The Philadelphia Inquirer
It was a sensitive topic following a near-loss to the hated Cowboys, and the big lineman was in no mood. The Eagles couldn’t run the ball. They’d even called a long pass play on third-and-3 from their 32-yard line with less than 5 minutes to play and a five-point lead. A real football team runs it there. Twice, maybe.
They were in a similar situation about 3 minutes later. Ran it three times. Gained 2 yards, and fumbled on third down because, since they can’t run the ball conventionally, they tried to run a trick play that they mistimed.
The Eagles have become a trick-play, shovel-pass, jet-sweep team because they can’t run the ball. They’re making the best of a bad situation, claiming the run game isn’t awful either because they’re optioning to pass plays after the ball is snapped or because they’re using nontraditional execution to get the ball in their backs’ hands: Nick Sirianni said, “The run game is executing differently than what you’ve seen.”
Yeah. It’s not executing.
Sirianni proceeded to tie himself in knots with misdirection explanations that make him sound ridiculous, mainly because he’s a lousy liar. Sirianni wants to run the ball forward, behind his linemen and his tight ends, but he can’t, and everybody knows it, and why.
Like Sirianni, after the Cowboys game the lineman was a little frustrated with the situation, a little relieved that it didn’t cost them a win, and a little angry that I’d asked. As we discussed reasons behind the recent disappearance of the Eagles’ running game, he looked down at me with a genial sneer. Is it the absence of Cam Jurgens and the injury to Jalen Hurts’ knee?
“Uh, it’s pretty obvious,” he said.
And it is.
The lineman asked to not be identified, because identifying the causes of the ground game’s impotence commits two sins: It impugns two teammates, Sua Opeta and Tyler Steen, and it acknowledges the frailty of his most important teammate, Hurts.
But the numbers don’t lie.
In the first three games of the season, the Eagles averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 185.7 yards per game. In the next six games they averaged 3.4 yards per carry and 101.7 yards per game.
Sirianni contends that the run game isn’t stymied; that jet sweeps and shovel passes and whatnot should count. Well, they don’t count, because they’re not running plays. For three weeks the Eagles could line up, show run, hand the ball off, and get almost 5 yards a pop.
So, what happened after Game 3?
Sirianni won’t say it, and maybe he can’t say it, but he lost a key lineman, and his quarterback is hurt. So nobody fears him anymore.
Early in Game 4, right guard Jurgens suffered a foot injury. Suddenly, the best offensive line in the league wasn’t that anymore.
Was Jurgens on his way to the Pro Bowl? No. He’s a second-year, second-round player starting for the first time at his secondary position, since he was bred to be a center.
But Jurgens was playing very well. His profootballfocus.com grade as a run-blocker this season stands at 65.5, which is more than just respectable. He ranks just ahead of new Steelers guard Isaac Seumalo, the player Jurgens replaced on the Eagles’ line this season. Further, Jurgens logged a 79.2 grade in Game 3. He was getting better with each snap.
The thing is, Sirianni can’t come out and say, “Sua Opeta and Tyler Steen are the problem.” And, of course, they’re not the entire problem.
But Opeta, who started Games 4-8, lost his job after grading out at 47.4, worse than any single week from Jurgens. Steen, a third-round rookie tackle, replaced Opeta against Dallas, and, if he hadn’t fallen on that late fumble, his debut would have been a disaster.
The good news: Jurgens, who was placed on injured reserve, returned to practice Nov. 1, the start of the IR return window, and that wouldn’t have happened if the Eagles didn’t expect him to return to the lineup next Monday in Kansas City.
That could coincide with Hurts returning to form.
Hurts: no good
Hurts suffered a bone bruise on his left knee five games ago. That’s right about the time the running game stalled.
Hurts usually draws a “spy,” usually a linebacker or safety whose job it is to shadow Hurts. That means the opposition’s run defense is, at least, slowed; at most, crippled. But lately Hurts hasn’t been able to outrun defensive linemen, much less linebackers and safeties, so teams haven’t had to use a spy. It hasn’t mattered.
Hurts averaged 4.02 yards per carry in the Eagles’ first six games after averaging 4.94 yards in the first 13 games of 2022 (he injured his throwing shoulder in Game 14). He’s averaged 2.52 yards in the last three games, and nearly had to leave the Cowboys game when a helmet collided with his kneecap.
An unintended positive consequence: The injury has given Hurts greater incentive to become a more polished passer, a happy accident that might accelerate the ascension of an already meteoric beginning. Hurts actually has been a better thrower when he can’t run as readily. But that isn’t optimal.
Again, time is on the Eagles’ side here. Their bye week afforded Hurts an extra week to heal.
The next opponent happens to be unremarkable against the run. The Chiefs have a dynamic defense, but they entered Sunday No. 4 in the NFL against the pass but 16th — exactly the middle of the pack — against the run.
Of course, if Jurgens doesn’t return and if Hurts isn’t more mobile, the Chiefs’ ranking will probably be much better after the Eagles visit. That’s obvious.