Leading up to the Eagles preseason opener, quarterback Jalen Hurts had been shaky at best throughout the first two weeks of training camp.
Earlier in the week, Hurts fielded a variety of questions that revolved around his characteristics as a practice player versus the in-game version of himself.
On Thursday evening, with the lights shining over Lincoln Financial Field, Hurts answered some of those questions as he led the Eagles in their first two offensive series against the Steelers. The Eagles lost, 24-16, but first-year coach Nick Sirianni was pleased with Hurts and how the first-team offense performed.
“I thought it was a very crisp first half,” Sirianni said. “A lot of good things.”
The Eagles opened the game in 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), and that could be a sign of what’s to come under Sirianni’s offense. Hurts threw seven passes, and four of them were to tight ends, including three to Zach Ertz and one to Dallas Goedert.
The offense was far from conservative while Hurts was under center — another contrast from camp. He began the game with three straight passes before Philadelphia finally ran the ball with Jordan Howard. Hurts completed 3-of-7 passes for 54 yards with a rating of 69.9.
His stat line won’t draw many eyes when it appears across tickers on Friday morning, but Hurts showed signs of composure and decisiveness, which lacked in practices. Hurts made effective checks at the line of scrimmage. He scrambled once for four yards. Under heavy pressure, he threw the ball away to avoid the sack, but was also hit in the process.
“I could be more efficient,” Hurts said.
But he was plagued by drops from his receivers. Jalen Reagor muffed a wide-open pass on a curl route down the right sideline, and Ertz dropped another attempt across the middle of the field on third down. Had Ertz hauled in the pass, the Eagles would’ve marched into the Steelers’ red zone on the game’s opening drive with momentum on the shoulders of the starting quarterback.
Instead, Philadelphia settled for a 47-yard field goal from Jake Elliott, who finished 3-for-3.
“I think the biggest thing is repetition,” Hurts said. “It brings comfort, and it brings confidence. Every time we get the opportunity to play ball, every time we get this opportunity to play – especially in a live atmosphere like this tonight – we want to take advantage of it and we want to learn from it and build off of it. I’m looking forward to this week’s practice. I can’t wait to go to practice this week.
“That’s just how fired up I am to learn, to grow.”
With Sirianni as his play caller, it’ll be up to Hurts to navigate the offense in what the franchise is labeling a transition stage.
It’s worth noting the first-team offense was without running back Miles Sanders, who dressed but didn’t play, and rookie wide receiver DeVonta Smith, who’s currently sidelined with a sprained MCL. There didn’t seem to be much run-pass option while Hurts was in, but that could’ve been based more on the absences of Smith and Sanders.
Smith’s game is predicated on speed and crisp route running. Those traits are what led to him winning the Heisman Trophy award as college football’s most outstanding player last season. Whenever Smith returns, the Eagles plan for him to assume his role as the No. 1 wideout and they hope he can be a viable weapon for Hurts.
The Eagles scored on 4-of-6 drives in the first half, and entered the break with a 16-7 lead before the backups came in. There are lingering efficiency and situational issues – Philadelphia failed to convert on third down, going 0-for-8.
“Crisp first half, sloppy second half,” Sirianni reiterated. “I thought Hurts handled it well. He saw what defense was coming and checked the play [on a 34-yard completion to Goedert]. A ton of credit for him making a perfect throw there.
“I thought he went with where we wanted the ball to go. I was really pleased with him.”
While glancing across the team’s depth chart provided to reporters in the press box, on the opposite side of Smith, the team has wide receiver Greg Ward listed as a starting wide receiver – ahead of Quez Watkins. But if Watkins continues to impress, that could change just as quickly as his highlight score.
Watkins’ 79-yard touchdown on a bubble screen completion from backup quarterback Joe Flacco was the most electric play of the night. After catching the ball near the line of scrimmage, Watkins got a nice lead block from Reagor and he jolted past everybody to the end zone.
“I think he’s a great player,” Hurts said of Watkins. “He knows what I think of him, and he could be a really good player for us.”
With young talent emerging and others still proving their worth across the roster, Sirianni will need to learn to balance his usage of multiple tight-end personnel — featuring Ertz and Goedert — versus taking advantage of his receivers’ quickness and agility, especially when Smith returns. Philadelphia could potentially have its own trio of speed demons in Watkins, Reagor and Smith.
In his NFL debut as a head coach and play caller, Sirianni revealed some wrinkles and Hurts handled his responsibilities better than expected. However, Sirianni likely won’t reveal his full deck until Sept. 12 when the Eagles begin the regular season at Atlanta.
“There is going to be things to correct,” Sirianni said. “But that’s what we’re striving for every day, just to have that sharpness on our offense. It’s the same thing. ... We talk about dog mentality all the time. All that means is play the next play. We’ve got to have that.”