For those of us who can’t help but see each Sunday’s NFL lineup through a quarterback lens, Sunday’s slate has two games that jump off the page: Buffalo at Baltimore and Kansas City at Tampa Bay. Do you find Josh Allen versus Lamar Jackson or Patrick Mahomes versus Tom Brady more intriguing? Can’t argue with either one, and can’t wait to watch both games.
Yet, for me, Jacksonville at Philadelphia holds just as much quarterback interest. I know Allen, Jackson, Brady and Mahomes have more of a history, but new is fun, too. Unexpected has an allure. The accelerated learning curve of Trevor Lawrence and Jalen Hurts has been one of the most exciting – and, I think, defining – parts of this young season. Both used September to sound the alarm, announcing that they’re ready to turn the corner, and now they start October on the same field.
Amidst the nice little quarterback spectacle that’ll create on Sunday in Philadelphia, the part that features Jalen Hurts versus the Jaguars’ defense has my attention the most.
>> Jalen Hurts is the highest-rated quarterback in the NFC.
>> The Jaguars just held Matt Ryan and Justin Herbert to one touchdown. Total.
>> Hurts’ run-pass combo makes him the NFC’s only QB with 1,000 total yards.
>> Jacksonville leads the NFL in rush defense.
>> Hurts is benefiting greatly from the duo of Devonta Smith and A.J. Brown.
>> The Jaguars are reaping the benefits of multiple high draft picks on defense.
It’s the game within the game that’s been on my mind all week. I watched every offensive play of the Eagles from the last two weeks, and each defensive play from the Jaguars. Here’s what stood out the most.
Their first half against the Vikings two weeks ago was like an old Mike Tyson fight from the mid-80s with a flurry of blows that all landed, and it was over just like that. Hurts was a surgical 17-of-20 passing and produced more than 300 yards of total offense. So many days after the fact, what’s relevant for this Sunday?
The variety. The ways Philly can leverage Hurts’ assets to put a defense on its heels. This five-play sequence from the Eagles’ first drive is one of many examples:
Third-and-13: Hurts sits in a cushy pocket, waits for Brown to deftly find the hole in a zone and fires the ball 25 yards to his chest,
First-and-10: Hurts rolls to his right on an RPO, keeps it himself for a 4-yard gain. On one hand, 4 yards is no big deal. The other hand: On second down with six yards left to move the sticks – with this quarterback and run game – every possibility on the OC call sheet lights up. It’s all available.
Second-and-6: Hurts hands off to RB Boston Scott, who picks up three yards.
Third-and-3: On a very manageable down, it’s another RPO to the right. This time, with a defensive end bearing down on him, Hurts delivers a strike, on the run, to an out-cutting Zach Pascal. First down.
First-and-10: Play-action fake from the pocket, Hurts finds Dallas Goedert in the flat, and the tight end runs for a first down. The time for Hurts to take the snap, expertly execute an RPO run fake and deliver the ball perfectly: 1.5 seconds. Nearly impossible to defend.
First-and-goal: Hurts, yet again on the RPO to the right, runs for a touchdown.
The point isn’t to rehash a game two weeks in the rearview mirror, but to highlight the variety of ways within one part of one drive that Hurts and Philadelphia can win.
In just 2 minutes and 47 seconds of actual game time, we saw O-line prowess, wide receiver skills, tight end effectiveness, and run-game capability – all punctuated by a play-calling menu that seems to have no end, and highlighted by Hurts’ skills both in and out of the pocket.
When you zoom in on the diverse ways Philadelphia’s offense is succeeding, the eyes go right to the wide receiver tandem of Smith and Brown. Compared to the offseason deals that landed Las Vegas Davante Adams and Miami Tyreek Hill, Philadelphia’s aggressive move to land Brown got the least amount of attention. But it might be yielding the highest dividends. The number 9.4, and the Eagles win last week in Washington tell the story best.
My offensive coordinator at Iowa would routinely say the most accurate way to measure a passing game’s effectiveness is by looking at the quarterback’s yards per pass attempt. Hurts leads the NFL in this category with a whopping 9.4, after ranking in the bottom half of the league last season. That type of jump can’t be overlooked.
The Eagles still run the ball very well – they are currently seventh in the NFL after finishing No. 1 2021 – but they now have added a big-play passing attack, led by Smith and Brown.
Their skills were so evident against the Commanders. Time and time again, Hurts recognized man coverage and just gave Smith or Brown a chance. A Washington defensive back had his head turned to the ball, and the “shot play” or “50/50-ball” theory we hear about every Sunday came alive. Hurts deserves credit for knowing when to take a chance and for delivering a catchable ball, but Smith and Brown made dazzling contested catches, on deep and intermediate throws, time and time again. Quite simply, their skills are enhancing their quarterback’s development.
Which brings me back to Hurts. He’s leaving questions about his arm strength behind, but not because his arm somehow got stronger. No, he’s taken a firm hold of the next rung on the QB ladder because he’s throwing with excellent timing and placement, and just enough zip. A quarterback doesn’t have to rely on velocity when he’s accurate and quick-minded, two qualities that have taken off for Hurts in his third year. The cliches about “the game slowing down” become real for a QB when his command leads to the ball coming out on time and going to the right place.
