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What happened to the Eagles' offense? Start with Jalen Hurts and what defensive coordinators figured out about his game

Struggles vs. the blitz, ineffective running should have Philly scrambling this offseason for fixes

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

(All data via TruMedia or SportsInfoSolutions, unless otherwise noted)

Despite winning 11 games and battling for the NFC East divisional crown up until the very end, the 2023 Philadelphia Eagles season was one from hell. The defense swapped coordinators in the middle of December, but the results stayed middling because of the aging, injured and overwhelmed back seven personnel weren’t able to cover the middle of the field and were attracted like moths to a flame to any pre-snap movement or backfield action.

The defensive falloff was to be expected in some regards. Regression from a historic sack rate is one place to start, but also the defense's spine had completely been removed. The loss of linebackers T.J. Edwards to the Chicago Bears and Kyzir White to the Arizona Cardinals, both of whom played well in their new respective homes (White played at an All-Pro level until his biceps injury), were sacrifices to the never quenched thirst of the salary cap. Safeties C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Epps were also no longer Eagles in 2023, creating a square-sized gap of new and ever-changing faces over the middle of the field that offenses were very happy to fill.

Philadelphia's offense, while still finishing the season in the top 10 in most underlying metrics, felt like it had been cruising on wobbly wheels from essentially Week 1, when Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots' defense put a lid on the passing game, so much so that Jalen Hurts’ passing chart from that game looked like it could have had cinematic bars on the top and bottom of it:

(NFL Next Gen Stats)
(NFL Next Gen Stats) (Yahoo Sports)

The Eagles' offense was under first-time NFL play-caller Brian Johnson in 2023, recently promoted from his previous position of quarterbacks coach. Despite the new play-caller, the offensive DNA, as far as concepts that were used, remained the same from the previous two seasons under now Indianapolis Colts head coach Shane Steichen. Well, nearly two seasons; remember that head coach Nick Siranni was the offensive play-caller to start the 2021 season before relieving himself of those duties for Steichen in the middle of the season. The inspired move was a catalyst, along with acquiring A.J. Brown, for this franchise’s ascent to among the NFL’s best as the Eagles stormed their way to being a few plays away from winning the Super Bowl.

Losing an offensive play-caller is never an easy task for a team to fill. But the Eagles, returning Hurts, Brown, DeVonta Smith, Dallas Goedert — along with four of their five starting offensive linemen — seemed like they were in as good a position as anyone to at least keep the wheels somewhat on the tracks. The group was projected to be the steadying force as the defense held off any possible regression in an attempt to repeat their run to the Super Bowl.

But as the weeks and months went by, the offense kept feeling disjointed. Sure, the Eagles were once 10-1 and the meaty box score stats were there. Hurts and Brown kept fantasy managers fat and happy off of the yardage totals, and quarterback sneak touchdowns led to Hurts even being the MVP betting favorite as late as the last week of November. But, down-to-down, this wasn’t that explosive Eagles offense that steamrolled opponents on the ground and featured weekly highlights of Brown and Smith soaring through the Philadelphia air like they were Rey Misterio Jr. and Psciosis in the ECW Arena.

The Eagles' run game — at least the run game with the running backs — was still highly efficient, sitting among the league’s best, even as the Eagles cycled through RBs and other parts of the offense felt uneven. What was different about the run game, however, was that Hurts went from one of the most efficient and explosive runners of the football over his first three seasons to one who was just more “fine” than anything in 2023.

Hurts being “fine” in the run game, though, causes issues with this Eagles offense. I am talking about Hurts as a runner outside of the T*** P***, by the way. Because outside of those 1-yard scrums, Hurts has rushed the ball less frequently (but still has a high usage) and also less efficiently.

On non-sneak, non-kneel designed quarterback runs and stripping out scrambles, Hurts went from 73 rushing attempts in 2022 (second-highest among NFL quarterbacks behind only Justin Fields) to 59 in 2023 (still third-highest). As you start looking at the results of those rushing plays, whether it's box score, advanced stats or eye test, there are all the signs of a wilting aspect of an offense.

