Jalen Hurts will make his first NFL start Sunday, and he is understandably excited.
“As a kid, you dream of opportunities like this,” Hurts said Wednesday.
The question, as he replaces the struggling Carson Wentz and takes over the controls of the Eagles’ 29th-ranked offense, is whether his dream is going to quickly turn into a nightmare.
Doug Pederson is doing his second-round rookie absolutely no favors by starting him against the 10-2 Saints. I know he’s looking for a spark. I know, or at least I think I know, that he’s trying to keep his job.
But starting him against the No. 1-ranked defense in the league? I mean, for who? For what?
This is akin to taking Hurts out into the middle of the Atlantic and throwing him overboard with one of those $5 pool toys.
The only thing it’s likely to accomplish is removing some of the stink of this season from Wentz and bolstering suspicions that general manager Howie Roseman was as dumb as a post for selecting Hurts with the 53rd overall pick in the draft in April, less than a year after giving Wentz a $128 million contract extension.
I’m one of the few people in Philadelphia who didn’t think drafting Hurts was an utterly stupid idea. But starting him on Sunday? It’s an utterly stupid idea.
The Saints are first in yards allowed (288.8) and fourth in points allowed (20.1). They are second in run defense (76.1) and fourth in pass defense (212.8). They are tied for third in sacks (36) and seventh in interceptions (13).
They had seven interceptions in their last four games, including three against the great Tom Brady. Brady had a 58.8 passer rating in two games against the Saints this season, including just two touchdown passes and five interceptions. They also held Aaron Rodgers to 166 passing yards. Keep those things in mind Sunday when you’re about to tell your buddy that Jalen Hurts stinks.
“This is a really, really good defense,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “They have a great front. They have a good secondary. They’re good across the board.
“You try and make things as simple as you can for a young player going in. Not overcomplicate things. Let him go out there and play free. But at the same time, it can’t be so simplified that the defense knows exactly what’s going on.
“So that’s the line that they’re going to be fighting this week. I’m sure [the coaches] are trying to give him the ability to go out there and play and not have to overthink things. He’s young. He’s got a lot of confidence. He’s fun to be around. So I’m excited for him, even though it’s a tough matchup. Knowing Jalen, he expects nothing but to go out there and have success.”
And you wouldn’t want him to approach the game any other way.
One slight advantage Hurts and the Eagles may have is that the Saints haven’t faced a quarterback with Hurts’ skills this season. The RPOs and zone-reads that the Eagles are expected to rely heavily on with Hurts could give the Saints some problems, at least initially. Or not.
The Saints have played in the same division with running quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Jameis Winston and Teddy Bridgewater. Their own quarterback, Taysom Hill, has 38 more career rush attempts than pass attempts. So they won’t be completely at a loss in figuring out how to defend Hurts.
“In order to get him success, you’ve got to attempt and try to establish a little bit of the run game,” said Pederson, whose offense has averaged the fifth-fewest rushing attempts in the league (23.3 per game) this season, even though the Eagles are tied for second in rush average (5.0).
“He can be a part of that, I think, and just go out and maybe try to find some easy completions. The quick game or a screen here and there; something that can just kind of get him into the flow of the game.”
Listening to Pederson offer that up so willingly, you just know the first play of the game Sunday is going to be a deep pass to Jalen Reagor.
“This is the No. 1 defense,” the Eagles coach said. “It’s no easy task. Obviously he’s facing a really good opponent. It’s our job as coaches, it’s my job as a play-caller, to try to help him and get him into the flow of the game. Then we’ll see what happens from there.”
Hurts is a smart kid with a strong, accurate arm. He’s a coach’s son, which almost always is a good thing for a quarterback to be. But even for a coach’s son with a graduate degree, there is a college-to-pro transition period before the game slows down for you, before you really understand what you’re looking at and what a defense is trying to do to you and are able to respond thisfast.
“You’re going to have to watch him, see him do it before you actually know whether or not mentally he can do everything right now,” said Mike Quick, the Eagles’ former Pro Bowl wide receiver and the team’s longtime radio analyst.
