So: is Jalen Hurts the franchise quarterback? Is he? Send your take!
If you haven’t seen a flurry of “QB of the future” takes, don’t be surprised if you start to see them this week. Hurts shocked many with a winning performance against the Saints, using his legs to rip off chunk gains, and opening space for the Eagles’ offense altogether with his ever-present running threat. We spent all week talking about how dangerous the Saints’ defense was — Hurts didn’t seem to care.
With three weeks left in the season and the sudden win vaulting the Eagles back onto the fringe of NFC East contention, the focus on Hurts’ play has suddenly shifted. Instead of hoping Hurts will show enough to fight for the starting job in 2021, Eagles fans are looking at Doug Pederson’s record with backup quarterbacks and wondering if Hurts can win enough games now to take the division.
He might. But things won’t be as easy in future weeks as they were for Hurts against the Saints, as New Orleans’ defense was not well prepared for the Eagles’ screen-heavy, motion-heavy, run-heavy gameplan. As such, weaknesses to Hurts’ game that he was able to hide and cover with strengths, defenses will look to attack now that his baseline habits are established.
Remember, this isn’t to say Hurts is bad — he’s not. We didn’t know what he was going to be, and now we have a game’s worth of film to start defining his identity. With that, we can not only project what the Eagles’ offense will look like over these next three weeks — but how defenses will respond.
Pocket-Breaker, Dream Maker, Love Taker
Eagles fans know all too well the sinking sense of dread as a quarterback remains tall in a collapsing pocket. No passer in the league stayed hung around more against pressure, and made as many backbreaking mistakes when doing so, than Carson Wentz this year. Hurts took the Eagles’ primary struggle as an offense — a league-leading number of sacks — and gave it a complete 180, taking no sacks on the game and avoiding most hits altogether.
Wentz liked to hang in the pocket; Hurts likes to get out of it. Early and often. And those pocket breaks were often good for the Eagles — but they came at the expense of potentially quality passing attempts.
This is the first third down of the game for the Eagles, and they dialed up Mesh-Sit-Wheel for Hurts. It’s a play with which Hurts is familiar — he ran it at Oklahoma — and with which Eagles fans should be familiar: a few years ago, we called this “Chip Kelly Mesh”.
It’s stuck around for a while because it’s a great concept. It creates a ton of trash in the middle of the field for man coverage defenders to sort through, and the natural picks from the mesh can big YAC opportunities for both of the crossing shallow routes. Against zone coverage, the crossing patterns pull underneath defenders away from the sit route developing just behind them.
The first check, however, is the wheel. A stack linebacker who has to work through the two receivers tight to the formation is likely to fall behind the back on the wheel route, and you can throw it over the top.
When Hurts hits the top of the drop, it’s clear that the safety is capping the wheel route. Hurts’ eyes should next move to the mesh, looking for the crosser coming across the formation. That’s Greg Ward, who has a clear step on his man cover defender and is working into space.
However, directly in Hurts’ face is a penetration rusher. To his right, Hurts can feel that the defensive end has crashed into the B-gap, and that there’s space to break outside. So he takes it.
This isn’t the only time Hurts broke the pocket on this specific concept. In the second half, the Eagles went for the same idea out of the same formation, but from different personnel. New Orleans was ready for it, and had everyone matched almost immediately.
The Saints defense has adjusted nicely, but it’s worth noting that Hurts still doesn’t want to go read the mesh. Watch his eyes from the end zone view. He initially turns and sets for the wheel route, sees that it’s unavailable, and flips his base and his eyes all the way across, as if looking for the backside dig. Before that breaks, he’s already felt the space to his left, dropped his eyes, and started working to the sideline for the run.
Getting outside of the pocket was a priority for Hurts. On 26 dropbacks in which he wasn’t taken out of the pocket by the design, Hurts escaped the pocket on nine of them: four throwaways, four scrambles, and a dump-off to Boston Scott. And those plays were critical: nearly 50% of his rushing yards came on those four scrambles, three of which were in the end-of-half drive: clear passing situations.
