The good and bad of Jalen Hurts and the Nick Sirianni offense

Casey Sully
nick sirianni
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) tries to hand the ball off to running back Miles Sanders (26) during the NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

While it hasn’t all been easy for the Eagles, their run game is helping them compete early on this season. They are ranked 4th in rushing DVOA while averaging 5.2 yards per attempt. To add onto that, Philadelphia ranks 2nd in the NFL with a 75% win rate in run blocking. This success on the ground is in large part to the RPO and read option scheme that Nick Sirianni is running with Jalen Hurts.

Hurts himself is leading the team in rushing yards and that threat helps open up lanes and opportunities for the rest of the Eagles offense. Yet, the passing game still leaves a lot to be desired. Hurts struggles with anticipation and the drop-back game for the Eagles is frustrating to watch. Nick Sirianni isn’t creating easy looks that work off of what they’re establishing in their run game. Instead, the offense often flounders and loses rhythm when they break away from their RPO base. Jalen Hurts is simply not a pocket passer – at least not yet. And Nick Sirianni isn’t doing a whole lot to help him out. There’s minimal if any intermediate passing – especially over the middle and there aren’t concepts that help attack the coverages the Eagles see as a result of their RPO game.

Read option

What the Eagles do do well, though is the RPO and read option game. That’s the base of their offense and where the bulk of their success comes from. The read option can entail any blocking scheme for the running back or quarterback. The Eagles do mix it up, but at its most fundamental, all Jalen Hurts is reading is the defensive end. If the end chases flat across the line of scrimmage to the running back, Hurts will pull the ball and run around them.

When defenses don’t stay home, Hurts has the ability to break off big gains. He’s not as shifty as Lamar, but he’s smart about the hits he takes and balances getting extra yards with getting down to protect his body.

The threat of Hurts running and their RPOs packages gives Philadelphia a numbers advantage in the run game. The goal for defenses against any formation of eligible receivers is to always have a man advantage. However, that means some defenders have to play in the middle and give that man advantage post-snap. The read option and RPO game exploits that.

Here, Nick Sirianni is running a flash screen out of an Ace formation to the top of the screen. To make sure they have a man advantage over there, the 49ers have to allocate four defenders to defend those three receivers. If there’s a quick pitch or running back screen that way, they need a free man to make the tackle. However, the Eagles tie the RPO with a zone read. If Jalen Hurts sees numbers outside, he can throw the flash. If they’re overloading outside, he can read the end for a QB run. By using both those concepts in one, the Eagles are isolating five separate defenders on the play and removing them from contributing to the called run for Kenneth Gainwell. That gives Philadelphia five linemen on five defenders. This enables two double teams on the interior defensive linemen as they work up to the sole linebacker and safety to the run side. It’s incredibly simple for the Eagles. All this play is, is inside zone with a quick screen attachment. However, it’s very hard to defend for the 49ers defense.

nick sirianni
inside zone
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Inside Zone

What Nick Sirianni and the Eagles have done a good job with is tying things into their zone read game to help create space. By proxy of reading the defensive end, those players have to become more passive and patient to be able to stay with the quarterback if Hurts keeps it. However, that allows Philadelphia to tie in some brutal split zone looks with the H-back coming across and kicking that end out to create cutback lanes for the running back. The threat of the zone read holds the end and Jaylon Smith at linebacker from plugging and pinching things down. That helps the H come across and create an alley for Miles Sanders to exploit off of another inside zone blocking scheme.

It doesn’t just have to be zone blocking when running these read options though. Here, the Eagles run a quarterback power option while using the running back to hold the end instead of Jalen Hurts. The Chiefs defense isn’t used to sIt doesn’t just have to be zone blocking when running these read options though. Here, the Eagles run a quarterback power option while using the running back to hold the end instead of Jalen Hurts. The Chiefs defense isn’t used to seeing that so they flow to the running back side while bringing down their safety to come help if Hurts keeps it on the backside. However, the Eagles are wrapping a tackle around to now lead block for Hurts the other way. As soon as that end and linebacker widen with the back, Hurts takes the ball and follows the pulling tackle.

nick sirianni

Adding onto the run game and read option, are all the RPOs that the Eagles use. The most basic, is the bubble. With the bubble, Hurts is reading numbers in the horizontal space outside. With two defenders outside on three Eagles receivers, that tells Hurts to take the pass option and exploit the numbers advantage.