“That’s going to be the key. Because physically, he’s gifted enough to do all of the things you need him to do. But now, in this split-second process, will he be able to think quickly enough to make the right adjustments and reads and distribute the ball as it should be distributed?”
Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen no doubt will do some things look-wise to try and confuse Hurts. This is a game where holding on to the ball for 2.4 seconds as opposed to 2.6 can be the difference between a touchdown and a sack.
“Dennis Allen is going to show him some things (pre-snap),” Quick said. “And then they’re not going to be there when he has the ball in his hands.
“I think when you play the style of game that he’s used to, that he played at Alabama and Oklahoma -- and we’re seeing that more and more on Sundays now -- when you play that style that he’s most comfortable with, I think you have a much better chance for success.
“So I don’t think Doug is going to make a huge change in the offense. But I think we’ll see a little more of that type of play. The RPO/zone-read stuff. Just getting him on the move and letting him use his athleticism to make plays.”
Figuring the Eagles
The Eagles have just three interceptions this season. Along with Houston, that’s the fewest in the league. They didn’t have any in the last five games and just one in the last eight. They didn’t had any in 10 of their 12 games this season. The fewest interceptions in a season in franchise history is eight (2012 and 1983). They’ve got a good chance of breaking that dubious record. Their fewest takeaways in a season was 13, in 2012. The Eagles are tied for 31st in takeaways with 11.
The Eagles managed to sack Aaron Rodgers only two times Sunday, but they did get pressure on him on 13 of his 36 drop-backs (36.1%). That’s the second-highest pressure percentage of the season against Rodgers. He was under pressure on 18 of 41 drop-backs (43.9%) in a Week 6 loss to Tampa Bay.
Despite being tied for second in the league in rush average (5.0 yards per carry), the Eagles are averaging the fifth-fewest rushing attempts per game (23.3). In the last four games, they averaged just 21.7 rush attempts. They haven’t had more than 26 rushing attempts in a game since Week 4.
The Eagles averaged just 2.8 yards per play on second down against the Packers. Just five of their 19 second-down plays gained more than 3 yards. Carson Wentz was 1-for-5 for 11 yards on second down. Jalen Hurts was 1-for-3 for 6 yards.
The Eagles did not have any red-zone opportunities against the Packers. It’s the first time that’s happened this season, and only the fourth time in Doug Pederson’s five years as head coach.
The Eagles have given up 17 touchdown passes this season. Seven of them have been to tight ends. They haven’t allowed a TD pass yet to a running back.
Graham’s elusive goals
Brandon Graham came into the 2020 season with two personal goals. One was to notch the first double-digit sack season of his career. The other was to earn his first-ever Pro Bowl invitation.
The two typically go hand in hand for edge-rushers. Chalk up 10 or more sacks and, more likely than not, you’re going to get a Pro Bowl invitation.
Five weeks ago, the 32-year-old Graham appeared to be a shoo-in to accomplish both. He was second in the league in sacks after notching his seventh in a Week 8 win over the Cowboys.
Since then, however, bubkis. The Eagles have lost four games in a row since the bye week that followed the Dallas win, and Graham hasn’t had a sack in any of them.
While the 11th-year veteran gave the requisite it’s-all-about-the-W response when asked about his monthlong sack drought, he clearly is frustrated that he hasn’t been able to get to the quarterback and that his shot at 10 sacks and a Pro Bowl trip is slipping away.
“A lot of things are happening, but I’m trying to get a W,” Graham said. “With a W, stats usually come with it. So I have to make sure I continue to keep working.
“I try not to even focus on it too much, other than just making sure I do my job. That’s how things have happened [in the past] for me. I have four games left. Who knows what’s going to happen? I think that a W will definitely make everything a lot better.”
The Eagles are second in the league in sacks with 38. They had only two sacks against Aaron Rodgers, but had the second-highest pressure percentage (36.1) of any team that has faced him this season.
But Graham had just one of those pressures. He had more than two pressures in just one of the last four games – five in the Eagles’ Week 12 loss to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.
Graham is 16th in the league in sacks.