Because Hurts did so much damage as a scrambler outside of the pocket and showed a willingness to break it whenever he felt space, defenses planning for the Hurts-led Eagles are going to work to keep him in the pocket. Because Hurts willingly drops his eyes and works to wherever the pocket has opened, teams will rush slower on the edges, with the intent of attacking Hurts once he leaves the pocket.
You can see that happen here, where Cameron Jordan delays the release of the tight end, breaking the timing of the Eagles’ playside route combination. Once the first read is taken away, Hurts starts working to space — to his right, where Jordan hasn’t yet rushed. But that just gives Jordan an angle on Hurts, and he’s able to drive him into the sideline and force him to throw the ball away.
Defenses have other weapons in their arsenals to counter quick, athletic pocket-breakers. Against a player like Hurts, sending your EDGE rushers on wide arcs around the pocket will prevent him from escaping the back of the pocket. That alone significantly limits Hurts’ scrambling opportunities, as he’s a shorter quarterback (6-foot-1) who takes deep, drifting drops to see the entirety of the field.
Unlike Wentz, who liked to stand tall in the center of the pocket, Hurts’ drifting back gives outside track rushers a good angle to get directly into his lap. Once Hurts sees color on the outside shoulder of his tackles, who often are setting expecting a shorter dropback, he either drops his eyes and escapes out of the back of the pocket, or looks to get rid of the football.
Sometimes that goes well, sometimes it doesn’t.
You can see how certain pressure packages send late rushers on the outside track to Hurts, as was the case on the first clip with LB Demario Davis looping from the A-gap to the C-gap. Slower, wider outside rushes like the ones in the second clip also work to hold Hurts in the pocket and force him to attempt passes. These looks are good for the defense, and will keep popping up on film with more regularity as opponents look to clip Hurts’ wings.
Moving The Strike Zones
We’ve largely talked about dropbacks on which Hurts chose not to throw the football — let’s talk about the ones on which he did.
Hurts showed the baseline ability to dropback from the gun, get to his first read from his pre-snap look, and throw an accurate, on-time ball — more than the Eagles were getting out of Wentz this year, for sure. The Eagles largely gave Hurts concepts that broke to one half of the field, stretching defenses vertically with deep, intermediate, and shallow patterns working to one sideline. With natural rubs created on crossers, and the occasional sprintout or rollout dialed up, this gave Hurts easy reads that didn’t require him to reset his throwing base as he went through his progression: he could just keep his feet pointed one direction.
This was a departure from their efforts with Wentz. They gave Carson four-, five-man route combinations that spread the entire field, trusting Wentz to not only make good pre-snap decisions, but also work to the backside of concepts in rhythm and with good mechanics. This was an expression of “getting Wentz in rhythm,” an effort the Eagles tried and miserably failed to execute for the better part of the 2020 season.
But Hurts didn’t really have a rhythm. When given such concepts, he was often a little lost in the sauce.
This play call is extremely Wentzian. The motion is used to determine a man or zone coverage check — with the corner bumping over to the running back, you should expect zone coverage. Zone coverages will be the favored response of defenses looking to answer Hurts’ mobility: in man coverage, defenders often turn their back to the quarterback, and can’t see when he breaks the pocket until it’s too late, but in zone coverage, all defenders are ready to respond to a tuck-and-run. With zone coverage expected here, the first read should be on the high-low stretch in the middle of the field: whichever route that strongside linebacker relates to, throw to the other player.
And after the snap, the linebacker immediately connects to the sit route in front of him, creating a window for Greg Ward’s in-breaking route in the middle of the field.
Again, when you watch Hurts’ eyes, they reveal his scattershot process. Hurts is initially looking left, at Goedert’s route — Goedert has good leverage on his cover man, so if Hurts wants that route, he should throw it. But by the time he pulls of Goedert, Ward has already uncovered, and the safeties are starting to converge on that route.
Hurts can throw late to the deep post, which is a dangerous proposition, but he starts to feel pressure in his lap so he drops his eyes and prepares to run. When he gets back to Goedert and sees that he’s uncovered, he makes the throw. Not a bad gain — but the process isn’t what you want to see.
