big gains in Week 1, Carolina was stout on first down runs early in the season.  Without Luke Kuechly, teams found notable success on 1st down running plays.

Panthers vs Rush on 1st Down
Opponent Attempts YDS YPA
Jaguars 6 30 5
Texans 11 26 2.36
Saints 14 45 3.21
Buccaneers 16 81 5.06
Seahawks 16 65 5

Philadelphia’s success clearly been predicated on their running game, specifically when productively running on 1st down. Eagle’s running back DeMarco Murray, who many describe as a “volume runner,” is a guy that can get going on any down.  Just last season, he racked up 1,845 on 392 attempts in Dallas.  His start in Philadelphia was slow, but he's starting to get into more of a rhythm.  Murray recently noted  that he, like anyone, likes getting in a rhythm, stating, “Obviously, I think the more opportunities you have on offense, the more ball you get individually, you just kind of feel better.”  He’s a bell-cow back who the Eagles are better utilizing as the season progresses. 

Given Bradford’s erratic play this season, Murray is the one player that the Panthers can’t afford to let get going.  Shutting down Murray is imperative, and it all starts on first down.

By the Professor, aka Tony Dunn
Follow on Twitter @Cat_Chronicles