A tremendous offseason, coupled with mounting injuries in Dallas, propelled the Philadelphia Eagles to the forefront of the NFC East discussion. But as the 2022 NFL season loomed, the biggest question facing the Eagles centered on the most critical position in the game:
Would quarterback Jalen Hurts live up to the expectations, or would the Eagles fall short of their aspirations thanks to inconsistent quarterback play?
As the NFL world wildly overreacts to the first full slate of games, part of the discussion this Monday morning is how Hurts fared in the season-opening win over the Detroit Lions. Hurts completed 18 of 32 passes for 243 yards in the win, and added another 17 rushing attempts for 90 yards and a touchdown. Beyond the box score, did Hurts show the signs of growth that Eagles fans were hoping for all summer?
In a word, yes.
One of the biggest questions facing Hurts was how he would improve as a pocket manager. His strengths as a quarterback are well-known: His athleticism, his ability to throw on the move, his ability to attack in the vertical passing game with touch, and his creativity inside and outside the pocket. But if the Eagles are going to meet their lofty expectations, Hurts needs to improve within the pocket, both with his decision-making and his willingness to stay in the pocket and fight, and not escape the pocket at the first sign of pressure.
Three moments from yesterday’s win over the Lions highlight his growth and development in these areas. The first we will examine comes right before halftime, as Hurts connects with one of the Eagles’ big additions, wide receiver A.J. Brown:
This play comes just before halftime, with the Eagles holding a 21-14 lead over Detroit. Philadelphia runs a four verticals concept out of a 3×1 formation, and Brown is aligned along the right sideline. What stands out about Hurts on this play is how he reads the rotation in the secondary, and how he uses his eyes. The Lions show a single-high safety before the snap, and indeed run Cover 1 on the play. But how they get there involves a rotation among the safeties. Tracy Walker III, who begins the play aligned as the single-high safety, flashes downhill at the snap and is replaced in the middle of the field by DeShon Elliott, who is down in the box over the running back before the snap.
It is not the most complex coverage rotation, but Hurts reads it perfectly, keeping his eyes trained in the middle of the field — drawing attention to the route working across the field from tight end Dallas Goedert — before dropping in a perfect throw to Brown along the right sideline on his vertical route.
The long completion got the Eagles inside the red zone, and they finished the drive with a field goal to extend their lead.
The next example comes from the third quarter, with the Eagles facing a third down in their own territory. This is the first third down of the second half, and the Lions and their fans are hoping desperately for a stop to give their offense a chance to cut into Philadelphia’s 24-14 lead.
Hurts and Brown would not give them that satisfaction:
This play is a good example of Hurts taking information before the snap, and using it to his advantage as the play unfolds. Prior to the snap, Brown aligns on the left side of the field, and comes in motion across the formation. With no defender trailing him, that is an indicator to the quarterback that the Lions might be in zone coverage. (Although as we will see in a moment, this is never a guarantee).
Hurts has a few other zone indicators to work with, primarily the alignments of the cornerbacks. Both defenders are playing off their receivers, and have their feet and hips open towards the middle of the field. Again, indications that zone coverage is at play.
But the job is not done, as Hurts has to decipher the pressure look up front from Detroit. The Lions have a pair of defenders mugging the A-Gaps, and with seven men down on the line of scrimmage, there is a chance Detroit brings pressure and rotates into man coverage behind this pressure front.
The Lions bring just four, and indeed drop into zone coverage. But they still manage to get interior pressure on Hurts, thanks to a read blitz from the mugged-up defenders. On this play, the two mugged-up linebackers start to blitz, and will read the movement of the center, Jason Kelce. If the center turns to one side, that defender will then drop into coverage, and the other will continue on his blitz path. Kelce opens to his right and spots linebacker Chris Board. Once he does this, Board drops back into coverage and his cohort, Alex Anzalone, continues his blitz. Kelce tries to double-back and help on Anzalone, and running back Kenneth Gainwell steps up into the A-Gap to take on the linebacker, but Anzalone still manages to get into the pocket.
Yet Hurts hangs in the pocket, and knowing that Brown is running an out route, he makes an anticipation throw against the soft coverage to convert the third down.
This is the kind of moment Eagles fans were hoping to see this season from Hurts. At times last year, these were the plays where Hurts would pull the football down in response to pressure and look to create with his legs, rather than make a throw from the pocket. Hurts’ athleticism is a true weapon, and he delivered some athletic moments on Sunday in Detroit, but here he takes advantage of the information gained presnap and makes a read and throw from the pocket, moving the chains.
Philadelphia would finish the drive with a touchdown.
For my money, the best example of Hurts’ development came earlier in the game. With the Eagles facing a 2nd-and-5 with just over five minutes left in the first quarter, Hurts stood in the shotgun to try and diagnose the Lions before the play. Detroit showed him a pair of safeties deep, and when wide receiver Quez Watkins came in motion across the formation, nobody trailed him.
In his mind, Hurts might be expecting zone coverage, in the two-deep family.
But as we noted before, a defense’s response to motion — or lack thereof — is a piece to the puzzle, and not the definitive answer. Because as this play unfolds, the Lions rotate into Cover 1.
Hurts reads it perfectly, and hits Brown on a quick post route:
As with the previous play, the pocket starts to break down around Hurts, this time off the right edge. Yet he hangs in the pocket and, after reading out the rotation, makes a throw on-time and in-rhythm to Brown. The timing gives the receiver a chance to pick up additional yardage on the play, turning a 10-yard throw into an 18-yard gain.
Of course, the athletic plays were there from Hurts on Sunday. He picked up a 16-yard gain early in the first quarter with his legs to move the chains on a third-and-long situation, and gave the Eagles their first touchdown of the year when he took it himself on a fourth-and-goal early in the second quarter. He also delivered a great throw on the move and while under duress in the fourth quarter, combining his athleticism with his arm talent:
While those moments are great from Hurts, his growth and development from within the pocket could tell the story of the Eagles’ 2022 season.
Given what he showed on Sunday in Detroit, that could be a very good story.