They are 3-8-1 and closer to getting a top-five pick in the 2021 draft than an invitation to the playoffs. Their franchise quarterback is on the bench, and their head coach is fighting for his job. They are starting a rookie at quarterback Sunday against the 10-2 New Orleans Saints.
Breaking down Sunday’s Eagles-Saints game, warts and all:
When the Eagles run
Going into the season, the Eagles coaching staff talked about Miles Sanders’ ability to be a workhorse running back. But the 2019 second-round pick hasn’t been used like a workhorse back. Despite averaging 5.3 yards per carry, Sanders has just one 20-carry game (Week 2 vs. Rams). In the last four games, he averaged just 11.7 carries. In the last two games — losses to Seattle and Green Bay — Sanders had 16 carries for just 46 yards.
The Eagles’ commitment to the run has been dubious. Even though they had a struggling quarterback who leads the league in interceptions and sacks, even though they are tied for first in rush average (5.0), they have a league-low 35.7 run-play percentage. That’s the lowest in Doug Pederson’s five seasons as head coach. In the last four games, the Eagles averaged just 21.7 rush attempts.
That could change Sunday with Jalen Hurts replacing Carson Wentz at quarterback. The Eagles likely will lean heavily on zone-reads that take advantage of Hurts’ running ability and can create seams inside for Sanders and the Eagles’ other backs.
The trouble is, the Saints are second in the NFL in run defense (76.1) and opponent rush average (3.3). But they haven’t faced a quarterback this season with Hurts’ skills. Teams this season haven’t run much on the Saints, period (23.0 attempts per game, third-fewest in the league). The Saints have held opponents to a league-best 3.0 yards per carry on first down, and have allowed the fewest 10-plus-yard runs (20).
When the Eagles throw
Hurts will make his first NFL start, replacing the struggling Wentz. Hurts replaced Wentz early in the second half of the loss to the Packers on Sunday. He completed 5 of 12 passes for 109 yards, including an impressive 32-yard touchdown throw to Greg Ward in which he scrambled away from pressure and threw a strike on the run. He also had an earlier 34-yard completion to fellow rookie Jalen Reagor.
Before Sunday, Hurts had played just 33 snaps and attempted three passes. He will be going up against a talented Saints defense that is fourth in pass defense (212.8 yards per game), second in opponent completion percentage (60.9), tied for third in sacks (36), and seventh in interceptions (13).
Hurts has a strong, accurate arm. He had a 69.7 completion percentage with 32 touchdowns and just eight interceptions for Oklahoma last year. But he’s going to see things from the Saints defense that he never saw in the Big 12. Tight end Zach Ertz returned last week after missing five games with an ankle injury. He and Dallas Goedert combined for seven catches and 97 yards, but the Eagles likely will play more 11-personnel than 12 Sunday in an attempt to spread the Saints out. Pederson also wants to get the ball into Reagor’s hands more. So look for a few more bubble screens, end-arounds, and jet motion.
When the Saints run
Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray have combined for 1,241 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. The Saints have 44 runs of 10 yards or more, sixth-most in the NFL. Kamara has 21 of them. The Saints are seventh in rushing (140.8).
But they’ve ramped up their ground game in the last three weeks since Taysom Hill replaced the injured Drew Brees at quarterback. Hill, who is expected to start Sunday, rushed for 176 yards on 34 carries in wins over the Falcons (twice) and Broncos. The Saints averaged 200.6 rushing yards and 38.7 carries the last three weeks.
For the season, the Saints are fourth in rushing attempts (31.8 per game). The Saints are averaging 5.0 yards per carry on first down, the fourth-highest average in the league. Hill is averaging 8.3 yards per carry on first down this season, and 10.3 in the last three games.
The Eagles have slipped to 25th in run defense (129.9) after giving up 149 rushing yards to the Packers, including a game-clinching, 77-yard touchdown run to Aaron Jones. The Eagles have given up a league-high eight runs of 30 or more yards this season, including four for touchdowns. They have had problems with running quarterbacks, which doesn’t bode well for Sunday. The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson gashed them for 108 yards, including a 37-yard TD. And the Giants’ Daniel Jones had 156 rushing yards, including an 80-yard run and a 34-yard TD, in two games against the Eagles.
