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November 09, 2021

What they're saying: Sirianni, Eagles appear to have figured it out — at least on offense

In ESPN's power rankings this week, they included a bold second-half prediction about each team, and for the Eagles, it was a doozy. Especially for fans who had gotten used to their team throwing the ball at an historic rate through the first month and a half of the season.

"The Eagles will lead the league in rushing."

A few weeks ago, many in the Philadelphia region would've laughed right in your stupid face if you said something like that. Sure, they might have had the horses — including and especially quarterback Jalen Hurts — but Miles Sanders just went down with an ankle injury and Nick Sirianni appeared to be allergic to running the ball, even though his team had been quite effective on the rare occasions they actually did. 

After the last two weeks, however, that seems a bit more realistic with the Eagles suddenly becoming one of the most run-dominant teams in the NFL. The results have been mixed — a blowout win over the Lions and a narrow defeat at the hands of the Chargers — but it appears Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen are on to something, finally rolling out the kind of scheme many expected coming into the season with Jalen Hurts under center.

So what's been the reason for the change? Has it simply been due to the fact that the Eagles' last two games came against the worst team in the NFL and the NFL's worst rushing defense, respectively? Or did Sirianni finally figure out a formula that works after trying to force Hurts into being a pass-first QB the first six weeks? 

Or, as Jimmy Kempski posited in his weekly power rankings roundup when addressing this same "bold prediction" we mentioned above, did the powers that be finally give up on Hurts as a passer and let Sirianni off the proverbial leash?

I wonder if after the first half-ish part of the season, the Eagles' brass determined that Jalen Hurts cannot run the type of pass-heavy offense that they would ultimately like to run, decided that he is not the answer in 2022 and beyond, and just said, "OK, Nick, run whatever offense it is that you think can win games this season."

So I'm on board with the bold prediction here that they'll rack up a ton of rushing yards down the stretch.

If the change did come from Sirianni, then that's a great sign of his growth as an NFL, his ability to adjust his scheme to the things that are working and the players he has on hand. Should he maybe have realized this a bit earlier? Sure, but he's a first-time head coach learning on the job. He should be allowed mistakes, and just as we call him out on them, we should also acknowledge when he corrects them. It's what's separated Sirianni and the offensive side of the ball from Jonathan Gannon and the defensive side over the last couple of weeks. 

Either way, whatever caused the change for the Eagles on offense, it's been working. And it's something they should stick with going forward. The question now becomes how long does Sirianni stick with it? And will he continue to stick with it when they inevitably run into some obstacles? Or will he go right back to having Hurts throw the ball 35-plus times per game? 

We'll see, but in the meantime, let's take a look at what they're saying about the Eagles, their new-look offense and if this team is turning the corner as they get set to face a much easier second-half schedule... 

It's about damn time

Jeff McLane |

As Jeff McLane correctly points out in the Inquirer, the need for an offensive switch was not difficult to see. And that it took Sirianni this long to identify is probably the biggest issue here, even if we're willing to give him a bit of a pass this one time. But now that it seems to be done, they deserve credit for the change. Here's a closer look at how they limited Hurts' passes on Sunday and how that's allowed him (and the offense) to become more efficient... 

Nick Sirianni has found the sauce on offense. I was going to precede sauce with secret, but many, including yours truly, had been pleading since before the start of the season for the Eagles coach to implement a run-based system that accounts for Jalen Hurts and the quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses. Is it a long-term, sustainable system that will lead to perennial playoff appearances and Super Bowl contention? Probably not. Sirianni and his staff understandably didn’t enter the season lowering their aspirations. But it took far too long for them to embrace their reality.

Still, they get credit for finally coming around the last three games. I include the Raiders game because that was how Sirianni approached game planning before Miles Sanders went down and the team fell behind. The Eagles’ first two drives Sunday produced just one first down, but the offense got into a groove thereafter with balanced play-calling. [...]

All told, the Eagles had 33 designed runs and 24 plays in which Hurts dropped to pass [against the Chargers]. He completed 11 of 17 throws for 162 yards and a touchdown, scrambled six times for 40 yards and was sacked once. For the second straight week, he attempted fewer than 20 passes. The numbers may not be eye-popping but they’ve been efficient. His average pass attempt over the last two games was 8.55 yards, which would rank fifth among all quarterbacks if sustained over all nine games. It would be a stretch to think Hurts could maintain that pace, but limiting his number of attempts has clearly benefited the offense.  []

Letting Hurts thrive

Tim McManus | ESPN

Limiting Hurts' usage, especially in the passing game, has clearly had a positive impact on the offense overall. Not because Hurts can't play, but because of just how much they were asking him to do — it was never fair to the young QB, Tim McManus wrote on Tuesday. 

It's no coincidence that Hurts' back-to-back solid outings coincide with a shift in offensive approach. Sirianni, after neglecting the running backs for multiple weeks, went run-heavy the past two weeks against the Chargers and Detroit Lions (a 44-6 win). Consider: In Weeks 1-7, the backs totaled 96 carries (13.7 per game) for 444 yards and three touchdowns. In Weeks 8 and 9, those numbers skyrocketed to 66 carries (33 per game) for 258 yards and six touchdowns.

Hurts was accounting for nearly 90% of the Eagles' offense in the early going, the most in the NFL. The past couple of weeks have been easy street in comparison. He has averaged 15.5 pass attempts over the past two games compared to 34.5 attempts per game over the first seven weeks.

