When Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton was the coach at Army, his team ran the wishbone.
So Sutton had to take a look when he heard about an innovative coach named Chip Kelly who was taking option football to the next level at the University of Oregon.
“Before he ever got to Philadelphia, I studied his film in the past out of curiosity because I think it’s a great system,” said Sutton, 62, who coached at Army from 1991-99.
On Thursday, Sutton will see Kelly’s unique, circus-like no-huddle spread offense up close as he leads the Chiefs’ defense into a primetime showdown against the Eagles, who hired Kelly as their coach this offseason.
Sutton knows the Chiefs (2-0) are in for a challenge, particularly with only three days to prepare. The Eagles (1-1) have averaged 31.5 points, third-best in the NFL and 477 yards, second-best, in their first two games.
“We’ve seen most of their games, most of their preseason games,” said Sutton, who said he started preparing for Kelly’s offense this offseason. “I don’t think the problem will be seeing them. The problem is getting the game plan in and executing.”
Ask around the Chiefs’ locker room, and it doesn’t take long to see why. Players say the speed with which the Eagles fire off plays, in addition to their reliance on “packaged plays” — which give the quarterback a run-pass option and often test a defense’s discipline — make preparation unique.
“It’s very different, that college-style stuff,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “It’s difficult because it’s different.”
Chiefs right guard Geoff Schwartz figured the defensive coaches might come to him. After all, he did play at Oregon under Kelly from 2004-07.
“I mean, we’ve talked,” Schwartz said of his coaches with a laugh. “But they’re obviously professional coaches, so there’s only so much I can really give them.”
Still, Schwartz does have insight into the way Kelly’s system works.
“It’s just tempo,” Schwartz said. “You’ve got to learn how to play in that type of tempo.”
In a 33-30 loss to the Chargers on Sunday, the Eagles ran 58 plays in 19 minutes, 43 seconds. Through two games, the Eagles are running a play every 23.2 seconds, tied with Denver — which features a no-huddle attack of its own with star quarterback Peyton Manning — for the fastest pace in the NFL.
To Sutton, the Eagles’ tempo means the Chiefs need to get the correct personnel on the field at the start of drives and make adjustments from there.
“Realistically, whatever group that’s out there for us, personnel wise, is going to be out there — period,” Sutton said. “In their system of offense, they’re not going to allow you an opportunity to substitute. We recognize that.”
Kelly’s emphasis on speed doesn’t end at the snap, either. Kelly routinely puts his quarterbacks in position to make quick reads and get the ball out well before the pass rush can get home.
“I think that’s really what Chip wanted to do at Oregon, and that’s what we did at Mizzou for a little bit,” Chiefs backup quarterback Chase Daniel said. “It helps out the offensive line, it helps out the run game. It seems like every time they’re either like flash-faking the running back — even on run or pass — and it keep guys off balance.”
Throw in some dangerous playmakers such as receiver DeSean Jackson — an elite vertical threat — and two of the most elusive players in the league at their respective positions in quarterback Michael Vick and running back LeSean McCoy, and it’s easy to understand how a game with the Eagles could quickly become a track meet.
But after watching his defense hold the Jaguars’ offense scoreless during a week-one victory in the Jacksonville heat, Sutton is optimistic his players are ready to keep up. He credits the physical training camp coach Andy Reid ran in August.
“Hopefully it’s going to pay off Thursday night — we’re going to have to be, as fast as they get in and out of the plays,” Sutton said.
Keeping up physically, however, will only be half the battle.
One of the staples of Kelly’s offense at Oregon was his use of “packaged” or “combination” plays, which allows the quarterback, for example, to hand the ball off to a running back on the zone read, keep it himself or throw to one or more different passing options.
In effect, what the quarterback chooses to do is based on what a certain defender, who is identified before the snap, chooses to do.
“Oh yeah, it gives the defense trouble,” Schwartz said. “… What that offense thrives on is defenses misfitting on certain things. So if the quarterback pulls the ball and the cornerback comes up for run coverage, he’ll just throw that out there. That’s the way he works.”
A handful of NFL teams, including Washington, Seattle and Green Bay, have utilized this concept in recent years, but through two games, Philadelphia appears to be far more reliant on such plays than other NFL teams.
“I mean, you might have one or two,” Chiefs safety Quintin Demps said. “… but they have like three different plays on one play.”
“Obviously you have your run plays, you have your pass plays and some different options on each,” Daniel said. “But a built-in run-pass option? It doesn’t happen very often.”
In a season-opening win over Washington, Vick shredded the defense for a 54 yards in nine carries, including a 36-yard run that came on a zone-read keeper.
Vick ran only six times for 23 yards against San Diego on Sunday, possibly because of a lingering groin injury. But the threat of arguably the most elusive quarterback in NFL history keeping the ball on a packaged play is something the Chiefs have to be prepared for.
“It’s one of those things you’ve just got to experience to see,” Demps said. “On film, you can’t really tell. But we’ll be able to tell Thursday night what’s going on.”
No offense is completely unstoppable. The Chargers may have provided a blueprint Sunday in which they — as quarterback Phillip Rivers put it — “no-huddled the no-huddlers” and dominated the time of possession by a two-to-one ratio.
Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson sees the positives in San Diego’s “go fast with them” approach, but added there’s also an obvious drawback with that strategy.
“If you are always going three-and-out all the time, it does put your defense back on the field rather quickly,” Pederson said. “If it’s successful and it’s working, then you can keep the defense on its heels, but you have to be effective and it has to be efficient for you offensively.”
Beyond that, Pederson would only say the Chiefs will use the tempo they believe gives them the best chance to win.
For the Chiefs to win, however, there’s little doubt the defense will need to step up. Demps, for one, preferred the Chiefs only had three days to prepare instead of six.
“I don’t want to be sitting around all week, coming up with different strategies of what to do,” he said. “The longer you have to prepare for them, the more you start thinking about different stuff. I’m glad that the week is short.”
And the gameplan is simple.
“This is still football,” Sutton said. “Attack … tackle, swarm to the ball … those things that allow you to be successful are not going away.”
But Sutton knows from personal experience that stopping an offense with option principles is easier said than done.
“I don’t know if it’s going to help,” he said. “But we’re going to find out.”