The Eagles’ passing game didn’t look that different, but the team certainly did. And then there was the result, which was night-and-day better than what Eagles fans have been suffering through lately.
In his first NFL start, rookie Jalen Hurts made his case as the Eagles’ quarterback, leading the way — often with his legs — to the team’s most impressive victory of the season, 24-21, over the New Orleans Saints, who came in 10-2, favored by a touchdown over the 3-8-1 Eagles. The Saints were giving up the fewest yards and fourth-fewest points in the NFL, before they ventured into Lincoln Financial Field.
Hurts gave the Eagles life, helped by a courageous effort by a defense that kept losing key starters but still kept the pressure on Saints quarterback Taysom Hill, filling in for injured Drew Brees. The Eagles ended a four-game losing streak with Carson Wentz watching from the sideline, wearing a baseball cap.
“We all had each other’s back, that’s the beauty about all of this,” said Hurts, who did not get an explicit endorsement as next week’s starter at Arizona from Doug Pederson, but Pederson can hardly go back to Wentz this quickly after Hurts authored one of the biggest upsets of the NFL season.
“We had so much money we left on the table. Going forward we just want to continue to build, learn from out mistakes, hopefully, progress,” Hurts said.
He said Wentz “had a few tips for me” during the game.
The Eagles ran 36 times for 246 yards, threw it only 30 times. Pederson said a lot of the disparity was the result of Hurts scrambles; he was not sacked; the last time the Eagles could say that was Week 2 vs. the Rams.
“The big guys up front blocked their tail off all game,” Hurts said.
Given the enormity of the upset, on a day when the Giants were the only NFC East team to lose, Pederson might have been expected to be giddy, or at least all smiles, when he spoke with reporters. That was not the case. The coach seemed eager to downplay Hurts’ effect, despite his observation that “it’s been a while since we won a football game.”
“There were a lot of good performances out there tonight,” Pederson said. “It took everybody in uniform to get this win; Jalen was part of it.”
Pederson did concede that Hurts, the youngest quarterback to start a game for the Eagles since Jack Concannon in 1964, provided “the spark that we were looking for, and I was looking for.”
Asked about his starter for next week, Pederson he wanted to enjoy this win before thinking about the next game. It would seem fair to speculate that in the long run, he still feels his fate is tied to getting Wentz turned around, and elaborately praising Hurts, with the fan base rallying behind the rookie, can only make that task tougher.
But Miles Sanders, whose 82-yard second-quarter touchdown run was the fourth-longest in franchise history, called Hurts “a natural leader.” Sanders allowed that “I’m excited.”
The Eagles sacked Hill five times and won the turnover battle, 2-1, but they looked ready to blow a 17-0 lead when the Saints got within 17-14 late in the third quarter. Josh Sweat’s strip sack — Sweat later became one of the injured Eagles who had to leave the game — led to a Javon Hargrave recovery, and Hurts led a 53-yard drive that ended with Sanders’ second touchdown run of the game, from a yard out. At 24-14, the Eagles were back in charge. (Sweat said after the game tests on his injured shoulder were positive.)
The cushion became crucial when Hurts — 17 for 30 for 167 yards and a pretty touchdown throw, plus 18 carries for 106 yards, including kneel-downs — lost his first NFL fumble at a terrible time, the home team trying to run the clock out with a minute and 42 seconds remaining. The Saints scored three plays later, and salvaging the victory was left to Jalen Mills. He dug an onside kick out of the pile after Corey Clement inadvertently kicked it with his heel.
Mills said special teams coordinator Dave Fipp had the Eagles practice against the Saints’ funky onside kick style, so they were ready. “I was going to block my man when I heard everybody say ‘Get on the ball!’ ” Mills said. “I saw it come out of the pile; [the Saints] about two-thirds had it, but me and Duke Riley ended up prying it loose. The official told me I could get up and run with it, but I told him I didn’t want to.”
Riley said: “When I dove, I just reached out my arms and pulled it closer to me, and Jalen landed on top of my arms,” with 1:24 remaining.
“I was just telling him the whole time — we ain’t lettin’ go, I don’t even care if we stay here ‘til it’s 12 o’clock at night, we’re not lettin’ this ball go.”
The Saints hadn’t allowed an opposing player to rush for 100 yards in 55 games, but both Hurts and Sanders (14 carries, 115 yards) passed that milestone on a day when the Eagles finally stuck to the run game, mixing in the rollouts and run-pass option plays that have been missing all season. Wentz, watching, probably wondered where they came from
Hurts’ first drive of the day got the Eagles within field goal range at one point, but back-to-back penalties led to a third-and-11. Hurts scrambled for nine yards, then a fourth-and-2 run by Sanders was smothered for a loss by former Eagle Malcolm Jenkins. Hurts finished the series 4-for-5 passing, for just 23 yards, and with 20 years on four carries.
The Saints then managed a fits-and-starts drive of their own, which ended with Will Lutz missing a 45-yard field goal. So there was no score at the end of the first quarter, which this season counts as a win for the Eagles.
Hurts’ next series went much better. Seven plays, 65 yards, including a 39-yard catch-and-run by Jalen Reagor, then, on fourth-and-2 from the Saints’ 15, came the play that showed the rookie might be capable of truly delivering the goods. He rifled a back-shoulder pass to Alshon Jeffery at the left pylon, Jeffery posting up Marshon Lattimore. Hurts took a huge hit right after the threw, from linebacker Kwon Alexander, who was penalized for roughing, so Hurts might not have seen the catch, Jeffery’s first touchdown of the season.
With Mills bearing down on a blitz, Hill bounced a blistering pass off Alvin Kamara’s hands, and the ball volleyed into the air. It came down in Riley’s hands, and Hurts had the ball again. He seemed to hit Zach Ertz at the right sideline for a first down on third-and-4 from the Saints’ 26, but the ruling on the field was incomplete, and it held up on review. The Eagles settled for a 44-yard Jake Elliott field goal, and their first double-digit first-half lead since the season opener.
Riley stopped a third-and-1 Hill run, and after a punt and a Hurts run for a first down, the Eagles had second-and-10 from their 18. Sanders found a huge hole on the left side, thanks to cleanout blocks by Jason Kelce and Isaac Seumalo and a nice second-level block from Ertz.
Sanders stiff-armed Jenkins and raced to the end zone, 82 yards for a 17-0 lead, equal to what the Eagles had in the opener at Washington, so very long ago.
It could have been more. They got the ball at their 23 with 57 seconds remaining in the half, and moved all the way to the Saints’ 4 with two seconds left, thanks largely to Hurts’ legs. Pederson opted for a 22-yard field goal and a 20-0 lead, except Elliott pulled the kick, bouncing it off the left upright.
Hurts was 12 for 21 for 129 yards and a touchdown in the first half. He ran seven times for 75 yards.
The Saints got a touchdown back on their first series of the second half, and along the way, the Eagles — already down starting corner Avonte Maddox because of a first-half knee injury — lost corner Darius Slay (head injury) and safety Rodney McLeod (knee). When the Saints scored on a 5-yard Kamara run, the Eagles’ nickel alignment was practice squad corner Kevon Seymour, safety Marcus Epps, rookie safety K’Von Wallace, corner/safety Mills and corner Nickell Robey-Coleman.
This mattered much more on the Saints’ next series, when they made it 17-14 on a 37-yard Hill pass to Emmanuel Sanders, who beat Seymour badly. It wasn’t a perfect throw, but it didn’t have to be.
Sweat and Hurts then turned the game back toward the Eagles.