The Philadelphia Eagles are just one of many unanswerable questions in the NFL this year. Their record says they’re bad. Their quality of opponent and matchup data says they’re good. They just handed the Broncos a three-possession loss, and the Broncos were just one week removed from handing the Dallas Cowboys a three-possession loss. If my math adds up, that means the Eagles should be absolute world-beaters, but this isn’t the transitive property. Sometimes games don’t make any sense.
Something that’s very clear though is how much Jalen Hurts has improved throughout the course of this season. Yes, he had a stellar start to the campaign throwing for 264 yards and three touchdowns, but that was against the Falcons. They made Taylor Heinicke look like an MVP candidate in Week 3. Over the past few weeks though, Hurts has really started to look like the franchise-caliber quarterback the Eagles expected him to be, and he’s been doing it with his arm.
Since Week 7 against the Raiders, Hurts has looked like a dominant passer. Three of his four best PFF passing grades since the end of Week 1 have come in his past four games. Someone who’d been effective mainly due to his legs is starting to develop a solid pocket presence, accuracy, and pre-snap defensive reads. That’s a dangerous combo. It’s the same combo Russell Wilson developed early in his career. I’m not saying that Hurts is Wilson. I’m just saying that we’ve seen this story play out before, and it paid enormous dividends for the Seahawks. At the same time, it’s only been four weeks. Ryan Fitzpatrick has had similar hot streaks in his career, and we’re not even 100 percent sure whether he’ll be the starter in Washington when he returns from Injured Reserve.
So, what gives me more hope for Hurts than I ever had for Fitzpatrick to become a franchise guy? Aside from the obvious answer of youth, Hurts has been looking much better because of head coach Nick Sirianni’s revised game plans. In Weeks 1 through 6, the Eagles were rushing the ball with their halfbacks just 13 times per game. To be fair, a few of those games fell victim to game script. The Eagles obviously aren’t going to pass much when they’re down 13 heading into the fourth quarter against the Cowboys. Another one of those games was against the Buccaneers who have the second-best run defense in the NFL this year in terms of yards per carry. Even the Cowboys, who are fourth in the league in rushing yards per game, refused to challenge the Bucs’ run defense, opting for only 14 designed rushing plays against the Bucs in Week 1. So, there is a bit of a hole in the theory I am about to put forth, but here goes nothing.
Sirianni has been running the ball with much more purpose in the past four weeks. In that time, the Eagles have rushed the ball with their halfbacks an average of 27.25 times per game — a huge leap from their mark through the first six weeks. Now, once again, game script likely plays a large part in this. The Eagles were up enormously on the Lions midway through the third quarter. They didn’t have to pass the ball at all. At the same time though, the Eagles were in a similar situation Week 1 and opted to carry the ball just 24 times compared with 37 times in the Lions game.
This isn’t to say that Hurts has disappeared from the Eagles’ run game entirely. He’s still heavily involved, but Sirianni’s decision to involve his halfback committee (Kenneth Gainwell, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott, and Miles Sanders — who was activated off IR earlier this week) more heavily is taking a lot of pressure off Hurts to carry the team on his own. As a young quarterback who still hasn’t started a full season’s worth of games in his career, that’s a huge weight to have lifted off of you.
Through the first six weeks of the season, Hurts had a passer rating of 88.4, which would rank him 24th in the NFL between Matt Ryan and Heinicke. Since then, he’s posted a 99.6 passer rating, the same mark as Josh Allen. A heavy dose of the run game is the best way to bring out the best in Hurts. The play action becomes much more effective and allows Hurts to find receivers over the middle after the linebackers bite on the fake. Those are all basic football ideologies. I’m not winning a Nobel Prize with this revelation. It’s astonishing that it took Sirianni this long to realize that’s how to build a gameplan around Hurts.
It will be difficult for the Eagles to run the ball effectively Sunday against the Saints, although the return of Sanders should certainly help. New Orleans leads the league in yards per carry allowed (3.1). While the rushing attack may not be pretty against that stout Saints’ front seven, they may need to stick with it in order to secure the win. It will be a close, hard-fought nail-biter that will come down to Hurts, and the best way to ensure Hurts plays well is to get your running backs involved early and often. Who would’ve thought?
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