December 12, 2020
As you're already well aware, Carson Wentz will be on the bench when the Eagles host the Saints on Sunday afternoon at the Linc. In his place will be rookie second-round pick Jalen Hurts, a former Heisman finalist who will be making his first NFL start in what will ultimately amount to a lost season for the Birds.
The time to make the switch to Hurts has been coming as Wentz has gone from an MVP candidate to one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL in just a few short years. And while there's reason to believe that the 27-year-old from North Dakota can eventually turn things around — whether that's here or elsewhere — there's another reason it's paramount that the Eagles give Hurts a chance. They're likely going to have top 10 or even a top 5 draft pick — they currently sit in sixth position with four games left to play — and the Eagles need to know what they have in the rookie quarterback before deciding whether it's time to move on from Wentz.
Additionally, if the Birds decide to bring Wentz back, perhaps with a different coach, they can use these four weeks as an audition of sorts for Hurts to show other teams around the league what he can do at the NFL level. After all, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which both quarterbacks are back on the roster in 2021.
Part of Wentz's regression could've stemmed from the fact that he had a younger potential replacement sitting behind him on the bench, an important distinction from the Nick Foles shadow that had been weighing heavily on him before the Eagles opted to let him walk in free agency. If he's their starting quarterback next season, why allow the same dynamic to unfold?
And if the team goes with Hurts as the starter, would it really make sense to have a $35 million backup sitting behind him, fans waiting for the first slip-up to re-ignite the QB controversy? If you're going to have to pay Wentz one way or the other, why not try to trade him and at least get something back in return.
But enough about the team's future plans. First, they have four games left to finish out the 2020 season. And while what happens between now and the first weekend in January will go a long way toward informing Howie Roseman and Co. what direction the team should take, no final decisions are coming any time soon. Heck, Jalen Hurts hasn't even played more than a half yet.
On Sunday, however, he will. And the expectations are high, despite the fact that he'll be facing arguably the best defense in the NFL in the Saints. Not to mention that his team will be anywhere from a 6.5- to 8-point underdog, according to TheLines.com. So, what are we expecting from the Eagles quarterback? Well, each weekend we take a look at five over/unders for the Birds' upcoming matchup, and with all the attention rightfully on the rookie QB and not so much on the outcome of the game, we decided to do something a little different with our over/unders this week. They're all about Jalen Hurts. Let's get right into it...
Typically, by Week 14 of the NFL season, I have a pretty good read on the Eagles players as well as their opponents, and the over/unders become a bit easier than they were in the earlier part of the season. That's out the window with Hurts, whom we've only seen for a little over a quarter and a half (with a few dozen or so gadget plays sprinkled in there). In other words, this could get interesting.
For starters, we don't know how much Doug Pederson's game plan is going to change with Hurts under center. He already said this week that he's planning to lean more on the ground game and work on simplifying things in order to get Hurts rolling.
"Well, I think in order to get him success, you've got to attempt and try to establish a little bit of the run game, that helps," Pederson said Wednesday. "Then he can be a part of that, I think and just go out and maybe try to find some easy completions, right? The quick game or a screen here and there, something that can just kind of get him into the flow of the game. This is the number one defense, it's no easy task. Obviously, he's facing a really good opponent this week. It's our job as coaches, it's my job as a play caller to try to help him that way and get him into the flow of the game and then we'll see what happens from there."
That certainly sounds like the Eagles are going to be a run-dependent team against the Saints. So, how much can we realistically expect Hurts to throw? Last week against the Packers, he threw just 12 times for 109 yards in a little less than a half of football, completing just five passes. And that was in a game in which the Eagles were trailing by multiple scores and in need of some big plays to get back into it.
This week, he'll be facing a Saints defense that's ranked fourth in the league in passing yards allowed and fifth in net yards per passing attempt. That's not exactly the kind of defense you want to face in your NFL debut. That being said, the Saints have allowed at least 185 passing yards in every game but one this season — their Week 12 win over a Broncos team that was without any of their quarterbacks. With a full week practicing with the starters and a full game to accumulate stats, I think Hurts gets closer to 200 yards on Sunday. It won't be an all-out aerial assault — the Eagles don't really have the weapons for that — but it will be enough to hit the over here.
While many are happy that Pederson is going to give the ground game a little more work on Sunday, it might not be coming at the best time. As good as the Saints are at defending the pass, they're even better against the run. Just take a look at their defensive rankings:
• Attempts: 2nd fewest
• Yards allowed: 2nd fewest
• TDs allowed: Fewest
• Yards/attempt: 2nd fewest
Are we sure this was the best game for Jalen Hurts to make his first start?
While the mobile rookie quarterback will have his work cut out for him, it's not hard to see him surpassing this number, especially if Pederson stays true to his word and uses Hurts in the ground game. On top of that, with this offensive line — the Eagles' 11th starting group in 13 games — there's a good chance Hurts finds himself running more than expected, as scrambling surely be a big part of the game on Sunday.
It might not all be by design, but Hurts is going to be using his legs quite a bit on Sunday.
Hurts threw his first NFL touchdown pass against the Packers. So, what does he have in mind for an encore against the Saints?
For as good as New Orleans has been against the pass, they're just middle of the road (17th) in terms of passing touchdowns allowed. Through their first 12 games, they're giving up an average of 1.75 TD passes per game, so there's at least a chance Hurts can find the end zone multiple times on Sunday. But that would likely require multiple trips to the red zone — after all, the Eagles aren't a quick-strike team — and that's where the Eagles' luck may run out. I could envision a scenario where Hurts throws for a touchdown and runs for a touchdown, but the Saints have allowed just five rushing scores all season, the fewest in the NFL.
He's a rookie making his first start against the NFL's best defense, one that's not only stingy on the score sheet, but one that's skilled at creating turnovers. Through 12 games, they've forced 19 turnovers (7th in the NFL), 13 interceptions and six fumbles. One turnover from the Eagles QB is almost a certainty on Sunday — and a second one is not hard to envision, especially if Philly finds itself playing catchup late in the game.
Two turnovers isn't really the end of the world for a guy making his first start. Hell, Carson Wentz is in year five and was averaging 1.5 turnovers/game himself this season. And plenty of those came against defenses much worse than the one Hurts will be facing this week. What's going to be important for Hurts is to avoid the costly turnovers, the ones that turn into quick scores for the opponent or take potential points off the board for the offense. That, however, is easier said than done.
Originally, I had this number set at 4.5, but our own Jimmy Kempski, who approves my over/under numbers each week to make sure I'm not way off (or taking the easy way out), suggested I bump it up to 6.5. At first glance, you'd think a guy like Hurts, who can use his legs to escape trouble, would be sacked less frequently than Wentz. But that wasn't the case against the Packers — the two had almost identical numbers under pressure. And given how much Hurts will be running, a tackle for loss can quickly become a sack.
The Saints are fourth in the NFL in sacks (36), sixth in QB hits (83) and fourth in tackles for loss (68) this season. There's going to be a ton of pressure on Hurts. But if Doug Pederson keeps up his part of the bargain — relying on the run, scheming up quick reads to get the ball out of his QB's hands and utilizing the screen game — perhaps the Eagles will do a better job at keeping their quarterback upright than they have so far this season.
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