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The NFL’s Most Fascinating Offense Resides in ... Philadelphia?

Philadelphia’s rushing attack is spreading opposing defenses thin and making everyone rethink Jalen Hurts’s future on the surprise playoff team.

Jalen Hurts took a shotgun snap on a third-and-6 from the Saints’ 15-yard line. It was a critical down for both teams back in Week 11, with the Eagles fighting to go from 2–5 into the playoff picture and the Saints trying to hang onto a spot as a 5–2 start had begun slipping away. The second-year quarterback was hoping to find one of his most dependable targets against one of the best third-down defenses in football.

New Orleans was rushing four defenders and had three more—linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Paulson Adebo and safety Malcolm Jenkins—in the second tier of its defense to handle the receivers jockeying for the first-down marker.

Hurts saw running back Boston Scott far to his right, running a go route toward the end zone, which cleared out a defender. Receiver Greg Ward Jr., in the slot on the same side, ran a quick slant before flattening his route and settling right in front of Adebo, which forced the cornerback to mark Ward like a post defender in a pick-up basketball game. On the other side of the formation, slot receiver Quez Watkins ran a modified, rounded slice type route that affected New Orleans in three very subtle and incredible ways:

• It forced cornerback P.J. Williams to follow Watkins exclusively, which put 2021 first-round pick DeVonta Smith in single coverage all the way to the left.

• It forced Alexander to hesitate momentarily, deciding, just for a millisecond, whether he should have drifted back to latch onto Watkins or whether he needed to be focused on Ward and whatever else was happening on the right side (his left).

• It forced Jenkins to take one hard step in Alexander’s direction, which is all the Eagles needed to clear out the right side of the field between the line of scrimmage and the end zone 15 yards away. This is where Hurts is most comfortable throwing the football, according to Next Gen Stats, with a passer rating of 106.9 on intermediate throws to his right (18 points above league average) and 144.9 on throws of 10 to 20 yards to his right (double the league average).

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With chaos sown, Dallas Goedert, arguably Hurts’s favorite pass catcher, stuttered off the line, watched all three defenders in his immediate area get caught up and ran an out-breaking route toward seemingly unlimited green space. He picked up a first down and came within a fingernail of scoring a touchdown.

Welcome to one of the most efficient offenses in football, a reality we’re just now waking up to this week as the Eagles, a team many of us left for dead, assuming they were looking ahead to 2022 and preparing to enjoy the spoils of three upcoming first-round draft picks, clinched a playoff spot on Sunday with a win over Washington. Philadelphia leads the league in rushing yards and touchdowns. The Eagles are second in rushing attempts and third in rushing yards per attempt. They are tenth in percentage of drives ending in a score.

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This running game is a vehicle for a scheme designed by coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, combining the most potent aspects of Sirianni’s time on the Frank Reich tree along with Steichen’s quarterback-friendly, high-percentage offense that propelled Justin Herbert to a rookie of the year award. In Los Angeles, both with Philip Rivers and Justin Herbert, the Chargers were one of the best play-action teams in the NFL. The Eagles are holding firm in that tradition, but in a different way.

The Eagles won that game against the Saints 40–29. And the win, along with the crucial impact on conference record and a head-to-head tiebreaker over New Orleans, is one reason Philadelphia can now contemplate resting starters in the final week of the season.

The aforementioned play was a microcosm of how, on seemingly every down, defenses facing the Eagles are being stretched thin and conflicted. They are wary of loading up the box to stop the run, but hesitant to go light, given how prolific Philadelphia’s ground game has been. When everything is tied to run action, even when the mobile Hurts is under center, it makes the chances of hitting some of their trademark deep crossing routes better. They are one of the best explosive play offenses in the NFL right now.

The Eagles are difficult to defend because the core of their running game is so versatile. Hurts’s mobility seems to allow Sirianni and Steichen to borrow from zone-read concepts in both the NFL and college. Philadelphia can look, for example, like the Ravens behind center one week. The next? The Eagles can sit in 13 personnel (one receiver, three tight ends), which they use more frequently than all but three other teams in the NFL (the Browns, Titans and Falcons) and pound the football like a traditional downhill running team.

It seems like both of the Eagles’ offensive minds were energized, not deterred, by the prospect of working with Hurts, which comes through in the variety of ways in which we see the quarterback deployed. In that Saints game, which was instructive viewing, giving us a glimpse at the Eagles against one of the top defenses in football, we saw Hurts slinging the ball from an empty set, hitting some quick Alabama-like RPOs and then running some delayed handoff zone read, which looked like it came straight out of the Wake Forest playbook as Hurts isolated Cam Jordan and held the ball until Jordan committed to the running back. He is just enough Lamar Jackson, just enough Russell Wilson and just enough Josh Allen to make it all work. The genius of the playbook is that it doesn’t require Hurts to be any one of those quarterbacks full-time.

Like we’ve seen from the Patriots this year, Philadelphia is showcasing a scheme-forward strategy that is completely unique to its quarterback and offensive line, is not replicable and, thus, is difficult to prepare for. The Eagles are bucking the trend of a tools-forward quarterback dictating the offense, which is becoming harder to facilitate given the relative dearth of prototypical, game-controlling passers.

The result, for an opposing defense, is confusion, frustration and a sinking feeling on each play that the person you’re marking is probably just a ruse. Someone is open somewhere else, the quarterback is escaping the pocket or a running back is en route to bull you over.

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