Part 6 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 5 here: Dallas Cowboys. Part 7 now available: New York Giants.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Adj. Pass Rate|
The Eagles fielded one of the NFL’s top rushing attacks in 2021, anchored by Jalen Hurts and Miles Sanders, who both averaged over 5.5 yards per carry on nearly 140 carries each. They ran behind a very good offensive line that provided the 4th-best adjusted line yards and allowed Jalen Hurts more pocket time than any other starting quarterback. They leaned into this strength with the 3rd-highest early down run rate in neutral game scripts and the highest overall run rate. It may have taken them a few games to figure out their offensive identity, but they certainly found it.
Having a true rushing threat like Jalen Hurts at quarterback enhances both the run game and the passing game. On designed quarterback runs and scrambles, there is essentially an extra blocker on the field because all 11 offensive players are involved in the play, as opposed to a traditional handoff where the quarterback just steps out of the picture. On zone reads, defenders cannot overcommit to tackling the running back and must stay tentative longer into the play. This helps both the quarterback and the running back with rushing efficiency.
It also helps the passing game. Defenses need to commit a defender to spying the quarterback if he can get outside and escape for an easy first down run. It’s also tougher to get pressure because if you rush the quarterback at full speed, one juke can erase the defender from the play. And boy did Hurts have jukes. The increased rushing efficiency also forces defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, which can help receivers get open downfield.
But many of these advantages diminish in obvious passing situations. Hurts was good at buying time and was mostly accurate, even on the run. But he lacked the vision and anticipation in the passing game that great quarterbacks possess. He was much better at hitting guys on screens, stop routes, and go routes, than diagnosing a defense and identifying which route would spring open in a complex route tree. In other words, he was far better at exposing mistakes by a bad pass defense than he was at lining up and winning against a good pass defense. Chart A shows how the Eagles’ offensive Effectiveness trended by each opponent’s yards per pass play allowed over the course of the season with Hurts at quarterback.
The Eagles’ relative offensive performance clearly trended up against teams that could not stop the pass. Strong pass defenses forced the Eagles to be one-dimensional. This effect compounded their relative struggles when they had to play from behind. Or, phrasing it differently, this offense performed at its highest level with the lead because defenses had to account for the run game. No team had such clear win/loss splits based on strength of opponent than the Eagles. Their wins came against ATL, CAR, DET, DEN, NO, NYJ, WAS (x2), and NYG, who had a combined record of 46-89 (34%) and all missed the playoffs. Their losses came against TB (x2), SF, DAL (x2), KC, LV, LAC, and NYG, who had a combined 70-49 record (59%) and combined for five playoff spots.
Hurts is still young. Quarterbacks often learn and improve as pocket passers in their first few years in the NFL and there is plenty of room for upside. But I didn’t see an offense in 2021 that can compete at the highest level. A team with a good enough defense and offensive line can still win games with these deficiencies, and it looks like the Eagles are still building. But as of now, this is not an offense designed to win playoff games. They excel against bad competition.
One small detail causes some concern about the effectiveness of the Eagles’ run game. Despite posting the 3rd-highest rushing EPA/play and generating strong yards before contact, they were only 23rd in DVOA on third/fourth down and short. Teams that can bully up front tend to convert these downs at a high rate. The Eagles’ struggles could indicate that their rushing success had more to do with running in favorable situations than being able to win at will. This could also be a noisy stat or merely indicate poor play calling in a limited sample size. It’s worth keeping an eye on.
This offense is still building. With three first round picks this year, DeVonta Smith entering his second year, and Hurts entering his third, it’s fair to expect some improvement (unless they lose key offensive line pieces). But until they prove they can pass successfully into a defense expecting the pass, they deserve healthy skepticism in the biggest spots against the toughest opponents.
|Eff. Rating||Adj. Rating||Rank|
|Pass EPA||Rush EPA||Blitz Rate||Pressure Rate|
It wasn’t easy to throw deep on the Eagles in 2021. On the season they allowed an average depth of target of just 6.4 yards, whereas no other team averaged lower than 7.0 yards. They didn’t overcommit coverage players to pressure via blitzing. Instead, they let their strong defensive line do its job and stayed disciplined on the backend. Their pressure rate suffered from losing Brandon Graham early in the season, but their downfield coverage held up okay.
They also played the run fairly well without overcommitting defenders to stop it. This approach typically relies on opponents making mistakes rather than great defensive play. If an offense has to gain small chunks of yardage consistently (as opposed to converting on explosive plays), every set of downs provides another opportunity for one key play that can end the drive – a sack, a run-stuff, or an incompletion on third down. The Eagles were content to let teams moves slowly. So teams that leaned heavily on the run struggled relatively against Philadelphia. Chart B shows the Eagles’ defensive Adj. Eff. Rating against each opponent ranked by its early down pass rate in neutral game scripts.
Each of the Eagles’ worst 7 defensive performances relative to opponent strength came against teams who were top-10 in pass rate (TB, KC, LAC, LV, DAL, and NYJ). By contrast, they played above average on defense against just about every other team. The problem with this bend-but-don’t-break style is that decent passing offenses can pick it apart if they are good enough, and when they did the Eagles had no answer.
The Eagles allowed the league’s highest completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks. By now, everyone knows that passing success is more important than rushing success because passing affords an offense the opportunity to design passing routes to gain the yards needed. And with defenders playing to take away the deep ball, methodical passing offenses were able to pick them apart in the short area and convert the key third downs to keep drives alive. Chart C shows the Eagles’ defensive performance against each team ranked by its passing success rate (a measure of how frequently a team gains meaningful yards on each pass play):
The unique combination of deep coverage and good run defense meant there was one way to beat the Eagles: consistently completing passes. Their worst defensive performance involved a beatdown by Kansas City in which the Chiefs had six long touchdown drives, averaging 9.3 plays for 75 yards on those drives. Mahomes had only six incompletions in that game. When they couldn’t stop the short passes they had to start playing tighter to the line of scrimmage, which took them right out of their comfort zone. This led to some deep passing opportunities for the most efficient passing offenses.
To beat the best teams in the NFL, you have to be able to stop them from passing on you. The Eagles could not. This weakness exacerbated the weaknesses of their offense outlined above. When opposing offenses were chewing up clock, marching down the field and scoring touchdowns, it left them with little time to implement their run game that was so successful. The bend-but-don’t break approach can work, but only if you get more pressure on the quarterback. After losing Brandon Graham for the season in Week 2, they couldn’t get the pressure they needed.
But zooming out, this was a bad team in 2020 with a new coaching staff heading into 2021. They faced a significant injury setback with Brandon Graham, whom teammates described as the “heartbeat” of the team. Still, they kept things competitive and made the playoffs. This level of improvement was about all that could be expected from the Eagles this year. They just need to improve their pass rush and stop the best quarterbacks if they want to take the next step forward.
When to bet on the Eagles: The Eagles are a prototypical “threshold” team. When they project to win both line battles, and the other team lacks a top quarterback, they can do whatever they want on offense and win on defense as well. This creates compounding benefits and means that spreads against bad teams are often not high enough.
When to fade the Eagles: On the flip side, a “threshold” team can secure a good record and blow out bad teams without actually being good enough to compete against the best teams in the NFL. If they catch a short spread against a very strong team where they are overmatched, it creates value on the favorite. But be careful with big spreads because a quarterback like Hurts is fantastic in garbage time or comeback mode and they are more live than most for the backdoor.
What to look for in the offseason: See how they continue to build around Jalen Hurts. Ensure the offensive line stays elite before confidently backing them, and keep an eye on Brandon Graham’s recovery. It will be very interesting to see where they go with their three first round picks, who could have an immediate impact.
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