WEEK 14: The Jalen Hurts Era Begins Against Powerful Saints

Maybe it’s apropos that the Jalen Hurts era in Philadelphia begins against Taysom Hill and the New Orleans Saints.
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PHILADELPHIA - Maybe it’s apropos that the Jalen Hurts era in Philadelphia begins against Taysom Hill and the New Orleans Saints.

When Hurts was selected at No. 53 overall back in the spring he was described by some as “Taysom Hill on steroids,” a nod to the thought the Eagles were planning to introduce the Heisman Trophy runner-up in a similar way Sean Payton used Hill as a changeup to veteran starter Drew Brees.

Nothing like that even came close to materializing with Hurts being used sparingly in a backup role as Carson Wentz lost his confidence and went spiraling out of control.

It got so bad that Doug Pederson pulled the plug on Wentz 17 months after the Eagles gave him a $128 million extension.

And Hurts will get his first professional start under the weight of a four-game losing streak, the benching of a player the fan base once thought was a superstar, and against the No. 1 defense in the NFL.

Welcome to the NFL.

Now go fix the Philadelphia Eagles.

“This is the National Football League,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said when discussing throwing Hurts to the proverbial wolves. “Every week is difficult. Doesn't matter that - it just so happened that he's going up against the No. 1 rated defense.

“But it's hard to win games. You've heard that before. It's hard to win. Probably easier to lose them than it is to win, and that goes without saying each week. So it really doesn't matter the week that you pick or I select to make this move. This is the NFL.”

The Saints (10-2) will be starting Hill for the fourth consecutive game and are coming off a 21-16 win over Atlanta, their ninth straight victory which clinched a fourth consecutive postseason berth.

While thought of primarily as a running QB, Hill is slowly doing more as a passer and the dual-threat was prevalent against the Falcons as Hill tossed two touchdown passes, threw for 232 yards, and rushed for a career-high 83 yards.

New Orleans, though, is not nearly explosive without Brees, who is nearing a return from 11 broken ribs.

The game will also mark the return of Malcolm Jenkins to Philadelphia, a player both Pederson and Jim Schwartz raved about after his six-year stay with the Eagles that featured three Pro Bowl berths ended in acrimonious fashion.

“For me, I gave everything I had to that city, to the team, did everything the coaches asked me to do, did everything to make the players around me better, tried to put my best football out there,” Jenkins said during his weekly media briefing on Wednesday in advance of his return to Lincoln Financial Field.

In the end, Jenkins felt undervalued and somewhat disrespected by the Eagles’ brass. The coaches, however, revered Jenkins.

"Versatility was amazing with Malcolm. He played seven different positions on defense here and he knew all 11," Schwartz said. "He knew all 11 like a coach. He was a great set of eyes on the field for me. Incredibly honest player. Always did his job. ...

"I've thought about a lot over the years of all the great players I've coached, and Malcolm goes right up there. He's probably the smartest player I ever coached, and leadership-wise you take all those players, if he was on that he would probably be elected team captain."

That public affirmation from his old boss meant a lot to Jenkins.

“That’s respect on the highest level,” he said. “And that’s a coach that is not only respected by me but is respected around this league. He knows about football, has coached a lot of great players and so to hear that from a coach that you played for, that’s why you play the game. You play the game for the respect of your opponents, your peers, and those you play for.

"I didn’t take that lightly. That meant a lot to me.”

Pederson also spoke warmly of Jenkins on Friday.

“On the question of Malcolm, what he meant to me and this organization, to me he meant the world really because he was a staple on defense, No. 1. He was a leader on my player committee,” the coach said. “He does a lot of things in our community here not only for the Eagles organization but for himself personally and marketing his brand. All the things he does off the field that we've seen him do, just a tremendous leader.

“Guys just gravitate to him and (he’s) just a really good person.”

OFFENSIVE SCHEME: Payton is considered to be one of the top offensive coaches in football and will use multiple formations to attack the defense. As with most teams these days the foundation is 11 personnel but they are only in that look 55 percent of the time which is 29th in the NFL. The main toggles from there are 12 (two tight ends) and 21 (two running backs) but you’ll see everything eventually from Payton.

