Heading into their Sunday Night Football showdown with the Green Bay Packers, the Philadelphia Eagles are riding high atop the NFC. They've got a 9-1 record, and their performance level has for the most part backed up the idea that they are one of, if not the best team in the conference.
Their point differential suggests a 7-3 squad, but they're the only team in the league ranked inside the top five in Football Outsiders' DVOA on both offense and defense, and they're the only team in the league ranked inside the top six in EPA per play on both offense and defense, according to Tru Media. In other words, even if they aren't necessarily 9-1 good, they're still really good.
A lot of the credit for this quality of play can be laid at the feet of general manager Howie Roseman, who made significant upgrades to his team on both sides of the ball this past offseason. The Eagles traded a first-round pick for A.J. Brown, who is an outright superstar. They landed James Bradberry late in free agency, and he's been one of the best cornerbacks in the league this season. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was a mid-training camp acquisition and has helped solidify the back end of the defense. Jordan Davis upgraded the run defense before his injury, and the twin acquisitions of Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph in recent weeks should help alleviate his absence.
The coaching staff surely deserves its share of the credit as well. Jonathan Gannon got the right type of bodies up front to play the defense he wants to play, and he's put players in position to succeed. Nick Sirianni and Shane Steichen designed an offense that fits their personnel, and it works like gangbusters a lot of the time. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland has his group once again playing at an elite level.
None of this would have mattered all that much, though, if Jalen Hurts didn't take a step forward, which he certainly has. Hurts is third in MVP odds at the moment, on the strength of his 198 of 290 (68.3%) for 2,407 yards (8.3 per attempt), 15 touchdowns, and three interceptions passing lane, as well as his 110 carries for 448 yards and eight additional scores. He has the Eagles ranked third in both offensive DVOA and EPA per play, metrics which more than back up their yards and points per game marks that rank fifth and fourth in the NFL, respectively. (You can watch Hurts and the Eagles take on the Packers at 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC, stream it on FuboTV.)
Hurts himself checks in seventh in EPA per dropback, as well as ninth in Football Outsiders' DYAR, fifth in QBR, and fourth in DVOA. He has the league's fourth-lowest off-target throw rate (7.2%) and second-lowest interception rate (1.0%), and his throws have produced first downs at a rate (38.6%) that ranks behind only Tua Tagovailoa and Patrick Mahomes, among 34 qualifiers.
There is, however, an area of his game that contains notable room for improvement: performance against the blitz. Hurts ranks fifth in the league in EPA per dropback when the defense sends four or fewer pass rushers after him, but just 23rd when it sends five or more. His numbers have dropped across the board.
|EPA/DB||0.20 (5th)||-0.07 (23rd)|
Especially problematic is Hurts' propensity for taking sacks when the opposing defense sends additional rushers. The league average quarterback has been sacked on 9.3% of his blitzed dropbacks; Hurts has been sacked on 13.6% of them. The average quarterback has seen 21.4% of his pressured dropbacks against the blitz turn into sacks; for Hurts that number is 29.2%. Far too often, he has dropped his eyes to the rush the instant he sees that his first read isn't open. That's led to him trying to escape pockets that don't need to be escaped, and running himself into the arms of opposing pass-rushers.
Even on occasions where he's known exactly where he wants to go with the ball, that's either A. been a bad idea; or B. he's rushed the throw, resulting in his either giving the ball away or else airmailing it over his receiver's head.
Especially problematic for Hurts has been when defenses play zone behind the blitz, rather than man. On those dropbacks, according to Tru Media, he's 30 of 45 passing, but for only 284 yards and an interception. He's barely thrown deep, targeting a receiver more than 20 yards downfield with only two of those 45 throws. That's a 4.4% deep-throw rate for a player who typically doubles that. He's also taken sacks on 15.1% of his dropbacks and 32% of his pressure. As a result, he ranks 33rd among 34 quarterbacks in EPA per dropback, ahead of only Mac Jones.
That's all the bad news. Here's the good news: First, performance against the blitz hasn't been shown to be especially sticky from season to season, or even game to game. So, there's not necessarily reason to believe that Hurts is incapable of beating blitzes. He just hasn't done it as consistently as you'd like him to. Second, at least when Dallas Goedert is healthy, the Eagles have a strong screen game that can be used to counter-act opponent blitzes. Third, Hurts can act as his own checkdown in these scenarios, provided he keeps his eyes down the field and looking for running lanes, rather than dropping them and succumbing to the rush itself.
And lastly, we actually know Hurts is fully capable of standing in the pocket and delivering a strike, even with the blitz bearing down on him. We've seen him do it. He's most confident when firing to his first read right away (especially when that read is A.J. Brown), but he's also shown the capability to hang in there and find somebody a bit later in the down when he needs to.
Teams have surely noticed that the Eagles' passing game against the blitz has not been as good as it has when opponents sit in coverage, so Philadelphia may see higher rates of pressure the rest of the way. That'll help Hurts get in enough of a rhythm on those dropbacks ahead of the postseason, but if he continues to (relatively) struggle, teams will continue to heat him up until he and the Eagles prove they can make opponents pay for doing so.