Avant garde: Blocking is the new receiving

PHILADELPHIA – Last week, while studying how the Eagles defense approached covering Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, I noticed something else, too.

When the Cardinals ran the ball, Fitzgerald's approach to blocking was, shall we say, half-hearted at best. If a great block is a pancake, Fitzgerald was merely waffling.

That came back to mind when Eagles coach Chip Kelly brought up Jason Avant's sideline plea during Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions. Countless wide receivers have gone to their coaches on the sideline, claiming to be open on every down. Not Avant.

“I can remember Jason Avant going up to Chip during the game and saying, 'Run the ball my way,'" wide receiver DeSean Jackson said. “Not pass me the ball, but run the ball my way. That's being unselfish.”

Avant delivered a block on Arizona defensive back Bill Bentley that helped spring LeSean McCoy for his 57-yard touchdown run. Avant, Riley Cooper and even Jackson have embraced their role in the running game.

“Obviously I'm not the best blocker,” Jackson said. “You have to give an effort.”

Kelly's approach to the run game is all about numbers, getting more blockers than defenders in a given space and letting McCoy take advantage. It is why he keeps the quarterback in play as a running threat, even when it's Nick Foles. If one defender accounts for the quarterback, he can't rush to the running back.

When the wide receivers are strong blockers, that vastly improves the numbers game. Kelly said one of the keys was appealing to the wideouts' self-interest.

“If you're running the ball really well, they've got to get another safety down in the box,” Kelly said. “And if you do get a safety down in the box, then you're leaving DeSean and Riley one on one outside. If you're any receiver, you want one on one coverage. So if you're a receiver you want to be able to run the ball really well, where they can't help, and I think that's kind of the ongoing chess match that goes on.”

Avant has not benefited much from that chess match. He has just 29 catches for 336 yards this season. For him, blocking well is its own reward.

“My mind set is a little bit different from most,” Avant said. “I'm playing as hard as I can for God. He's going to judge me someday. With that being said, I think the mind set for most of the guys is playing hard for one another. As a receiver, you want to catch passes. But if you don't get that opportunity, there's other ways you can help.”

Avant played at Michigan, where, he said, “If you don't block, you don't play.”

He didn't think it was that unusual, asking Kelly to run the ball to his side. But you can bet most receivers, including Larry Fitzgerald, have never uttered those words.