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How Nick Sirianni can unlock Jalen Hurts with 21 personnel

Speed, speed, SPEED!

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Since drafting Dallas Goedert in 2018, the Eagles have put an emphasis on 12 personnel, an offensive look that has one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. Pairing Goedert, a physical, overwhelming athlete, with the nibble, pure route-running Zach Ertz made all the sense in the world on paper. Get as many talented pass-catchers on the field at once.

It was this concept that allowed the 2011 Patriots, one of the best offenses ever, to have tremendous success. Utilizing Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the Pats could do whatever they wanted on the field. The defense crowds the box? They’re going to throw the ball all over the field. The defense plays off? They’re going to run it down their throats.

It never quite worked that way for the Eagles. The Birds finished 16th, 14th, and then 28th in Football Outsiders’ Offensive DVOA metric over the last three years. They neither threw the ball all over the field nor ran it down defenses’ throats. It was a slow, plodding offense that felt like a unit struggling to move through quicksand, devoid of anything resembling big-play activity and high-scoring efforts.

I bought so heavily into 12 personnel and was left looking like a fool when it didn’t have this transformative effect on the Eagles’ offense. It was agonizing to watch this offense look so slow and boring.

The Eagles will look different this year with Jalen Hurts (likely) under center. For all of Hurts’s athletic talents, the weakness I see most in his game is intermediate accuracy in the middle of the field. A team with two prominent tight ends in Goedert and Ertz doesn’t fit what Hurts does well. Continuing on this path of 12 personnel, something that Frank Reich ran at times in Indianapolis when Nick Sirianni worked as his offensive coordinator, wouldn’t make sense at all.

I’ve been hoping that the Eagles would make greater use of three and four-receiver sets this season. Spread everything out. Let Hurts sling the deep ball like he does and give him space to tuck and run when need be. The addition of DeVonta Smith, plus possible improvement from Travis Fulgham and Jalen Reagor, could have Hurts in a great position. Throwing in a burner like Quez Watkins, who displayed some semblance of juice in limited snaps as a rookie, could give a little spark too.

It may have just been a small comment, not meant to be some new, overarching philosophy, but after the Eagles first training camp practice, Sirianni mentioned running 21 personnel:

This is sometimes called a “pony” formation. Much different than the old-school 21 personnel looks that had a traditional fullback paired with a tailback, “21 speed” would make use of two true running backs simultaneously.

Pairing Miles Sanders and fifth-round rookie Kenny Gainwell could work so well here. Sanders regressed as a receiver in 2020, but as I often say, that may have had more to do with a quarterback unable to throw a five-yard pass. Sanders shined out of the backfield as a rookie. Getting back to his 2019 form as a pass-catcher would be huge.

Gainwell, in his final collegiate season in 2019 at Memphis, caught 51 balls for 610 yards on 12 yards per reception, fantastic numbers for a college back. In the aftermath of this year’s draft, the Eagles compared Gainwell to the way the Colts used Nyheim Hines as a complementary back with workhorse Jonathan Taylor last season. Hines caught 63 passes in 2020.

The screen game should improve in 2021, something Carson Wentz never did well in Philly. Having two capable backs moving in motion and creating some confusion could lead to big chunks plays. Then the Birds can start getting into the really fun stuff with wheel routes and more. A wheel route: a Philadelphia fan favorite.

Quick shots in the short game paired with the deep ball that Hurts throws well will maximize the skills he currently possesses rather than him forcing passes into the middle of the field.

Beyond the passing game, there’s some real potential for the Eagles’ rushing attack. Yes, Jeffrey Lurie will always want to be a pass-first, pass-heavy team. He infamously, according to this offseason’s expose from The Athletic, got mad at Doug Pederson for running too much after a big Thursday Night Football win in Green Bay in 2019.

The ultimate best-case scenario for Hurts would be to make a Year 2 leap like the one Lamar Jackson made in 2019. Hurts is not the same caliber of player as Jackson, but the Ravens’ success the last two years provides a blueprint the Eagles should take bits and pieces from.

Two-RB pony formations in 2019 had Jackson, Mark Ingram, and Gus Edwards tearing it up on the ground. Jackson and Ingram both topped 1,000 rushing yards and Edwards hit 700-plus. Baltimore doubled down on that for 2020, selecting J.K. Dobbins in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Jackson went over 1,000 yards on the ground. Edwards hit that 700-yard mark once more. Dobbins added 805 rushing yards.

Speed, speed, speed. The Ravens have emphasized speed around their uber-athlete quarterback and the offense has looked great. The Eagles, mixing in heavy doses of Sanders and Gainwell with four-wide looks, can do the same for Hurts.

Maybe I’m getting too carried away like I once did with 12 personnel, but after zigging for so long, I’m amped to see the Eagles start to zag.