By Max Harper

The Eagles force defenses to play 11-on-11.

They let Jalen Hurts read defenders and choose to run, hand off or pass.

It’s sounds simple:


But if Hurts weren’t so good at it, it would be an academic argument and not a formula for beating the Niners tomorrow to earn a trip to the Super Bowl.

“The way I play the game has always taken over, regardless of how the coach calls the game or what his background is,” Hurts said this week.

He pointed out that he has grown a lot this season because this is the first time he has had the same play caller in consecutive seasons since his father, Averion, coached him at Channelview High in Houston.

“That has allowed [offensive coordinator Shane Steichen and I] to build a relationship with one another and kind of learn the game [together] and ultimately be on the same page,” Hurts added. “We’re kind of clicking on all cylinders.”

The Eagles’ offense will face its toughest test of the season Sunday in the NFC championship game. The San Francisco 49ers are arguably the NFL’s best defense, with talent at every level and a star coordinator, DeMeco Ryans. The 49ers excel against the run, and if they can slow the Eagles on the ground Sunday, Hurts may have to lead with his arm.

In coverage, elite linebackers Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw could pose problems for Hurts. They often use vision technique, meaning they read the quarterback and react, which could put pressure on Hurts to manipulate defenders and make quick decisions. If the linebackers know where Hurts is going, they can make plays. In the divisional round, Warner went viral for sticking with Dallas wideout CeeDee Lamb all the way up the seam.

This week, Steichen re-watched Philadelphia’s loss to San Francisco in 2021. He was looking for hints at how the 49ers might attack. But that was just the second game of the Sirianni era, long before the offensive adaptation, so the tape seemed to mostly highlight the progress of his unit.

“We’ve grown as a team,” Steichen said, adding, “[I was] looking at little things, and I’m like: ‘Oh, shoot. We’ve done that a lot better this year.’ ”

Several weeks after that game, Sirianni flipped the offensive approach to run-first and gave the play-calling duties to Steichen. Steichen called a heavy dose of read options and downhill handoffs, and Hurts and the running backs bulldozed through even the NFL’s best run defenses. The Eagles became the first team to rush for at least 175 yards in seven consecutive games since the 1985 Chicago Bears. They won seven of their last 10 games to nab a playoff spot.

But underneath the success was a deeply flawed passing attack. The unit had limited playmakers other than rookie wide receiver DeVonta Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert, and Hurts struggled to throw from the pocket. Steichen seemed hesitant to rely on drop-back passes, often preferring rollouts to capitalize on Hurts’s athleticism and cut the field in half.

In the first round of the playoffs, Tampa Bay exposed Philadelphia by forcing Hurts to throw and built a 31-0 lead. Critics argued the offense was gimmicky and unsustainable. The future of the 2020 second-round pick — seen first as a developmental backup to franchise quarterback Carson Wentz, then as a bridge between Wentz and the next era — still seemed murky.

From the archives: How Jalen Hurts keeps answering critics

Despite some skepticism, Eagles brass told reporters in the offseason that Hurts had showed them enough to merit building around him.

“No one knows where [he’s] going to end up,” owner Jeffrey Lurie said in March. “But I think what you do know is you have a guy that is incredibly dedicated, [an] excellent leader of men. Players around him gravitate to him. He will do anything and everything to get better and work on every weakness he has to try to maximize every strength he has. And that’s why we’re committed to Jalen.”

During the offseason, Hurts honed his mechanics in Southern California with trainer Adam Dedeaux of 3DQB, and General Manager Howie Roseman fortified a roster to complement his young quarterback. Roseman solidified the trenches in the draft, acquired talented defenders and traded for star wide receiver A.J. Brown, a close friend of Hurts. In the preseason, Hurts showed progress from the pocket, which helped open up the field.

Early in the season, defensive coordinators tested Hurts with tough game plans. In Week 1, Detroit sent waves of blitzes, trying to force bad decisions, and Hurts won with athleticism. In Week 2, Minnesota sat back in soft zone coverage, challenging Hurts’s patience and vision and daring him to win from the pocket. Hurts filleted the Vikings; against two-high safety coverages, he completed 13 of 14 attempts for 186 yards and a touchdown, according to Sports Info Solutions.

“The book on him was keep him in the pocket, play zone defense,” ESPN analyst Dominique Foxworth said afterward. “That’s exactly what the Vikings did all game, and he had quite possibly the best game I’ve ever seen him play.”

Over the next two months, the Eagles steamrolled opponents by running and passing. Deep shots against Washington, zone read against Jacksonville, yards after the catch against Arizona. It helped to have perhaps the best supporting cast in the NFL — an elite offensive line, very good skill players, a stout defense, an analytical coach — but Hurts’s growth also elevated passing concepts.

Jalen Hurts and the Eagles are back in midseason form. Opponents, beware.

Several players, including Goedert, said they saw kernels of this success even during the team’s 2-5 stretch to open the 2021 season. Goedert said the core of the offense hadn’t changed but coaches had started emphasizing different parts of it. The more Hurts progressed, the more effective he made RPOs, which — even if they weren’t the play call — were built into many zone-blocking plays as a sort of safety valve.

“Everybody wants immediate success, and I get it. That’s part of this league,” Sirianni said Wednesday, reflecting on the offensive evolution. “But it sometimes takes time to figure out exactly who you are as a football team and what you’re good at, what you need to continue on with and what you need to table off to the side.”

In Week 10, Washington upset Philadelphia, dashing its perfect season, by keeping Hurts and the Eagles’ offense mostly off the field. The Eagles bounced back, and two weeks later they started a stretch in which they scored 40, 35 and 48 points. Wide receiver Quez Watkins attributed the Eagles’ resilience to the adaptability of their offense, pointing out they have been able to run and pass efficiently out of nearly any formation and personnel grouping.

“He’s been dialing it up, honestly,” Watkins said of Steichen. “He’s doing a great job of putting guys in position to be successful.”

But in Week 15, the risk inherent to the Eagles’ approach came to bear. Hurts scrambled, was tackled onto his throwing shoulder and sprained his sternoclavicular joint. In the next two games, both losses, backup Gardner Minshew II struggled. Hurts returned, clearly not himself, to beat the New York Giants in the regular season finale. He had more time to heal during the first-round bye, and Wednesday he said he was fine.

Despite the growth of his offense and his quarterback over the past year, Sirianni said the coaching staff hasn’t deviated from the process that got the team here. During the off week, coaches met to reevaluate their approach. Sirianni said he learned some parts of the offense were performing better than he had realized while others weren’t working — lessons he will take into the game Sunday.

“This is a constant [evolution],” he said. “If you’re not adapting and evolving, you’re going to get passed up.”

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