DEFENSIVE SCHEME: While typically thought of as an offensive team in the Brees era, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has cobbled together the top defense in the NFL which allows just 288.8 yards-per-game based on a 4-3 attacking front. It’s a consistent group with playmakers on all three levels, ranking No. 2 against the run and No. 4 against the pass.

The one slight bug has been situation football as the Saints D is in the bottom half when it comes to third-down defense at No. 17 and red-zone defense at No. 23. The group as a whole, however, has allowed 20-or-less points in five consecutive games.

STRENGTH: There are a ton of strengths you can point to but the RB duo of Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray might be the best.

Kamara is arguably the most well-rounded back in football and is third in the NFL when it comes to scrimmage yards behind only Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry. He has carried 143 times for 673 yards (4.7 avg.) with nine touchdowns and has caught 70 passes for 655 yards and four more scores, leading the Saints in both rushing and receiving.

Murray is the veteran, between the tackles chain-mover, carrying 126 times for 568 yards (4.5 avg.) with four touchdowns.

WEAK LINK: Right now, it’s the QB. While the Saints have continued to win with Hill, the margin of error, other than the outlier COVID game against Denver has grown smaller. ProFootballFocus.com currently has Hill graded No. 32 of 39 signal-callers who’ve played enough to be ranked. As a comp, Wentz is no. 31 and just got benched so let’s just say Hill isn’t setting the world on fire.

The Eagles are still concerned, though.

“I think it’s hard with Hill because he has those legs and as pass rushers getting ready for the Saints, the week prior, you’re like ‘oh Drew Brees, he’s going to stand there, he’s going to look downfield. He’s not even looking to run unless he has to,’” defensive tackle Malik Jackson said.

“This guy, you have to really watch your rushes. You have to be more of an Aaron Rodgers type of rushes when you’re really cautious of where people are going, where he’s going, where he is. And so I think that’s really the difference. As a pass rusher, it kind of sucks because you want the guy to stand there. But he just provides you different problems and you have to respect them."

Avonte Maddox also expressed the issues from a back-end perspective.

“Dealing with the quarterback situation now, you got a guy that can use his feet,” Maddox said. “And when you got a guy that can use his feet, it makes the game a little bit more challenging so you gotta be ready to stop him from running and throwing at the same time.”

UNDER THE RADAR: David Onyemata, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound, defensive tackle has turned into one of the best two-way defensive tackles in football, equally effective against the run and the pass.

MATCHUP TO WATCH: Eagles 12th OL group in 13 games vs. the Saints’ defensive front

If Hurts is going to do anything against New Orleans’ No. 1 defense he’ll need some blocking. Jason Peters’ season-ending toe injury moves Nate Herbig back at right guard as the moving part this week.

Onyemata joins edge rushers Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport to give Allen perhaps the best overall defensive front in the NFL. Whether young players like Herbig and tackles Jordan Mailata and Jack Driscoll can hold up will be something to keep an eye on.

OUTLOOK: Whether Hurts' opportunity lasts a half, a week, or the next decade, the former Alabama and Oklahoma star has been afforded an opportunity and the ability to stay in the mix moving forward by simply playing well.

On the surface, it's almost ludicrous to assume Hurts will be able to beat the 10-2 Saints with the same offensive line, receivers, and running backs that have failed Wentz so consistently this season but the path to handling adversity a little bit better is not exactly a difficult one, nor is staying within earshot of New Orleans with the limited Hill expected to continue at quarterback.

If Brees brought the more consistent big-play passing threat back to the Saints you could surmise that this would be an ugly one but while New Orleans has been winning with Hill, offense has been tougher to come by with the only 30-point game, an outlier win over COVID-crippled Denver a couple of weeks ago.

The Eagles can't win this one but are likely to stay closer than most think due to the Saints' offensive deficiencies without Brees.

Final Score:

JOHN MCMULLEN: Saints 23, Eagles 17 (6-5-1 on the season, 7-5 vs. the spread)

ED KRACZ: Saints 27, Eagles 17 (5-6-1 on the season, 6-6 vs. the spread)

John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Tuesday and Thursday on "The Middle" with Eytan Shander, Harry Mayes, and Barrett Brooks on SportsMap Radio and PhillyVoice.com. He’s also the host of Extending the Play on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen