Eagles remix run game with Jalen Hurts focused on solving Cardinals D

Dec 18, 2020, 1:39 PM

Quarterback Jalen Hurts #2 of the Philadelphia Eagles rolls out to pass against the New Orleans Sai...

Quarterback Jalen Hurts #2 of the Philadelphia Eagles rolls out to pass against the New Orleans Saints at Lincoln Financial Field on December 13, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

(Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

It’s Kyler Murray’s fault that Jalen Hurts is here. Not all of it, and not directly.


“I tell you, Kyler’s a great player, an OU legend,” Hurts told Philadelphia reporters this week. “He paved the way for a guy like me to come in there and have an opportunity to put myself in the same air as his.”

Murray’s Heisman-winning season in his lone year as the Oklahoma Sooners’ starting quarterback thrust the future Cardinal into the conversation for the No. 1 NFL Draft pick, but it also set up a model for Hurts to follow after he opted to transfer from Alabama.

Like Baker Mayfield and Murray before him, Hurts took advantage of a brief stop in Norman, Okla. It parlayed into Hurts becoming a second-round pick to a team that already had franchise quarterback Carson Wentz.

Hurts has since usurped the struggling Wentz. He will make his second start as the Philadelphia Eagles visit Murray’s Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.

It’s not hyperbole that Murray’s success helped Hurts trust in OU when he left Alabama.

It’s also not overblowing it to assume Murray’s early NFL success taught teams that athletic college quarterbacks coming out of the Air Raid tree can transition relatively quickly to the pros. It’s just about doing it right.

The Eagles (4-8-1) turned to Hurts last week in a 24-21 win over the previously streaking New Orleans Saints. Credit goes to Philadelphia’s quickly evolved offense around the dual-threat quarterback. It’s not the same team that has produced the fifth-worst offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted value over average) on the season, per Football Outsiders.

Hurts completed 17 of 30 passes for 167 yards and a touchdown last week. He rushed 18 times for 106 yards, including a series of kneel-downs to end the game.

Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury admitted he’s glad to have a whole game’s worth of film to see how Philadelphia coach Doug Pederson utilized his rookie quarterback.

“He played very efficiently, made a lot of plays with his feet,” Kingsbury said. “You definitely would rather have one full game of him as a starter where they built it around him rather than coming in there kind of blind, if you will.”

For the Cardinals, the worries about Hurts in some ways parallels the problems Murray causes for opponents. Hurts is a running threat on late downs, from 3rd-and-long to 4th-and-short.

Three of the Eagles’ four successful third-down conversions came on quarterback carries.

“Doug’s done a great job of switching the offense to more of a college style — boots and quarterback zone-reads, quick-game screens,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said. “It’s worked.”

There is now more complexity to an offense that already has an explosive running back in Miles Sanders and two tight ends who will be involved in the passing game, Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert.

Between quarterback runs, running back runs, quick screens and quarterback boots, those tight ends can’t be doubled or out-leveraged easily, Joseph said.

“First, second down, you’re dealing with so much,” the DC added. “You can’t just put all your eggs in that basket (as a defense).”

The best thing the Cardinals can do against an offense with an inexperienced rookie at quarterback and an offensive line that’s been changing personnel all season is force Hurts to pass.

Causing confusion is the priority on those downs, and it’s a wonder if Arizona’s best personnel package to do so can find opportunities.

The Cardinals’ “Jet” package features an overabundance of inside and outside linebackers replacing defensive linemen. The idea is to blind the quarterback from knowing which players staging at the line of scrimmage will rush and which will drop into coverage.

“The last couple of weeks, we tried to run it out there and put it to use on third downs, but most teams are running teams and kind of avoiding the package,” Joseph said of Jet package. “That’s what they should do. It’s almost impossible to account (for who is doing what) because there are so many like bodies. You can’t name the big four or the big three (players who will pass-rush).”

It’ll help the Cardinals that the Eagles expect to start their 13th different offensive line combination in 14 games this year. Swing backup Matt Pryor is moving to right tackle to replace the injured Jack Driscoll. It’s Pryor’s second start at right tackle.

There he will have to contend regular outside backers like Haason Reddick and Markus Golden, who accounted for six sacks and four forced fumbles last week against the Giants.

Pederson is aware that the Cardinals will try to confuse his linemen, as well as Hurts.

At the least, allowing Hurts to get rid of the ball quickly or roll out will give the Eagles the best chance of countering what has been Arizona’s strength.

“When you have five or six backers standing up on the line of scrimmage, it’s a challenge,” Pederson said about Arizona’s pass-rush this week. “It’s truly a challenge. You’ve got to be precise. We trust our center (Jason Kelce) to make accurate calls, and then we just have to trust that and go execute. Then for a young quarterback, it can be confusing.

“Bodies are flashing in front of your eyes, and it makes you sort of drop your eyes and look at the rush a little bit more. We’ll work on it this week as much as we can, and hopefully we can stay out of harm’s way.”

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