Jalen Hurts’ First Start for the Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles’ Jalen Hurts, left, scrambles past New Orleans Saints’ Demario Davis during the first half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Jalen Hurts finally got his first start and led the Eagles to a win with 273 total yards and one touchdown. It’s a small sample size, but let’s take a look at how Hurts looked and what the Eagles asked of him against the Saints.

Note: If you prefer to watch a video breakdown, scroll to the bottom of this article.

(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The Good

Doug Pederson frequently moved Hurts outside the pocket. This helped simplify his reads by cutting the field in half. The Eagles ran rollouts seven different times. All used the same Sail concept where they flood one side of the field with three receivers at three different depths.

You have one deep route, a route at about 10-12 yards coming across the field, and someone in the flats. It’s a pretty basic concept that every team runs in the NFL. If the flat defender stays low, you can throw to the intermediate route. If they drop under the deeper route, you can check down to the flats. Here, the flat route beats their man to the outside and it’s an easy throw. What’s impressive is Hurts’ ability to square his shoulders to this throw as he’s rolling to his left. Hurts shows good hip and shoulder mobility to get his body around and deliver the throw on the run.

The Eagles really made a strong effort to make things simple for Hurts. They only ran 3-4 different pass concepts in combination with a number of screens and a couple of RPOs. While they aren’t super flashy plays, they’re the plays the Eagles needed to be able to keep their offense on schedule. Something that just wasn’t happening with Wentz at quarterback. Hurts made the simple throws and played within the framework of the offense.

Adapting in-game

Since a lot of teams aren’t very threatened by the Eagles receivers, they often see a lot of man coverage. That man coverage allowed the Saints to bring pressure and make Hurts uncomfortable in the pocket. While Jalen Hurts definitely had some issues bailing from clean pockets (which we’ll get to later) he did show improvement through the game and the ability to diagnose blitzes and beat man coverage. A common man-beater concept is Mesh which is another play the Eagles ran multiple times against the Saints. Essentially all Mesh is is two underneath drags that rub defenders and make them travel over the opposing route. It’s perfect for scheming separation for receivers when defenders are chasing them across the field in man coverage.

The first time the Eagles called it, Jalen missed the open receiver. Instead of standing strong in the pocket to deliver the ball to the drag route that’s popping open for a big gain, he bails from the pocket early.

What’s encouraging, though, is that on the very next series, he stands strong in the pocket to buy enough time for that drag to pop open. He recognized that the play was there and adapted to make it work the next time it was called.

Able to Beat Pressure

It was a very inconsistent day for Hurts in the pocket though. Some great flashes and some big misses. For the first touchdown of the day, though, Hurts does an amazing job of throwing with anticipation. He stands strong and beats an all out zero blitz. The Eagles come out in an empty formation, which makes it easier to diagnose what the Saints are doing here. There’s no deep safety and the linebacker is close to the line of scrimmage. All of that is indicating cover zero.

Hurts knows he has man coverage across the board and that he’s going to have to get the ball out quickly. He’s able to quickly read the leverage of Marshon Lattimore and throws a great back-shoulder ball. It showed great processing, accuracy, and understanding of the situation.

Pocket Issues

While Jalen Hurts was able to beat that pressure a number of times, he also got skittish in the pocket and refused to climb up to avoid pressure. He almost always bailed out onto the edge where he feels more comfortable. If he throws on time or is able to climb up into the pocket, he has multiple receivers breaking open here on that same Sail concept we saw earlier.

For a guy that’s so mobile and athletic, he doesn’t manipulate the pocket well. He also didn’t throw with anticipation outside of that touchdown throw to Alshon Jeffrey. Hurts here is staring down the out route the whole way and has it open. It’s a solid read, but he doesn’t feel the pressure in the pocket and move up to avoid it. He takes a big hit and the ball goes straight into the ground for an incompletion.

This lack of composure in the pocket caused the Eagles to miss out on some huge plays. He was a little slow going through his reads so when he did feel pressure, he’d often drop his eyes to find an escape route or look for a check-down. That’s not the worst thing in the world especially given the context of Wentz trying to extend plays and setting the offense back because of it. If Hurts was a little more subtle with his movements and composed in the pocket here, he could have had potential touchdown plays to either of the receivers to the top and bottom of the screen.

Impact in the Run Game

While Hurts was up and down as a passer, he did huge things for the run game. The threat of Jalen Hurts opened up some significant lanes for Miles Sanders as well. It’s nothing new or crazy schematically but it is impactful. It kept the Eagles on schedule almost the entire day. With solid gains and some explosive plays mixed in there, all-the-sudden that offense looked a lot more competent and productive against the Saints.

Philadelphia ran the zone read on almost all of their run plays out of shot gun. What that does is put the end man on the line of scrimmage in conflict. If he comes down the line of scrimmage towards the running back, Hurts is athletic enough to pull the ball and run outside.

The Eagles ran this multiple times in the game and got a number of nice gains out of it.

Once that end did stopped coming inside towards the running back, Jalen Hurts would hand the ball off. This created some extra creases and lanes for Miles Sanders to work. It doesn’t look like much, but for Miles Sanders, one step out of position can be enough to let him get up-field and gain 2-3 extra yards that he normally wouldn’t have. You can see the more vertical track that the end man on the line of scrimmage has here. He’s attacking Jalen Hurts and vacating the cutback lane for the running back.

Especially in short yardage situations like here on the goal line, that fake makes a huge difference. The read takes the end out of the play and pulls #43 up to take the quarterback as well. This takes him out of position to be able to help on Miles Sanders up the middle. Those little extra gains of 1-2 yards because of Hurts in the run game made a huge difference.

Jalen Hurts was a little up and down in the passing game in his first start but he did a good job of taking the easy throws when they were there. He was able to keep the offense on schedule, and making some big plays with his legs. Is he the future of the Eagles? I have no idea. But he did provide a spark and the offense operated much more efficiently this last week with him in. If he can string together some more solid performances and settle into the pocket a little more, the Eagles aren’t done yet and are only a game and a half out of first place in the NFC East. Maybe, and it’s a big maybe, but just maybe the Eagles will go on another special run with a backup quarterback.

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