Jalen Hurts was determined to get it all back.
The first two-and-a-half quarters had been the worst of the young quarterback’s career, just 8-for-17 for 73 yards and two interceptions. The second INT was a brutal, mind-numbing, soul-crushing pick with just :08 left in the half on a 3rd-and-goal from the 1 1⁄2 yard line that torpedoed a drive that had begun on their own seven-yard line.
Now here he was, down 10-0 with 6:12 remaining in the 3rd quarter and, with his second possession of the second half, looking to redeem himself. It was time for a splash play, he decided, even if it wasn’t there.
It wasn’t there.
Hurts was 3rd this week in air yards per attempt (9.65) and 1st in average time before throw (3.19 seconds). There were several examples of Hurts gunning for the big play when it wasn’t there. pic.twitter.com/mPmiE2U8IW— Tim McManus (@Tim_McManus) November 29, 2021
Never mind Quez Watkins standing all alone at the 22-yard line, no one within 10 yards of him, Hurts had made up his mind to take a deep shot with Jalen Reagor, who was blanketed by two Giants defenders.
The result was predictable, his third interception of the day, on a Hail Mary pass that had little chance of succeeding. Hurts is renowned for his his running ability and his intangibles, most specifically his leadership traits on the field. But even with that maturity, Hurts is like many other young QBs and, when faced with adversity, lets the game get ahead of him.
We saw it often with Carson Wentz, the instinct to play hero ball and force the five-run home run at inopportune times.
Hurts’ physical and mental immaturity as a passer was just one aspect to a game that demonstrated all the reasons why the Eagles still have miles to go before they can be considered a “good” football team. Here are four others.
Young Receivers Not Named DeVonta Smith Aren’t Producing
Over the last month, DeVonta Smith, Dallas Goedert and Hurts have all been playing well, and offensive tackle Jordan Mailata has continued to maul people with regularity. Those are all great things, but a number of younger Eagles players quietly haven’t producing during that same stretch and, on Sunday, that lack of production showed up in a big way.
Jalen Reagor is the obvious scapegoat after dropping two potential touchdown passes on the final drive. On the first, he re-enacted Nelson Agholor’s drop in the Atlanta Falcons game two seasons ago, although Sunday’s drop was a tougher grab than the one Agholor let slip through his fingers. Nevertheless, it’s a pass a first-round wide receiver in his second year is expected to haul in. On the second, memories of JJ Arcega-Whiteside’s drop at the goal line late in a 27-24 loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 3 of 2019 came flooding back as Hurts’ ball flittered through his fingers unfettered. He has just 25 receptions for 201 yards and 2 TDs and is actively hurting the team.
But little talked about is the team’s No. 2 receiver, Quez Watkins, who hasn’t done much, either, with just 28 catches for 431 yards and has yet to find the end zone. Here’s how Watkins’ numbers compare to other teams’ No. 2 receivers.
Quez Watkins vs. Other No. 2 WRs
|Leviska Shenault Jr.||Jaguars||45||441||0|
|Odell Beckham Jr.||Browns||17||232||0|
The players above may not be their team’s true No. 2 receiver, as many teams have a running back or wide receiver as their second receiving option, but they are all second in targets on their respective teams among wideouts. Watkins ranks 22nd in receptions and 15th in receiving yards, which isn’t bad for a 2nd-year, 6th-round pick, but it signals the Eagles desperately need an upgrade. Getting a veteran wide receiver this off-season is paramount, but for the remainder of ‘21, Watkins must have more of an impact as the No. 2 receiver.
Defensive Line Indifference
Most of us know by now Derek Barnett is a first-round disappointment, more likely to kill a team with a damaging penalty than to come up with a sack or turnover in a big moment. Still, the former first round pick has two sacks on the season. That’s 12 games and two sacks. And after signing a three-year, $40 million contract extension, his edge-rushing teammate Josh Sweat has just 3.5 sacks and five tackles for loss this season. For only the second time this year, Ryan Kerrigan made it onto the stat sheet, recording a single tackle.
Fletcher Cox has one sack this season. I don’t care what kind of defense Jonathan Gannon is playing, that’s just insane. Javon Hargrave has seven, but only one in his last seven games, this week against the Giants. Only three teams have fewer than the Eagles’ 19 sacks.
The only way the Eagles can generate any pressure on the quarterback is by blitzing, which they had done effectively the last five weeks. It’s really Jonathan Gannon’s only choice if he wants to put a little heat on the opposing QB. They still need a lot of work here.
Bewildering Play Calling
On 1st-and-goal from the 2, Nick Sirianni’s play call to roll Hurts to his right and find a receiver on a quick out was a smart one, a play similar to the one the Birds ran against the Chicago Bears in the 2019 wild card game from Nick Foles to Golden Tate. Hurts threw a good ball Greg Ward who simply dropped it (we’ll get to Ward as the target in just a minute).
But the play calling after that was confounding. Hurts runs a QB keeper on 2nd down that went nowhere and then called his final timeout. Perhaps Sirianni never planned to go for it on 4th down, given the score was 3-0, but the smarter move would have been to attempt another pass on 2nd down and leave yourself a timeout on 3rd down so you could either attempt a run to running back or throw the ball and give yourself four cracks at the end zone. Instead, he was forced to pass on 3rd down, culminating in the awful Hurts INT.
An additional sequence occurred on their first possession of the 3rd quarter when, after two Boston Scott runs of 3 and 5 yards gave the Eagles a 3rd and 2 from the Giants’ 40, Sirianni dialed up two passing plays, both quick-hitting throws that required excellent timing and accuracy, two elements of Hurts’ game that are not strong. The 3rd-and-2 pass to Kenneth Gainwell fell incomplete, and then a short pass to Reagor also fell incomplete, ending a promising Birds drive to start the 2nd half.
In addition, at one point in the first half, Sirianni called a pass play on seven of nine plays, and with their first possession of the 4th quarter called three straight pass plays after three Scott runs gave them a first down at their own 48. The first two fell incomplete and the third resulted in a sack that forced a punt.
Confounding Targeting Issues
How is Greg Ward the first option on that 1st and goal play just before halftime? How is that not DeVonta Smith? How is Jalen Reagor, well, a target at all? How does Smith, the player they moved up in last spring’s draft to select 10th overall, get just four targets? How does Dallas Goedert, a tight end you just paid big bucks to, receive just three targets? Were Giants defenders that good?
Somehow, Reagor had seven targets despite being on the field for 67% of the team’s offensive snaps. Goedert was out there for 96% of them, and Smith 91%. In other words, it appeared as though whenever Reagor was on the field, Hurts went in his direction.
Why? Who is responsible for this? Is it an inability by Sirianni to create a scheme where his best players are targeted more, or is it Hurts, who played indecisive, tentative football and somehow, in key moments, didn’t look for the only two offensive players who can, you know, catch the ball?
This is an essential question that must be fixed if the Eagles’ passing game is ever going to get off the ground and, yes, it must get off the ground if they want to go to the playoffs. The offense ran for over 200 yards again on Sunday and, were it not for four turnovers, should have been enough to win the game handily. But without an ability to consistently target their best players, the offense will have weeks like they experienced on Sunday against New York.
There’s lots of work left to do, folks.