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Eagles stick with run-heavy approach but come up short against the Chargers

After spending the first third of the season putting responsibility on Jalen Hurts with mixed results, coach Nick Sirianni has seemingly made an about-face.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts picks up a first  down in the third quarter at Lincoln Financial Field.
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts picks up a first down in the third quarter at Lincoln Financial Field.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

It turns out Nick Sirianni brought his game plan home from Detroit.

For the second week in a row, the first-year head coach called a run-heavy game, this time in the Eagles’ 27-24 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday.

It didn’t result in an offensive explosion the way it did against the lowly Lions, though. It helped keep the Eagles in the game until the final moments, but it wasn’t explosive enough to keep up as the defense struggled to contain Justin Herbert and the Chargers’ passing game.

» READ MORE: Eagles-Chargers instant analysis: Close game, but the defense falters in the end, as L.A. wins it on a field goal

The Chargers’ run defense was ranked dead last in efficiency by Football Outsiders going into the game, and the Eagles were able to capitalize. Part of the Chargers’ woes against the run are by design, though. Under new coach Brandon Staley, the team employs plenty of two-high-safety formations and dares the opposition to run.

Even with the Chargers’ offense having two turnovers on downs inside the Eagles’ 30-yard line, Herbert and Co. made enough plays to set a game-winning, 29-yard field goal from Dustin Hopkins to put the Eagles away.

After spending the first third of the season putting a significant amount of pre- and post-snap responsibility on Jalen Hurts with mixed results, Sirianni has seemingly made an about-face. The Eagles ran the ball 46 times against the Lions and totaled 236 rushing yards last Sunday and followed it up with 39 rushing attempts for 176 yards against the Chargers.

Sirianni said after the game that the Eagles’ success on the ground — Jordan Howard (71 yards on 17 carries) and Kenneth Gainwell capped off drives with rushing touchdowns — has forced defenses to play his offense differently.

“When you’re running the ball like that, there’s different answers the defense has to come with,” Sirianni said. “You just never as a defense want to get the ball pushed down your throat. They ended up doing some different things, which naturally opens up some different scenarios. ... We just had to identify what they’re doing and then attack from there. I think our coaches did a nice job seeing what they were doing, communicating what they were doing, so we could get to the answers.”

After spending the first third of the year searching for an offensive identity, it seems like the Eagles have found one as a run-first group. Hurts threw just 17 times, the second straight game he has not surpassed 20 attempts. By comparison, he averaged 34.6 attempts per game in the Eagles’ first seven games this season.

“You want to be balanced as an offense where you can be able to do both,” rookie wide receiver DeVonta Smith said. “I feel like we’re getting there, we just have to continue to chip away at it.”

Hurts ran for 62 yards on 10 attempts, proving effective both on designed quarterback runs and as a scrambler on broken-down pass plays. Especially in the fourth quarter, he made a handful of pivotal plays to keep the Eagles in the game, including an 11-yard scramble on a third-and-4 in Chargers territory. The next play, he found Smith for a 28-yard touchdown pass to tie the score with just over five minutes left in the game. Earlier that drive, he had a 5-yard run when he dove over a defender to get the first down.

“He made some unbelievable plays on third down,” Sirianni said. “That play where he jumped over top and flipped, I think, if we won that game, that’d be a play they showed in Philly for a long time.”

Sirianni added a few wrinkles in the run-heavy scheme, including some new formations. On a 16-play drive that ended in a field goal, the Eagles used 13 personnel the majority of the time and had a few creative play calls from the heavy formation. On a key third-down conversion, Sirianni called a quarterback draw out of an empty formation.

There were still missed opportunities in the passing game, though. Hurts missed on a few key chances, including two potential touchdown throws in the first half. On the Eagles’ opening drive, Hurts had Dallas Goedert wide open on a deep crossing route, but overthrew him as pressure crowded his view. Goedert got a hand on the ball, but could not reel it in.

At the end of the first half, Hurts misfired to Smith open in the back of the end zone on third-and-6. The Eagles had to settle for a field goal after reeling off an impressive 16-play drive that featured 12 designed runs and just three passing plays.

Hurts said those two plays stuck in his mind once the game was lost.

“There were some opportunities that, whether it was a perfect situation or not, whether it was a perfect pocket or not, whatever it was, I didn’t make the play early in the game,” Hurts said. “Those are the things that are on my mind right now. Things that I didn’t do.”