When the Saints throw
Hill had a 94.3 passer rating the last three games, but two of them were against Atlanta, which has one of the worst pass defenses in the league. Hill had been used mostly for his running and receiving skills his first two years with the Saints. He had just 13 career pass attempts entering this season.
Whether it’s been Brees or Hill, the Saints use a short-to-intermediate passing game. Kamara is one of the league’s most dangerous pass-catching backs. He has 70 receptions and has averaged 9.4 yards per catch. But he hasn’t been used as much in the passing game by Hill as he was by Brees. Kamara has just three catches for 7 yards in Hill’s three starts. Hill’s go-to guy has been wide receiver Michael Thomas. After missing six games with ankle and hamstring injuries, Thomas put up 100-yard games in two of the last three weeks.
Hill might be a running threat, but he doesn’t get the ball out nearly as quickly as Brees. Brees was sacked just 10 times in nine games and was under pressure on just 25.8% of his drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus. In his three starts, Hill has been sacked eight times and been under pressure on 36.8% of his drop-backs.
The Eagles, who are second in the league in sacks with 38, need to find a happy medium between getting pressure on Hill and not giving him escape routes to take off and run against a secondary that plays mostly man coverage and often will have its backs turned to the quarterback. Cornerback Darius Slay had rough games against the Seahawks’ DK Metcalf and the Packers’ Davante Adams the last two weeks and is nursing a knee injury.
The Eagles’ special teams are coming off one of their better overall performances of the season. Kicker Jake Elliott missed a PAT for the second week in a row but also nailed a 52-yard field goal. Punter Cam Johnston put three of his five punts inside the 20 and had just one punt returned (for 0 yards). Reagor returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown, and Boston Scott had a season-high 46-yard kickoff return.
Elliott has made 12 of 16 field goal attempts. Three of his misses were from 52, 53, and 57 yards. Johnston is ninth in net average (42.4). Thirty-five of his 55 punts have been returned, which could present problems Sunday against the Saints’ Deonte Harris, who leads the NFL in punt-return average (12.2). Harris also is fifth in kickoff returns (27.3). So Dave Fipp’s coverage units have their work cut out for them. The Eagles are 12th in punt coverage, holding opponents to 6.9 yards per return.
Saints kicker Wil Lutz has made 20 of 23 field goal attempts this season. He has an 87.4 career accuracy rate, fifth-best among active kickers. Thomas Morstead is in his 12th season as the Saints punter. He’s one of the league’s top hang-time punters. He is 17th in net average (40.3) but has had just 12 of his 45 punts returned. He has the highest fair-catch percentage (55.5) in the league. The Saints have held opponents to a league-best 3.7 yards on the 12 punts that have been returned.
A crowd of 69,000-plus at the Linc would have been a big help to the Eagles. But COVID has taken care of that. The Saints own the best record in the NFC. The Eagles are in a 3-8-1 death spiral that probably is going to cost their head coach his job.
Saints 31, Eagles 13
Eagles LBs Alex Singleton and Duke Riley vs. Saints RB Alvin Kamara: Kamara is one of the league’s best pass-catching backs. Singleton and Riley are basically the last men standing in a unit that’s been hit hard by injuries. ADVANTAGE: Saints
Eagles CB Darius Slay vs. Saints WR Michael Thomas: Slay is coming off a rough couple of weeks against Metcalf and Adams. He’s nursing calf and knee injuries. And now, he’s got to try to stop one of the most productive wideouts in the league. ADVANTAGE: Saints
Eagles QB Jalen Hurts vs. Saints DEs Cam Jordan and Trey Hendrickson: Hurts’ legs are going to be as important as his arm. If he can keep Jordan and Hendrickson off-balance with zone-reads, he and the offense might have a fighting chance. ADVANTAGE: Saints
Keys to the game
Get Hurts going early. Slow starts have been an unfortunate fact of life for the Eagles offense this season. But Pederson needs to find a way to get his rookie quarterback some early success that he can build on.
Get some takeaways. The defense can help Hurts and the offense by forcing some turnovers, something the Eagles haven’t been very good at this season. Their 11 takeaways are the third-fewest in the NFL. They have a league-low three interceptions, none in the last five games.
A special-teams boost. The Eagles’ coverage teams need to neutralize Harris, who is the league’s top punt returner and is fifth in kickoff returns. Their own return teams are coming off their best game of the season, which included a punt return for a touchdown by Reagor.