KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He liked the ending, but he wasn’t so crazy about the rest of the stinking movie. The last time Tyson Jackson had to think, seriously think, about a read-option offense was almost seven years ago — Nov. 24, 2006, in Fayetteville, Ark.
Jackson was a defensive end at Louisiana State; Gus Malzahn was pushing the buttons for the offense at rival Arkansas. Jackson’s Tigers prevailed, 31-26, but not before the Razorbacks, behind Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, had sliced and diced and Wildcat-ed their way to 289 rushing yards and three scores on the ground.
“Man,” the Kansas City Chiefs defensive end sighed. “It’s definitely been quite some time. Yeah, way, way, way back.”
Jackson talked about the zone read as if it’s an old friend. An old friend he’d like to see strangled.
“What they do a real good job (with) is making you communicate faster than usual,” Jackson said of the Philadelphia Eagles, who host the Chiefs on Thursday night and do some of the same things those Arkansas teams did back in the day — only quicker. “Usually, we get an opportunity to talk to the linebackers and get adjusted. But with them and the no-huddle, real up-tempo things, we’re going to have to make our adjustments on our own up front.”
Chip Kelly’s new offense is all kinds of fun to watch, unless you happen to be one of the defenders lining up a few yards across from it. In Week 1, the no-huddle, read-option Eagles ran 77 plays on the Washington Redskins and gained 443 yards in the process, or 5.8 per play. In Week 2 at San Diego, they ran 58 plays for 511 yards, or 8.8 a pop.
For a defender, it’s quick, disorienting and completely exhausting. In simplest terms, it’s option football, with the quarterback “reading” an assigned defender — usually an unblocked end or outside rusher — before deciding to either hand off, keep or throw. It’s designed to get cat-quick, track-style guys isolated in space against not-so-quick big guys, or, at the very least, catch those not-so-quick big guys out of position.
It’s football sleight-of-hand, mixing old-school principles with 21st-century sheen and speed. Kelly used it to run roughshod over the college ranks, first at New Hampshire, and then, more famously, at the University of Oregon before being tabbed to succeed Andy Reid in Philly. As a football savant, Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was so curious as to what Kelly was up to, he had a tape made a while back for his own self-study.
“Chip’s taken that dang thing and really made it great,” Sutton said. “I think it’s a great system. We’ve just got to try and understand it. The bottom line is, you’ve still go to be able to play quick and you’ve still got to be able to tackle. If you don’t do those two things, most games, you’re not going to play very well.”
For Sutton and the rest of the defensive staff, the Eagles are the ultimate double-edged sword. The scheme is one thing; the talent at the controls is another headache altogether. A healthy Michael Vick at quarterback isn’t much fun to prepare for on a full week, let alone an abbreviated one.
As a defense, you’ve got to account for the play itself, and that’s only the beginning; you’ve also got to account for the improvising that Vick can do to even if you’ve defended the original call perfectly. What are your assignments when that play breaks down, and No. 7 scrambles for more time in the pocket or scoots downfield?
“He’s always been a guy that you have to deal with and he always has the capacity to make a play within the play,” Sutton called it. “And that’s the hard thing to defend (with) guys like that.”
Charge too hard upfield and — whoosh! — Vick takes off in the other direction. Play too conservatively, and you’re trying to defend from the backs of your heels.
“They bring a lot of things — they’re very versatile,” Chiefs safety Eric Berry said. “A lot of guys on that offense can do a lot of different things. We’ve just got to be focused on our keys, read our keys and make sure we tackle and everybody gets to the ball.”
That, and take away Vick’s feet. Make the arm do the heavy lifting.
“With quarterbacks like that, we’re going to have to be disciplined across the board,” Jackson said. “Michael Vick can beat you with his legs or his arms, so we have to be disciplined. On the front seven, especially, keeping guys in the pocket as much as possible. And trying to make him one-dimensional and make him complete passes in the pocket, rather than him (being) back there shaking and dancing and making plays with his legs.”
The no-huddle pace is nightmare enough, but when you toss in Vick under center, LeSean McCoy or Bryce Brown at tailback and wideout DeSean Jackson as the primary target, it starts to feel like a small hurricane.
Offensively, Kelly’s new approach fits the Eagles’ old personnel like a glove — just as Sutton’s blitz-happy scheme has meshed so naturally, to this point, with the Chiefs. Most of the crucial pieces are already there, just waiting to be tweaked and used in a different way.
“Those are guys that can make house calls in a second, and you’ve just got to understand what you’re dealing with here,” Sutton said of Kelly’s attack. “It’s going to take — really good tackling is No. 1. We’ve got to tackle well, and having to deal with Shady McCoy in the past, he’s one of the really unique backs in our league. And obviously Jackson (is a weapon) outside. All these guys, they can turn a play into a huge play, and that’s what we’ve got to try to eliminate.”
In the big picture, Sutton is content to give up single after single, however much it pains him. The trick is to try and prevent the home-run ball: Of the Eagles’ seven touchdowns this season, five have come from 13 yards out or longer.
“With those spread offenses nowadays, everybody’s got their own little wrinkles and twists to it,” the Chiefs’ Jackson said. “For us up front, we’ve got to try to pick up little keys, like hints (of) what the offense is trying to do.”
And the sooner, the better.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.