When we projected 12 wins for the Eagles at the beginning of the season, that relied on the assumption that rookie coach Nick Sirianni would recognize the obvious strengths and weaknesses of his team.
Unfortunately, it took Sirianni seven games to recognize that his offensive line can run block like Panzer tanks; that his running backs are the most talented, versatile, and seasoned weapons he has; that his defense can’t sniff the quarterback without sending extra pass rushers; and that Jalen Hurts isn’t Tom Brady. Sirianni’s slow learning curve cost the Birds two losses.
When, six weeks later, we projected that the 2-4 Eagles should still win 10 games (after they lost to the actual Tom Brady) those assumptions remained. Sirianni would learn.
» READ MORE: The Eagles can still win 10 games | Marcus Hayes
It took him another week, but Sirianni finally wised up. Not coincidentally, those assumptions have borne out. The Eagles went from being basically a 70/30 pass-run team to 60/40 run-pass and started sending more pressure, and they won three out of their last four games.
Leaning on the run and showing different defensive fronts only got them to the place where they had a chance to beat a team like the Saints. Four other less obvious developments Sunday made it a 40-29 blowout, and those things make them even more potent down the putrid six-game stretch that closes out their season: two games against the Giants, two against Washington, one against the Jets, and a likely meaningless finale at home against the Cowboys.
“We’re a dang good football team, and it’s taken some growth. It’s taken a lot,” Hurts said Sunday. “And we’re still evolving. We’re still growing.”
Just blitz, baby (again)
Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon began the season blitzing about 10% of the time, least in the league. Over the past seven games that’s increased to about 20% of the time, which remains among the bottom 10 teams in the NFL, but there’s more to it that that. He’s showing different looks at the line of scrimmage; he’s asking his cornerbacks to press receivers at the snap; and he’s recognizing that blitzers don’t always need to get a sack to be effective.
The Eagles sent “a couple unique pressures that we hadn’t seen,” Saints coach Sean Payton admitted Sunday, churlishly.
It was more than a couple, coach.
Gannon brought a six-man, two-corner blitz on third-and-11 that also sent a linebacker on delay, which netted them a hit on quarterback Trevor Siemian by Avonte Maddox and an incompletion.
Gannon sent six again on the Saints’ next third down that forced a hurried, hopeless throw.
Gannon shot linebacker Alex Singleton up the middle on third-and-6 midway through the second quarter. Singleton leveled Siemian and forced another punt.
Early in the third quarter, Singleton and safety Anthony Harris acted as the fourth and fifth pass rushers up the gut while left end Josh Sweat dropped into coverage; Siemian panicked, threw short and poorly to a covered receiver, and the Saints had to punt from their own end zone.
Meanwhile, the Eagles got superior protection from an unlikely source.
Shut down ... blocker?
We knew Miles Sanders could blow up a defense whenever he touches the ball — as long, of course, as he protects the ball. What we didn’t know is that Sanders now can protect the quarterback.
Sanders finished 2020 as the 40th-rated running back in pass protection, according to profootballfocus.com. Between missing assignments and imperfect technique, Sanders was a disaster.
On Sunday, he was an inspiration.
Early in the second quarter, Sanders stood up blitzing safety Malcolm Jenkins twice, then chipped blitzing linebacker Kwon Alexander on the same play. Hurts hit DeVonta Smith for a 33-yard gain.
Six minutes later, Sanders picked up blitzing corner Bradley Roby, which gave Hurts just enough time to hit Dallas Goedert with a 13-yard pass.
Sanders’ blitz pickups helped his team to field goals.
Those words were never typed before.
Hurts completed 13-of-24 passes for 147 yards Sunday, but none should encourage Eagles fans more than the 16-yard out he threw to Goedert with nine minutes to play in the first quarter.
It might even be Hurts’ most significant pass of the season.
Why? Because it’s the pass Hurts can’t throw. Supposedly.
Not like this. Not a bullet, with a split-second release, dealt before Goedert broke, and thrown in a spot that only Goedert could get to.
Hurts too often throws soft liners with a lazy hitch after the receiver has turned, which lets the defender get back into the play. If Hurts can consistently make this throw, he’ll last a dozen years in the NFL. If he can’t, he won’t.
On Sunday, he did.
All the time in the world
We’re gushing about the offensive line and its contribution to the Eagles’ historically effective run game, but, according to the nfl.com’s Next Gen stats, it’s keeping the QB clean, too. Hurts has more time to throw than any quarterback in the league: 3.1 seconds.
Yes, Hurts buys time nicely, and yes, he extends plays, but if you watched Sunday’s game you know he occasionally had six, seven, even eight seconds to throw.
He could’ve grown flowers in that pocket.
Between the line’s pass protection, the effective blitzes and disguises, Hurts’ special delivery, and Sanders (!) becoming a viable pass protector, 10 wins might not be fair.
Let’s make it all 11.