Philadelphia Eagles, Jalen Hurts more dangerous with new run-heavy offensive identity

PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles coach Nick Sirianni was effusive in his praise of quarterback Jalen Hurts on Sunday even in the wake of a 27-24 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.

Hurts wasn't asked to do a ton in the passing game -- he finished 11-of-17 for 162 yards -- but he added 62 yards on the ground and was at his best in crunch time, engineering a 10-play, 78-yard fourth-quarter drive, which he capped with a 28-yard touchdown pass to rookie receiver DeVonta Smith. The key play was a scramble on third-and-4. Hurts had his legs hit as he dove for the first-down marker, causing him to do a full front flip. He got up, unscathed, and the crowd went wild.

Sirianni said afterward that Hurts "made plays that I don’t think any other quarterback in the NFL can make," lauding him for his performance down the stretch.

"We definitely have to build on this," Sirianni said. "There is no secret. Jalen has had good practices the last two weeks, played two good games in a row, so we just have to go back and have another week like we did last week, offensively, to put ourselves in position to win next week."

It's no coincidence that Hurts' back-to-back solid outings coincide with a shift in offensive approach. Sirianni, after neglecting the running backs for multiple weeks, went run-heavy the past two weeks against the Chargers and Detroit Lions (a 44-6 win). Consider: In Weeks 1-7, the backs totaled 96 carries (13.7 per game) for 444 yards and three touchdowns. In Weeks 8 and 9, those numbers skyrocketed to 66 carries (33 per game) for 258 yards and six touchdowns.

Hurts was accounting for nearly 90% of the Eagles' offense in the early going, the most in the NFL. The past couple of weeks have been easy street in comparison. He has averaged 15.5 pass attempts over the past two games compared to 34.5 attempts per game over the first seven weeks.

Putting that much on Hurts to start was never fair or practical. He has only 13 starts in the NFL and is still very much learning on the job. While he has shown improvement throwing the ball, bumping his completion rate up from 52% last year to 61.5% in 2021, he still ranks 28th among quarterbacks in terms of accuracy.

But he remains plenty dangerous. Hurts entered Sunday's game ranked fifth in red zone passer rating (116.8) and with the seventh-most total yards (3,289) by a quarterback in his first 12 career starts in NFL history, according to the Eagles. He is a strong leader and has a steady hand in big moments, as evidenced late in the game this past week.

Hurts isn't far along enough as a passer to drop back 45 times a game consistently, and this Eagles defense certainly can't be relied upon to hold down the fort when such an approach backfires. A steady dose of the ground game alleviates some of the burden from Hurts, opens up more running room for him when he decides to keep it (he's already second among quarterbacks in rushing yards with 494), and will more often than not keep games close, giving Hurts an opportunity to make some magic happen late.

The run game also feeds into one of Hurts' greatest strengths -- play-action passing. With the Eagles featuring the run and Hurts lining up under center more in Weeks 8 and 9, he completed 83.3% of his play-action passes (20.5% above expected) and averaged 13 yards per attempt for a Raw QBR of 95.6, which ranks fourth. In weeks 1-7, he had a 66% completion rate in such scenarios and averaged 8.8 yards per attempt for a 26.3 Raw QBR, which ranked 29th.

“Clearly, I think we’ve taken steps throughout the year," Hurts said when asked about developing an offensive identity. "I think we’ve grown. I think we’ve communicated better. Coach to player, I think we’ve had better conversations and we’ve come to be on the same page on a more consistent basis. Going out there and it’s showing."

The caveat to all of this is Philadelphia went run-heavy against two of the worst rush defenses in the NFL in the Chargers and Lions. Expecting the Eagles to rush 40 times a game from here on out would be foolish. But there's more to it than just the opponents they've faced of late. The coaching staff recognized that it was putting too much on the shoulders of Hurts, and that to become a more efficient offense, they needed to lean on their sturdy offensive front and allow the likes of running backs Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott and Kenny Gainwell to get to work.

There will be more of that going forward, which should spell good things for Hurts and the offense over the last eight games.