Coming out of Week 7, the Philadelphia Eagles had just dropped to 2-5 after a loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in which they trailed 30-7. Since then, the Eagles have won five of their past seven games to get to 7-7 and in contention for a wild card playoff berth. The foundation has been a run game which has produced the most rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, runs of over 20 yards, and first downs of any team in the NFL this season.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts leads the Eagles in rushing attempts and rushing yards as the Eagles have built their run game and much of their offensive approach around him as a runner more than a distributor of the football in the passing game. I want to take a closer look at whether this offense is tailored to the running game out of innovation or necessity and if this profile can lead to playoff success in today’s NFL.
Let’s start with some statistical achievements. In addition to Hurts, who ranks second among all quarterbacks in rushing yards (733) and fourth among all players in rushing touchdowns (10, Miles Sanders has over 700 rushing yards averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Fellow backs Jordan Howard, Boston Scott, and Kenneth Gainwell each have over 50 carries for at least 200 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
With their 238-yard rushing performance in their Week 15 victory over the Washington Football Team, the Eagles are the first team since the 1985 Chicago Bears to rush for 175 or more yards in seven straight games. Remarkably, Philadelphia has led the league in total rushing for much of the season but has just two individual 100-yard efforts in 2021.
With 423 rushing yards in their past two games – both multiple possession victories – the Eagles have been playing very well as they begin their final 3 division matchups with a rematch against the Giants, their last loss back in Week 12. You cannot talk about the historic rushing numbers in their last 7 games without giving credit to their offensive line.
It has been a major component of their success and once again stood out on film in Week 15. It’s a group that’s fun to watch. Their athleticism and mobility are always notable, the cohesion with which they executed the different blocking schemes (both zone and gap) jump off the tape. Synchronicity would be a good word to describe the consistent execution of the Eagles offensive line in this 7 game stretch. And I have to mention Jason Kelce. He has shown he is still one of the most athletic centers in the NFL despite being 34 years old and in his 11th season with the Eagles. He is playing right now as if he is 24 years old, and you can tell he is having a good time.
The Eagles have been especially effective out of the shotgun in their last two games. Against the New York Jets in Week 13, Sanders took 15 of his 24 carries out of shotgun and he gained 82 yards. He ran high percentage zone concepts with the Eagles also featuring trap and gap scheme as Sanders demonstrated a desirable combination of patience and decisiveness with short area burst and strong finishing traits. He got hard yards with almost all his runs inside in a game that requires a sustained, grind-it-out effort on his part.
On a second-and-two early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles lined up in 12 personnel, in shotgun, with a 3 x 1 formation featuring a tight bunch to the trips side. With the Jets in their nickel defense, Philadelphia executed a gap scheme concept with Kelce and left tackle Jordan Mailata pulling. Sanders was able to hit the hole and break arm tackles en route to a 34-yard gain that helped put the game away.
Success out of shotgun continued against Washington, with 10 of Sanders’ 18 carries coming out of this formation for 68 yards. Philadelphia was efficient passing out of shotgun as well as Hurts completed 18 of 23 attempts for 223 yards and a touchdown. He added 62 rushing yards on seven carries though most were not designed running plays, which made the 238-yard rushing performance even more impressive.
So now we get to the nuts and bolts of this discussion about the Eagles offense and Hurts. In many ways, it reminds of Lamar Jackson when he began his second season with the Ravens, and his first as the full-time starter. I remember speaking to a veteran NFL offensive coach who had been coaching in the league for 30-plus years, and we were discussing the Ravens commitment to an offense that was built around Jackson as a runner.
Many were postulating that Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman were brilliant for doing something that went totally against the accepted and conventional wisdom for building an NFL offense in a passing era. This coach made the point that it was the only offense you could run with Jackson, and was therefore a result of necessity and not innovation.
This brings me to Jalen Hurts. Hurts has been a foundational part of the Eagles run game, and when he is in the shotgun, as he has been the large percentage of the snaps in recent games, there are multiple dimensions and concepts that defenses must account for, or he will burn you with designed runs. That’s the starting point of the Eagles offense.
That is its foundational premise. Hurts as a runner is the building block of the Eagles offense. That makes defenses more predictable, and much easier, relatively speaking, to throw against. This was particularly evident versus Washington on Tuesday night in a game in which Hurts was relatively efficient overall. But I have watched every snap of Hurts this season, and every week you see areas in which improvement must occur for him to reach the demanded level as a passer in the NFL.
He may well get there, given that he has started just more than a season’s worth of games in this, his second season. Remember, the objective is to make Hurts as good a passer as possible, not solely rely on his traits as a runner with the pass game solely working off that. I remember Bill Walsh telling me that to be a complete offense, the run game and pass game must be able to operate independently of each other. The question is whether the Eagles can get to that point. Can Hurts become the foundation of a passing game?
In every game, you see some things with Hurts that some will say can be improved, and others will say cannot be improved. Let me tell you what the tape shows based on detailed study and evaluation, and I have watched on the All-22 every snap of Hurts Eagles career. He does not see the field very well. He does not turn it loose at times to open receivers in the progression. He has a tendency to break the pocket too early with the result that he leaves some throws on the field, he is not a natural passer with an easy fluid delivery, his deep balls tend to lose energy on the back end.
Once in a while he will show some pocket movement keeping his eyes downfield, as he did on a 21-yard completion to Dallas Goedert versus Washington. The Eagles coaching staff knows all this, and they have done an outstanding job defining the reads and throws for Hurts within the context of the offense. And Hurts has responded well for the most part. But make no mistake, the Eagles are a running team with Hurts as the foundation, and right now that is working at the highest level. That is the reason for the Eagles success.