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September 14, 2023

Eagles future headlines: Is the defense elite? Is the run game better than the pass game?

We know what everyone will be talking about after the latest Eagles win.

Eagles NFL
Eagles-Vikings-defense_091423_USAT Kate Frese/For PhillyVoice

The Eagles defense had highs and lows Thursday night.

The Eagles looked shaky for a bit and had the amped-up Lincoln Financial Field crowd worried for most of the first half, but then hung on to beat down the Vikings just like they were supposed to Thursday night.

Philadelphia won't play another professional football game for 11 days, with their next date on the calendar being a Monday Night affair at Tampa Bay in Week 3, which means this game will be fodder for many a sports talk radio show.

What will they be talking about on your morning drive Friday, and throughout the next week and a half? Here's our latest crack at predicting three future Eagles headlines:

Is Jalen Hurts improving, regressing or both?

Jalen Hurts has been hard to figure out so far this young season. In New England, he was timid and hampered by the rain and perhaps dampened by some questionably conservative playcalling. But he did enough to help them win.

In Week 2, Hurts had two absolute bombs to DeVonta Smith – a 54-yarder and a 63-yarder – but besides that, he threw for 194 yards in total. He missed open men in both weeks with frequency and he was pretty beat up, at least in the first half. 

Through the first 20 minutes of the game or so, Hurts was hit no fewer than six times and was sacked four times — a lot of them due to his indecisiveness. He also threw an absolutely abysmal interception right into double coverage that did not stand a chance. He looked really lackluster in both designed runs and in RPOs, as defenses spent an entire offseason preparing for his tricks and scampering.

The lack of pocket awareness and questionable choices on the ground were not as bad later in the game, as the "tush push" one-yard score was executed twice successfully in the win. 

Many have lauded Hurts for his ability to improve every year, from high school to college to his rookie year to his MVP campaign in 2022. Has he plateaued? It's extremely early to make a determination either way, but it'll be discussed at length this week for sure.

The Eagles' front four is elite, the rest is eh

The Eagles' pass rush, plus Darius Slay, are as good as it gets in the NFL. The front four gave the lackluster Minnesota offensive line fits all night long, breaking through with regularity to pressure Kirk Cousins on nearly every throw. 

It's clear that Jordan Davis is a beast on the pass rush, even though he was really drafted to be a run stuffer. Fletcher Cox looks revitalized alongside Davis and rookie Jalen Carter, and has been all over the backfield through two games.

One of the key plays in Thursday's win was a Josh Sweat strip sack and a Cox recovery that led to a second Hurts tush push TD.

But then you look further down the defensive starting lineup and things get grim.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson broke the defense apart in the second quarter with a 24-yard catch over the middle before a wide-open touchdown near the goal line. This is a week after Patriots tight ends carved the Eagles up for 92 yards and a score on nine catches. The Birds totally stifled the Vikings on the ground but they allowed Kirk Cousins to find open men 31 times, throwing for 364 yards on the night.

The Eagles are missing Nakobe Dean up the middle from an already undermanned position group that Howie Roseman and company sort of phoned it in on, using unproven players and post-prime veterans to try and patchwork the position.

The other group responsible for the middle of the field are the safeties, of which Terrell Edmunds and Justin Evans started with Reed Blankenship already hurt. It's not a great group to begin with. The blueprint is there, and unless the Eagles find a way to drastically upgrade the personnel manning the middle of the field, they could be ripe for the taking all season long.

A shoulder injury to Avonte Maddox (after James Bradberry didn't suit up at corner) that knocked the oft-injured nickel corner out of the game certainly didn't help. Still, the strengths of the Eagles' defense seem to be bailing out the weaknesses so far.

The running game is where the money is

Don't let yourself be fooled, the Eagles' run game is elite again. It's better than the passing game (even with Smith, A.J. Brown and Dallas Goedert), and it doesn't matter who the running back is on this team.

Kenny Gainwell was hurt and didn't play, and Boston Scott was knocked out of this one midway through. It didn't matter. The offensive line makes it so that your little brother could run for four yards per carry. D'Andre Swift had 28 carries for 175 yards, helping Hurts, who ran 12 times for 35 yards, with Rashaad Penny also making his regular-season Birds' debut. The math says it was 259 yards on the ground.

We should also add that they absolutely dominated the ball control battle, possessing the ball for 39:28 in frustrating fashion for Minnesota. That's another recipe for alleviating the weaknesses they have on the defensive side of the ball.

Here's how the Eagles' run offense has trended over the last three seasons:

Yards (rank)2,715 (1)2,509 (5)?
Attempts (rank)550 (2)544 (3)?
Rush TD (rank)25 (1)32 (1)?

Under Nick Sirianni, the Eagles' offense has had an identity that took advantage of them having pretty much the best offensive line in all of football. Clearly, like it or not, this is what they'll be doing in 2023.

It will be interesting to see how this fully fleshed-out offense looks as the season progresses, but a healthy O-line means good things for whichever running back can stay healthy this season.

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