Hurts’ success rate on those designed runs: 57.5% in 2022 (fifth among the 17 quarterbacks with 10 or more such runs) and 40.7% in 2023 (11th out of fourteen). Hurts generated 13.6 expected points on these runs last season; that number dropped to minus-9 this season. That's a drop from second-best to 12th.

Simple yards per rushing attempt? Hurts dropped from 5.7 yards per attempt on those designed runs (ranking third) to a startling 3.9 yards per attempt in 2023 (ranking 11th).

No matter how you dice it up, these run plays went from a simple and effective way for this offense to get on base, especially in high leverage situations, to one that it seemed apprehensive to use. Limiting the usage of Hurts as a runner as a way to save the blows he takes long-term is understandable. And even though Hurts never missed time and never was on an Eagles injury report this season until a finger dislocation suffered in Week 18, his burst and overall willingness as a runner never seemed quite there all season. This is anecdotal and reflected in statistics.

Hurts broke or forced a missed tackle on 21.9% of those 73 runs in 2022. In 2023, that rate was 5.1%. Meaning Hurts broke a tackle or forced a missed tackle a grand total of three times on those 59 rushes this season, above only Russell Wilson and Daniel Jones among the 14 qualifying quarterbacks this season.

A bit of this is Hurts seemingly being sapped of some burst this season, but also defenses became hyper-aware of what the Eagles were doing every down. There was beauty in the simplicity of this Eagles offense in 2022, which benefited from the excellent offensive personnel, but also a coach who used that simplicity to find the simplest answers to what defenses were doing. It's why I like to call Steichen the Occam's razor coach (one of his trademarks, repeating a play-call until the defense stops it, has followed him to Indianapolis).

But beating up defenses and winning games like the Eagles did in 2022 put the league's eyeballs on them. And if you don’t adjust, amend, mold and modify your offense based on what you think could happen in the next season, opposing coaches will find tendencies and weaknesses, and pick at them until you find a way to solve them.

Eagles lost their RPO punch in 2023 season

That tendency coaches really focused on was a main component of this iteration of the Eagles' offense — their use of run-pass options (RPO). This shouldn’t be a shock if you’re paying attention to the gist of this article, the effectiveness of those RPOs dropped in 2023 as well.

Across the board the runs dropped from at or near the top of every metric to "good." On nearly the same amount of RPO rushes (132 in 2022 to 140 this season), the Eagles dropped from 5.3 yards per attempt to 4.6. The Eagles generated 24.44 expected points on RPO run plays in 2022, easily first in the NFL. In 2023 that figure stood at 1.2 expected points. Still fine! But not an overwhelming figure that sits atop of the leaderboard.

The passing side was another box score/advanced stat/eye test trifecta of drop in play. The Eagles had nearly the same number of RPO dropbacks in 2022 and 2023 (72 and 71, respectively), but, here I go saying the "e" word again, effectiveness, of those passes teetered off a cliff. Going from an overwhelming strength and "easy button" for this offense to a button that generated random results like a video game loot box.

Defenses clamped down on the main RPO favorites of the Eagles. Instead of allowing themselves to be picked by Eagles players as their coverage assignment waltzes into the flat or staring into the backfield for a sliver too long, defenders were instead ready to pass off the common route paths the Eagles usually went on. They waited to tee off of pass catchers for short gains, made Hurts hold the ball or attempted to make a play:

The scheme was solved by many of the NFL's astute defenses. Even when the Eagles were scoring points, there were still plenty of stretches of defenses stalling the Eagles by running their plays for them, like in some of the clips in the embedded tweet above.

Hurts isn’t absolved from all of the blame from this scheme. There were times when he pulled the ball to throw it when the read was clearly telling him to give it to the running back. This led to double-clutches, illegal man upfield penalties, throwaways, and zero and negative yard gains on a play that’s supposed to generate easy positive ones.

The drop in Hurts’ effectiveness as a runner is tied to this effectiveness in the RPO game. Hurts frequently made ill-advised reads on both types of plays this season, often straining to make a play in close games and ending up neutering potential positive plays (or, like in the examples against the Bills above, turning the ball over).