The good news is that football is very hard, and especially so for rookies. While this play doesn’t demonstrate good process, it is forgivable, especially when you can contrast it with plays of good pocket management and play understanding.
Hurts didn’t get to his first read properly against zone coverage here, but he’s going to see a lot of zone coverage, and must be able to manipulate zone defenders. His best passing play of the game came on one such opportunity, working another “full-field” concept.
What matters here is the blitzer coming off the weak side. Isaac Seumalo and Jason Kelce both point him out, ensuring protection and Hurts knows he’s coming. You can also see the deep safety start to sneak upfield, to replace that eventual blitzer after the snap.
When the safety steps down, Hurts knows he has to move him out of the throwing lane for Greg Ward’s eventual in-breaking route. As such, Hurts sets his throwing base to the sideline, knowing that doing so will force the underneath safety to open his hips to the outside and potentially sink under an out-breaking route. Because Hurts is such a dangerous runner, the safety doesn’t want to pull his eyes off of Hurts, who could leave the pocket in any moment off of the Saints’ blitz look.
Now, Hurts is still a little late to reset his throwing base and get this ball to Ward, which limits the YAC opportunity. Ideally at this still, he’d already be resetting to the middle of the field and preparing to release. But, as Eagles fans have learned from Wentz and a carousel of practice-squad receivers such as Ward across the last two seasons: timing is hard. Especially when you haven’t had much practice together.
It is far more important that Hurts showed the ability to move an underneath zone defender, than the precise timing with which he did.
It’s interesting to consider the Eagles’ upcoming opponents and how they play in zone coverage. Against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, Hurts faces an aggressive defense coordinated by experienced DC Vance Joseph. The Cardinals are fifth in blitz rate at 38.9%, but behind their blitzes they love to play man coverage. When the Saints blitzed from man coverage last week, they either got a free rusher on Hurts and forced a throwaway — or Hurts was able to escape, and they gave up an explosive scramble.
Joseph would be foolish to live in the same mold as he has this season. If he plays a blitz-heavy man coverage against the Eagles, Hurts will make him pay — he’s too good of a runner. Joseph will likely deploy more zone coverage behind his blitzes, such as the look the Saints gave above, in the hope of getting pressure on Hurts while also leaving underneath defenders with eyes on the scramble-heavy passer.
But against teams like Washington, who the Eagles play in Week 17 in a game that could decide the division champion, Hurts will be forced to manipulate and attack zone coverage built to negate his scramble threat. Few teams play zone coverage at a higher rate than the Football Team, and with their ferocious front four, they won’t need to add extra players to the rush to get after Hurts. If Hurts delivers winning performances on offense against the Cardinals and the talentless Cowboys’ defense, his stock will be through the roof — but the true test will be the Washington defense, better suited than any other to force him to be a mature pocket passer.
At the end of the day, the greatest limiting factor on Hurts won’t be slow rushers or zone defense. It will be Doug Pederson, Press Taylor, and the rest of the Eagles’ offensive brain trust. They gave him a kiddie pool offense in Week 14 against the Saints, and while he had his blunders, he was able to swim with the sharks and do enough to win the game. Now, they must put more on his plate.
Sprintouts, half-field reads, and the occasional predetermined vertical shot hardly comprise a functional passing game. Such is evident in Hurts’ 5.6 yards/attempt and 56% completion percentage.
Hurts may not be ready for much more on his plate, but it would be unfair to him and to the rest of the offense to put him on the field without giving him an increasingly more diverse and dangerous sampling of the offense. You don’t have to move away from what works — keep running the football, keeping throwing WRs in motion across the backfield, keep rolling him out — but you won’t be up 17 points on Taysom Hill for the rest of this season. You’ll need to throw the ball — for four quarters.
Against Arizona? That seems likely. And while he’ll take his lumps, that’s what you drafted him to do: play, make mistakes, learn, and improve. Develop. Become better than what he is now — a rookie passer keeping his head above water — and potentially become a starting-caliber quarterback for your franchise.