Jalen Hurts, much to no one’s surprise, will start Sunday at Arizona, Eagles coach Doug Pederson announced Monday.
That decision was the easy part after Hurts spurred the Eagles to a 24-21 upset of the New Orleans Saints, who came in with an NFC-best 10-2 record and a nine-game win streak.
The tougher task will be keeping that upset mojo going, sustaining success. Hurts did some very nice things against the Saints, including zipping a 15-yard fourth-down touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery early in the second quarter, with blitzer Kwon Alexander in his face.
At the end of the day, though, the Eagles won because Hurts ran 15 times for 111 yards, before losing 5 yards on three end-of-the-game kneel-downs. (And because Miles Sanders sprinted 82 yards for a touchdown, a feat surpassed only three times in franchise history.) They won because the defense finally shook loose a couple of turnovers, and Hurts kept drives moving, created flow and rhythm, mostly by converting six first downs with his legs.
Hurts, in his first NFL start, caught the Saints flatfooted, engineering an amazing 17-0 Eagles explosion out of the gate that was the best opening the team has seen since Week 1 at Washington. But Hurts’ second-half numbers Sunday were 5-for-9 passing, for 38 yards, and eight carries for 36 yards (again not counting the kneel-downs) plus a lost fumble that could have been catastrophic had Jalen Mills not pried loose an onside-kick recovery from a couple of Saints.
The Eagles scored seven second-half points, on a 53-yard drive set up by Josh Sweat’s fourth-down strip-sack of Taysom Hill, recovered by Javon Hargrave. That was the play of the game, really, with the Saints having closed to within 17-14; New Orleans was driving for the lead, midway through the fourth quarter.
It sure looked like the Saints adjusted defensively at halftime, and that they made the Eagles’ second-half offense very much resemble what we’ve seen recently with Carson Wentz at the helm, though Pederson disagreed.
“The second half of the game was probably more about us kind of shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said Monday. “Failed to execute, that opening drive of the second half, when we had an opportunity there to stay on the field. It wasn’t really about what New Orleans did.”
Pederson might have been referring to the Eagles’ second drive of the second half, in which they moved for two first downs, into New Orleans territory, before center Jason Kelce was knocked backward on fourth-and-1, foiling a Hurts QB sneak.
Regardless, Pederson understood that this win did not set an offensive blueprint for victory going forward.
“Do I want to run Jalen Hurts 18 times? I mean, you don’t want to run your quarterback 18 times, right? Not in this league. Because you see the amount of hits that he took,” he said.
Even in the first half, when the chains moved consistently, the Eagles’ passing game wasn’t very good; the longest gain of the day through the air by either team came on Jalen Reagor’s early 39-yard catch-and-run, on which Reagor got the ball maybe 3 yards past the line of scrimmage and ran it down the sideline.
Despite the touchdown, his first of the season, Jeffery hardly became a different player with Hurts at the helm. The TD was his only catch and his only target. Eagles wide receivers caught six passes for 84 yards as a group. That won’t win many games. Travis Fulgham played 11 offensive snaps and wasn’t targeted. Greg Ward was targeted five times and caught two passes, for 20 yards.
Pro Football Focus gave Hurts a terrible 40.9 grade for his work in the passing game – 17-for-30 for 167 yards and the lone touchdown pass. That is lower than any grade given to Wentz since the season opener, when Wentz was intercepted twice and lost a fumble en route to blowing a 17-0 lead in a 27-17 loss.
The 12th Eagles offensive-line combination in 13 games did a solid job of protecting Hurts, whose legs also bought him time to avoid a few potential sacks; the Saints blitzed more and more, it seemed, as the game went on. It seems likely the same O-line group will get a second successive start at Arizona, which has to help build cohesion.
“One of the things Jalen did well, when he was out of the pocket and there was nowhere to run or nowhere to throw, he threw the ball away, right?” Pederson said. “That just helps your offensive line. It doesn’t put you in a bad situation – doesn’t put you in a second-and-long situation, or a third-and-long situation.”
At times, Wentz has been guilty of taking sacks in such situations, holding the ball too long, trying to make a play where there isn’t one to be made.
“This was a very active, stunting defensive line, linebacker[s], pick games, all kinds of things up front,” Pederson said. “I thought for the most part, [the offensive line] did a really good job of blocking this front, and then Jalen – Jalen being able to step up in the pocket, obviously elude the rush a couple of times, and extend plays with his legs.”
Wentz has been sacked a league-high 50 times; early in his career, he was extremely elusive in the pocket, though never as fast or as powerful a runner as Hurts. The diminishing of that part of Wentz’s game has played a role in his steep decline.
Pederson’s demeanor after Sunday’s victory was a huge topic of conversation; he seemed stinting in his praise of Hurts. It was easy to intuit Pederson was mindful that in the long run, given the franchise’s financial commitment to Wentz, and Pederson’s feeling that Wentz’s poor 2020 performance doesn’t erase everything good he did in his first four seasons, making a huge deal of Hurts’ success would only make the road Wentz must travel to regain his former status a little rockier.
“I was thinking of a lot of things. Quite honestly, I was thinking of Carson. But I was [also] thinking about the rest of the team, and how the rest of the team played,” Pederson said Monday. “After looking at the film again today, Jalen played well. He was a big part of the success we had on offense, and obviously, helping us win that football game. But there were a lot of other great individual performances on both sides of the ball. … There were a lot of positives coming out of the football game. I just didn’t want to say, ‘Hey, it was all about one guy.’ … Really, that was a team win.”