Putting that much on Hurts to start was never fair or practical... Hurts isn't far along enough as a passer to drop back 45 times a game consistently, and this Eagles defense certainly can't be relied upon to hold down the fort when such an approach backfires. A steady dose of the ground game alleviates some of the burden from Hurts, opens up more running room for him when he decides to keep it (he's already second among quarterbacks in rushing yards with 494), and will more often than not keep games close, giving Hurts an opportunity to make some magic happen late.  []

Plenty to go around

Reuben Frank | NBC Sports Philadelphia

It's not just that the Eagles have switched up their offensive identity, they've also been incredibly successful at running the ball. Over at NBC Sports Philly, Reuben Frank took a look at some pretty impressive stats for this group of Eagles rushers. 

RUSH TO SCORE: The Eagles already have 14 rushing touchdowns this year. That’s their most in the first nine games of a season since they had 15 in 1965 – more than half a century ago. This is only the third time since 1950 they’ve had 14 rushing TDs after nine games. They also had 17 in 1953. The Eagles have had a rushing TD in six straight games, which matches their longest streak in 18 years. They had a rushing TD the last 15 games of 2003. [...]

FOUR-HEADED MONSTER? Jalen Hurts [5], Jordan Howard [3], Kenny Gainwell [3] and Boston Scott [3] all have at least three rushing touchdowns so far this year. This is the first time four Eagles have had three rushing TDs in the same season since 2003, when Correll Buckhalter [8], Brian Westbrook [7], Duce Staley [5] and Donovan McNabb [3] did it. It’s the first time ever four Eagles had three rushing TDs through nine games.  []

And that doesn't even include Miles Sanders, who can easily pick up a trio of touchdowns down the stretch this season when he returns from his ankle injury. 

While all the rushing TDs have been nice, one of the biggest impacts of the Eagles turning to the ground game has been their ability to get in more third-and-manageable situations. And that's led to Hurts doing what is arguably the most important thing his athleticism allows him to do. If extending plays is valuable, extending drives is even more so. And Hurts is doing that with his legs more often than almost anyone in the league... 

MOVING THE STICKS: Hurts’ six rushing first downs Sunday give him 35, 4th-most in the league behind Jonathan Taylor (49), Derrick Henry (49) and Lamar Jackson (36). That’s the most rushing 1st downs by any Eagle through nine games since LeSean McCoy had 36 in 2014.  []

Trickle-down offense

Fran Duffy |

It's wild to say this, but over the last two weeks the Eagles have had the most run-heavy offense in the NFL. They'd always been efficient on the ground this season, it was just that they weren't doing it. And now that they are, well, it's no surprise someone thinks they'll wind up leading the NFL in rushing, especially if they keep this up (as they should) when Sanders returns. 

There's also a trickle-down effect from all this running, and that's the fact that it's opening up the play action passing. It's why Dallas Goedert and DeVonta Smith have been able to get open down the field more. They may not be throwing as much as they were, but they're picking their spots and finding more success when they do.

Over the last two weeks, the Eagles have run the ball at a higher rate than any team in the NFL (63.9 percent of plays). All season long, they have been one of the most efficient run teams in the league when it comes to breaking off explosive plays, and with the huge jump in volume, they've been busting off long runs at a very high clip, leading the league with 14 runs of 10-plus runs. 

It's not just about running the football, however, because while they have committed to the rushing attack, the aftershock from that decision is felt in other ways. The Eagles rank sixth in the NFL in play-action rate over these last two weeks, and quarterback Jalen Hurts is 10-of-12 off play-action during that span. He's been extremely efficient on those snaps. 

The Eagles have been significantly more aggressive downfield when they drop back to pass over the last two weeks. In Weeks 1-7, they threw downfield on just 13.5 percent of their passes (14th in the NFL). Since then? They lead the league (21.2 percent), as those deeper play-action throws have resulted in bigger chunk plays to both Dallas Goedert and DeVonta Smith.  []

That, combined with what we've already outlined is a very effective rushing attack, has the Eagles as the most efficient offense in the NFL over the last two weeks. 

Many analysts will point to EPA (Expected Points Added) as a significant metric for quantifying efficiency in football. Offensively, the Eagles were 18th in the NFL in EPA per play (per Pro Football Focus) through the first seven weeks. In Weeks 8 and 9? The Eagles lead the NFL. This is the most efficient offense in football on a per-play basis.  []

Midseason check-in

Sheil Kapadia | The Athletic

Finally, over at The Athletic, Sheil Kapadia ranked all 32 NFL offensives through the first half of the 2021 season. The Eagles aren't as low as they are in the standings, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. Perhaps if they'd been more committed to the run early on the season, they might be a bit higher in Sheil's rankings (and in the standings).

20. Philadelphia Eagles

The fact that they’re 11th in EPA per drive is probably stunning to Eagles fans. Even if we account for garbage time, they still rank 14th. Would you believe that they’ve had as many great games (three) statistically as the Cardinals, Ravens, and Chiefs?

The Eagles’ run game has been very good. Their 37 runs of 10-plus yards are second to only the Browns. And their offensive line has played well, despite injuries. It’s an offense whose identity has become running the ball, play-action, and Jalen Hurts scrambles. Hurts has the highest EPA on scrambles of any quarterback. And the Eagles have done a good job of protecting the ball. Just 7.7 percent of their drives have ended in turnovers, which is third-best... []

Sheil then went on to outline the inconsistent passing attack, but we're trying to stay positive today. That's why we didn't include anything about the defense... 

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