DETROIT — Did the Eagles find their offensive identity in Sunday’s 44-6 drubbing of the Lions, or did their dreadful opponent only allow for Nick Sirianni to implement what many had been clamoring for from the first-year coach?
That answer won’t be provided until the next game, but the Eagles at least took a step in the right direction Sunday. They established the run and a certain physicality early, stayed committed to the ground game after taking a lead, and, overall, eased the execution burden on quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Sirianni wants to have an offense that is adaptable each week and takes advantage of defensive tendencies. But for too long this season, the Eagles have focused often on what they want to be rather than what they truly are, and the same could be said of Jonathan Gannon’s defense.
On offense, the Eagles simply don’t have a quarterback who can throw in rhythm and accurately enough — at least not yet. But what they do have is a mobile one who can supplement the run game and hit throws when facilitated.
That isn’t an indictment of Hurts; it’s just a reality. And there’s nothing wrong with winning that way, even if it may not be sustainable against better teams and quarterbacks.
“Yes, you do it that way,” Sirianni said of countering defensive schemes, “but you’ve also got to do what you do well. … It’s yes to both. We want to do what a defense is allowing you to do, while doing the things we’ve been successful with.”
So what took Sirianni so long? It’s not like outsiders didn’t point out before the season that Sirianni would have to ditch most of his Philip Rivers offense if he wanted to play to Hurts’ strengths. It’s not like it wasn’t suggested that a run-heavy system modeled after the Ravens would help the young quarterback.
But new coaches can often get caught up in their own schemes or how they were brought up in the NFL. Sirianni seemed to want to avoid this trap in the Eagles’ season-opening win over the Falcons. But for most of the next six weeks, he placed far too much responsibility on the 23-year-old.
On Sunday, Hurts dropped to throw on just 17 of 47 snaps. On the Eagles’ 30 runs, he handed off to running backs Boston Scott and Jordan Howard a dozen times from under center.
“I think Jalen’s got big shoulders, and he’s able to handle a lot, I really do,” Sirianni said. “But you could essentially say he’s still in his rookie year as far as starts go. And so, that’s going to be able to help him out, and when you run it like that, it’s going to create space for him and the offensive line on play-action.”
Hurts still had to make reads on zone read runs. Pass plays were still dialed up in which he had to drop and throw from the pocket. And there were some questionable decisions in both regards.
But Scott (12 carries for 60 yards and two touchdowns) and Howard (12 carries for 57 yards and two touchdowns) offset those errors with defender-carrying rushes. And Hurts made up for missing receivers or leaving the pocket early with dynamic scrambles (three for 46 yards).
Sirianni wants him to carry out pass plays, but he’s willing to take a few off-schedule bolts from Hurts if the results are positive. Hurts had good moments with his arm, too. He completed 9 of 14 passes for 103 yards, two of which came to tight end Dallas Goedert (six catches total for 72 yards) off play-action.
“I’m OK with winning,” Hurts said when asked if he was OK with throwing only 14 times a game. “I say the same thing every week.”
But he averaged 35 pass attempts in the first seven games and the first half results were often disastrous. Sirianni had actually wanted to lessen his quarterback’s load last week in Las Vegas. He had Miles Sanders run from under center early. But the running back left early with an ankle injury, and the Eagles’ defense couldn’t stop the Raiders.
They had to abandon their plans — much as they have all season — because they had gotten behind. Sirianni said on Sunday that he had scripted five runs on the Eagles’ first seven plays. That didn’t end up being the case, because they went three-and-out on their first series.
But on their second possession, Scott took five handoffs, with receiver Jalen Reagor also getting in the mix with two end arounds for 21 yards. The latter slipped before the end zone on a flip pass later, but the former finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown scurry.
“We got some good runs early on and when the offensive line kept coming back to the sidelines saying, ‘Hey, we got a lot of momentum here. We’re pushing them up front,’” Sirianni said. “And so, we kept staying with it.”
Many O-linemen love run blocking. They aren’t under the gun as much as they are in pass protection. But the Eagles have two of the best run blockers at their position — center Jason Kelce and right tackle Lane Johnson — and a budding mountain-mover in rookie left guard Landon Dickerson.
Even right guard Jack Driscoll’s exit — Nate Herbig spelled him — didn’t stop the deluge.
“It can definitely be a morale breaker,” Scott said of running successfully. “It’s just, ‘Stop us. Stop us. If you don’t, we’re just going to keep doing it.’”
There will be games, of course, when the Eagles won’t be able to run as well. The Lions weren’t stout up front, and have a deficient roster across the board.
Quarterback Jared Goff made one bad decision after the other. Credit should be given to Gannon, though. His game plan was more aggressive. He played more single-high man coverage, blitzed more, and got his defenders to stop the run, thus forcing Detroit into third-and-longs.
Both sides of the ball couldn’t have performed as well without each other. But the 0-8 Lions, despite the effort they had given new coach Dan Campbell in recent weeks, finally played down to, and well below, their competition.
The Eagles did not. Sirianni has averted a crisis, and in the process, showed that he could get his players to bud, if not exactly flower. This game may end up just a one-week reprieve from criticism. Or it could be a momentum shift and something to build off.
He has the beginnings of an offensive identity. The question now is whether Sirianni can accept it.
“We’re evolving every week on offense,” Sirianni said. “I think that’s the main thing. … We’re figuring out more what we do well.”