That seemingly lack of confidence also showed when Hurts had to progress post-snap. Here is Hurts hesitating to pull the trigger on a throw to Brown on a slant-flat RPO concept against that same Bills defense. A play and read Hurts has experience with in this Eagles offense:

Considering this is the first play in the second half, it’s surprising Hurts is so startled by how this play plays out. It seems like an obvious “easy button” the Eagles are attempting to start their first second-half drive with, get a nice positive gain and a potential explosive one with Brown on the move with space over the middle of the field. Instead, Hurts doesn’t throw and ends up eating a sack and putting the Eagles behind the sticks to start the drive.

The Eagles generated 151 fewer net yards on RPO dropbacks in 2023 than they did in 2022, despite nearly the same amount of dropbacks. Their adjusted net yards per attempt dropped from 8.5 (fourth in the NFL) to 4.1 (tied for 23rd). Their success rate dropped nearly 10%, and the Eagles went from generating 31.1 expected points (easily first in 2022 over the Dolphins' 13.6) to minus-13.9 in 2023 — dead last in the NFL. His quarterback rating went from 121.1 (first) to 78.8 (30th).

That lack of confidence is felt even within the offense's rhythm. The Eagles were one of the biggest users of tempo in 2022, controlling games by keeping defenses on their toes. For an offense that many (now) describe as “basic,” tempo keeps defenses basic as well. Like in last year’s Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs, where the Eagles quickly lined up and ran a four verticals concept (with play-action) for a big play to DeVonta Smith. Not a lot of window dressing, but using speed and surprise to their advantage:

The Eagles used tempo on 20.2% of their snaps in non-garbage time situations in 2022, second in the NFL. In 2023, that dropped to 15% with Hurts on the field. That's still a high clip, but it would rank fifth this season in non-garbage time situations. The offense that ranked first in tempo use in 2023: the Colts.

These lack of easy gains stacked up, creating longer third-down situations — the Eagles' average distance to go on third down went from 6.4 yards to 7 — and more true passing situations in general. Something the (what should be) run-first Eagles would like to avoid.

Why did they like to avoid those true pass situations? Well, when they got into them, aggressive defensive coordinators started to pin their ears back and attacked Hurts and the Eagles' pass protection over and over again with blitz packages every single week.

Wild-card blowout Monday night was a blitzing clinic in how to stop Hurts

Hurts was the third-most blitzed quarterback in the 2023 regular season, something that defensive coordinators started to use frequently as they challenged Hurts and the Eagles to come up with consistent answers. And something that was shone under a bright light Monday night against Todd Bowles and the swashbuckling Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense.

Bowles has faced Hurts three times since Hurts became the Eagles' starter, blitzing him 23, 19 and 20 times in those matchups. Hurts has yet to generate positive expected points against Bowles’ blitz packages, with only four successful dropbacks against those 20 blitzes on Monday night. Overall, Hurts is generally an average to even below-average quarterback when operating against the blitz. His dropback success rate against the blitz in 2023 ranked 19th among qualifying quarterbacks, between Desmond Ridder and Mac Jones. In 2022 he also ranked 19th in the same metric. With his EPA per attempt ranking 16th last season and 18th this season, just below Aidan O’Connell.

The simplistic (this time used in a negative sense) nature of the Eagles' offense shows up here as well. The answers Hurts tries to find become predictable, especially as more film of this Eagles offense can be studied by opposing coaches. The general answer for Hurts is to find Brown and try and get him the ball in a one-on-one situation, and when that doesn’t work, try and create a bit, preferably while moving to the right.

Brown’s target share jumps from an already high 27.1% to 34.4% when Hurts is blitzed, but how he has been targeted has changed. Most of those targets come on the outside on vertical routes like hitches, stop-and-go balls, a route tree that shows its barren nature when Brown isn’t in the game. Brown’s route share against the blitz featured 35% in-breaking routes in 2022, which makes sense given Brown’s excellent ability to create yards after the catch and the void created when teams blitz. In 2023, that in-breaking route rate dropped to 24%.

Brown is supremely talented and can win consistently on all types of routes, including ones that attack vertically along the sideline, but that drop in in-breaking route rate is a symptom of this entire passing game that has defaulted into a static process to simplify reads and highlight its players, but whose results have now become static as well.