In general, it’s better to be quick-minded than rocket-armed, and Hurts was the poster child in September.
The Jaguars’ defense the last two weeks made it look as if the Colts and the Chargers were outnumbered. If you look at how they’ve used draft capital in recent seasons, it makes sense.
Jacksonville spent both of its first-round picks in April on its front seven, taking DE Travon Walker first overall and LB Devin Lloyd at 27 to fortify a homegrown and very fast defense. Among their 11 defensive starters, seven are their own picks from the last four drafts, and three of their starting front seven are first-rounders. The traits that made those players high picks in April are now showing up each Sunday.
The talent is everywhere, but to me it starts with their bookend pass rushers, Walker and Josh Allen, and Llyod.
Walker and Allen are interchangeable at right and left defensive end, making it difficult for an offense to scheme for either one. While Allen is the better pass rusher, Walker can crash the pocket as well, and both are strong at the point of attack, setting the edge as defensive ends are expected to do.
Throughout the draft buildup, we heard about Walker’s versatility, being so multi-talented that he could even be effective dropping into zone coverage. Flash forward to a second-and-6 on Sunday against the Chargers. He lined up at right end, showed rush, but dropped back five yards into zone, then dove to knock down a pass in the flat. Impressive.
The first-round talent continued to flex. Consider this series in the third quarter, when it was still a two-score game:
First-and-10: Recognizing Herbert dropping back to pass, Lloyd runs down the seam with Gerald Everett. At just the right time 20 yards down the field, he turns and knocks the ball away from the Chargers’ tight end. Textbook from start to finish.
Second-and-10: Without the help from a blitz, Allen wins from the right side and forces a hurried incompletion from Herbert.
Third-and-10: Herbert, as we see so often on third-and-long situations, throws beneath the chains, hoping for a catch-and-run first down. He hits wide receiver DeAndre Carter in stride on a short crossing route, but Lloyd recognizes and pursues it so well that he easily chases him down before Carter threatens the line.
The ensuing punt led to a touchdown and two-point conversion that in essence ended the game late in the third quarter.
And all the ways offenses employ quick-hitters on the perimeter to test a team’s pursuit? Not a great idea.
Two weeks ago against the Colts, while it was still somewhat of a game, Indy tried a wide receiver screen to the right. It was chased down before it reached the line of scrimmage. Shortly thereafter, the Colts called a wide receiver jet sweep to the left. The image of Allen, Lloyd, last-year’s second-round pick at corner, Tyson Campbell, and underrated LB Foyesade Oluokun collectively running down WR Ashton Dulin from the backside was eye-popping.
The Jaguars most often line up in a four-man front, but mix in a good amount of five-DL looks, as well. They’re not a heavy blitz team with their defensive backs but aren’t afraid to bring one or both linebackers on any down. They’re not basic, but they’re not ultra complex or overly aggressive. They win more with speed, power and pursuit than with scheme and confusion.
How Will It All Unfold?
So, what’s it all mean for Sunday? Here’s what I’ll be looking for in the game:
Ryan was shut out and Herbert led one touchdown drive versus the Jaguars’ defense the last two weeks. Hurts guided the Eagles to 24 points in the first half of each of the last two games. On Sunday afternoon, will he lean more on the run-pass option? Short to intermediate passes? Or take shots downfield to Smith and Brown?
I’m eager to see how Jacksonville employs Allen and Walker at DE. Will the Jaguars continue to use both on the right and left sides? Or commit one to the right and one to the left? I find this of note because Hurts runs the RPO mainly to the right, and it’s the DE that gets stressed most in this sequence, either going for the run fake or staying wide to wait for Hurts. Is one DE better suited to succeed? This is an important part of their strategy.
What’s the best use of Lloyd’s talents? His speed and pursuit make him a major difference-maker in the middle. The Jaguars blitzed him a decent amount against Herbert, but Hurts presents a much different challenge. He will spend more time outside the pocket, by design and by necessity. Lloyd’s best asset is how he can read and react, both horizontally and vertically, and he’s in a much better position to do so when he’s not blitzing.
Expect a deep-ball mindset from both sides.
Hurts doesn’t lead the league in yards per attempt by accident. Philly has been taking shots deep and succeeding at an impressive rate. Smith and Brown will be given chances on straight “9” routes down the sidelines and post shots over the top. How often? And more importantly, how will Jacksonville decide to play it?
The Commanders tried a high volume of man defense and failed. Their corners, trailing with backs to the line of scrimmage, watched Smith and Brown haul in big plays throughout the game. It would be wise for the Jaguars to play more zone, or at least underneath man coverage with safety help over the top. Otherwise, those receivers could feast.
If you get to settle in and spend some time watching this game, and you don’t have a rooting interest, take a moment and just admire the significant steps taken by both sides. This is the Philadelphia offense that trailed Tampa Bay 31-0 heading into the fourth quarter of the divisional playoffs last season. The offense was hapless.
And these are the Jaguars that lost eight of their final nine games to close last season, a finish that wasn’t far from the norm. Enjoy the unexpected early October heavyweight match, and see if it’s Jalen’s O or the Jaguars’ D that builds on September success.