RPOs

The Eagles will get to that same bubble concept however they can. Here, they orbit the outside receiver to add in pre-snap motion and create movement in the defense. If that player out-leverages or nobody bumps with them, Hurts throws the ball.

The easiest way for defenses to combat the RPO and zone read game is to use man coverage. That makes sure that the defense always has a man for a man, can cover the quarterback on a keep, and creates tighter throws. The Eagles adapted to this by implementing a lot more of their Stick/Flat concept as an attachment to their run game. They almost always pair it with split zone and out of similar formations, but it’s incredibly effective for creating natural rubs to spring receivers outside. The defense has to worry about the quarterback keeping the ball, the play-side run, the crunch block from the H, and now they have to worry about rub routes and protecting the flats as well.

The Stick/Flat is becoming more and more popular to attack outside space throughout the NFL, but it also serves as a way to replace filling linebackers in the RPO world. If the defense chases the flat route, the stick inside is open right behind filling linebackers which also forces interior defenders to be even slower to the run.

When the defender gets caught peeking inside, then the flat route can out leverage them to the outside. When run out of condensed formations, that stresses the defense even more with the space they have to defend.

As the rate of man coverage increases against the Eagles, they’re going to continue to have to find ways to beat it with rub routes and picks – especially in the RPO game and at the goal line.

All of this is a lot to defend on a simple run call for the offensive line and a small quick game call for the receivers. It keeps things simple and creates easy reads for the quarterback.

Issues with drop-back game

The problem is, everywhere else, the Eagles aren’t efficient. Their under center run game struggles and their pure drop-back game leaves a lot to be desired. When you’re seeing a lot of man coverage to combat RPOs and read option, that means you also have to tailor your drop-back game to be able to exploit that coverage. The Eagles just aren’t doing that on a consistent basis. Nick Sirianni has some obscene fascination with running a ton of curls – especially on 3rd down. It’s one of my absolute least favorite plays especially against man coverage. You don’t want to have your receivers stop against guys that are chasing them, you want to run away from them. Yet Nick Sirianni and the Eagles call all curls or a variation of the stick concept over and over and over again.

Hurts clearly isn’t comfortable reading some of these concepts. His accuracy has been solid, but a lot of the time he’s just looking in the wrong place or waiting for things to break open.

In this Hank concept, Hurts should be reading the side with less linebackers. That means going to the top of the screen. There is one underneath defender there to cover both the Curl and the Flat. If the defender widens, the window is there to the curl. Instead, Hurts is reading the bottom of the screen which has four defenders for two receivers.

hank concept
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Hank Concept

On what is essentially a Sail concept here, Hurts has every level of the concept open to him. There is the deep corner that has gotten behind the corner that is flat footed, there is the deep curl that has found the soft spot in the zone, and there is the flat underneath for a checkdown. He has more than enough space in the pocket and is at the top of his drop when these routes are breaking open, yet he holds onto the ball and has to scramble.

sail concept
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Sail Concept

Hurts just isn’t quite there yet as a drop-back passer. He’s made some great throws, but he’s reluctant to pull the trigger at times and can be a beat late on throws. He also has an issue with pulling his eyes down when he faces pressure as well.

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Final thoughts

The run and RPO game have shown Sirianni and Hurts can be a great tandem. They’ve evolved and added wrinkles and looks to keep defenses honest. The next step is for both of them to grow in the drop-back game. The scheme isn’t helping, and Hurts doesn’t look comfortable. To really be able to challenge teams and make them pay for manning up to prevent their run game, they’ve got attack teams with chunk yardage in the intermediate part of the field. Right now, that’s not there. If it develops though, the Eagles are a hell of a team to stop. Goedert is legit, Myles Sanders is dynamic when he gets the ball, and Devonta Smith is developing nicely. If it all comes together, this Eagles team has a lot of potential.