There is some chicken-and-egg here that is impossible for me to determine since I am outside of the Eagles' building. Do the Eagles use this type of offense because it's what Hurts prefers? Or is it because of a lack of creativity and ability to adjust to what defenses are doing?

The blitzes the Eagles faced against Bowles in their wild-card matchup showed all of the negative aspects of this offense. With overmatched protection rules, personnel (particularly left guard Landon Dickerson and Eagles running backs) and Hurts either being unable (and at times unwilling) to find a proper answer.

Some fixes for Hurts and the Eagles' offense

When I watch this Eagles offense, the lack of answers against the blitz is what I think has to be sorted out this offseason. By both the play designers and quarterback.

Their plays have to show more variety in third-down situations, Hurts has to become more consistent in finding answers post-snap (he is still too reliant on his pre-snap reads for a player with 51 starts). This is before even considering that one of Philly's best answers, the brain of Jason Kelce, might be heading off into a well-deserved retirement and Canton in about five years. Kelce’s leadership is one thing and his ability to move in the run game is another, but Kelce also handles the pre-snap protection calls for this Eagles offense, with Hurts not having (or at least never using) a veto ability to adjust the protection based on what he sees. It's something that I would love to see Hurts take more ownership over, especially considering his role on the team (and his ever-increasing contract hits). He might not have to be the one pointing it out to start, but adjusting when he sees the need to will help him get the entire offense on the same page against these exotic looks.

The Eagles drafted Cam Jurgens in 2022, who started at right guard this season, as Kelce’s successor at the pivot position. It's a testament to the Eagles' team-building for having a succession plan in place but also an indication of a brand new era in Philadelphia (since Hurts doesn’t use a cadence, Kelce’s head bob has also been the play starter for the Eagles' offense for years).

Considering the inconsistency this offense has whenever defenses bring blitzes and the impact Kelce has in keeping it afloat, it has me anxious to see what unfolds in the future when Hurts gets heat. Keeping plays alive and giving teammates chances to make big plays is a great ability, but playing quarterback in the NFL is more about what you can do within the planned confines of the play. Keeping the floor of play high so the offense can stay in rhythm and on-schedule and then allowing the quarterbacks to use their talents to lift the ceiling of the operation and break glass in case of emergency when needed. Hurts so often leaves clean pockets with Kelce, Dickerson, Lane Johnson and Jordan Mailata still in the lineup. What happens when that offensive line is more above-average (or worse) rather than its typically elite self under offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland? Can Hurts speed up his clock to overcome the blemishes if (and when) the personnel around him dips?

There are times Hurts shows that ability to stand in the face of pressure and progress on throws or find something over the juicy middle area of the field, but it has been few and far between so far in his career. Only 4% of Hurts’ throws this season traveled 10-22 air yards and between the numbers when he was blitzed, meaning 96% of his throws were short and/or to the outside, allowing defenses to rally to the ball or use the sideline as an extra defender (watch those clips against the Bucs). That figure is last among qualifying quarterbacks this season, and is less than half of the league average of 9.6%.

If you’re a more visual learner, here is Hurts’ targeted heat map when blitzed in 2023:

(TruMedia)
(TruMedia) (Yahoo Sports)

This is an aspect that has to improve for Hurts, and something he has to live up to in his contract. Throwing over the middle for quarterbacks is like shooting 3-pointers for an NBA player. Without that space created by attacking that particular area, it becomes too tight for other parts of the offense to operate once playoff time rolls around. Becoming more consistent in this area, creating even more possibilities for explosive gains and taking it to defenses when they are attempting to knock the offense off-schedule is the best way to make them stop doing it and get this offense to open back up. Bullying the bully into submission and more basic looks, bopping them on the nose with another throw between the hash as they chase the pass catcher for another first down.

The Eagles have a ton of questions to figure out on both sides of the ball. Some of that revamping was expected, even from the most optimistic viewpoint, but more questions have started to present themselves as this season unfolded. Once they have solidified everything this offseason (now that Siranni is apparently on shaky ground), solving the issues of the previous sins of this offense, adding layers and challenging their past principles, while also braving a post-Kelce world, will get Hurts and this offense back on a track to letting their fans belt out “Go Birds” at every possible juncture.