The Eagles now have a deep passing game, and the NFL should be afraid

Through the first seven weeks of the 2022 NFL season, the Philadelphia Eagles stood alone as the league’s only undefeated team. They did so with one of the NFL’s best run games, a defense has drastically improved in 2022, and the occasional smart throw from third-year quarterback Jalen Hurts. When Hurts was throwing the ball through Week 7, he wasn’t often doing it to create explosive plays. That was okay, because the offense run by head coach Nick Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen was creating explosive plays in the run game, especially out of 11 personnel — one running back, one tight end, and three receivers.

Per Pro Football Focus, quarterback Jalen Hurts had attempted just 13 passes of 20 or more air yards through Week 7, completing six of those passes for 256 yards and a touchdown. Those 13 deep attempts ranked 30th in the NFL, right down with guys like Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. Hurts’ six deep completions ranked 24th, between Baker Mayfield and Kirk Cousins.

So, the Eagles knew their paradigm: Create body blow after body blow for a strong start to the season. That said, at some point, Hurts was going to have to cut loose. Not only to keep his team on a Super Bowl track, but to help Hurts establish himself as the team’s total franchise quarterback. No such quarterback needs to be hidden by the system around him. In addition, there was the need to validate on the field the first-round pick given to the Tennessee Titans for receiver A.J. Brown this offseason. Brown certainly had the skill set to take deep passes to the house.

Eventually, something had to give.

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY)

In Philly’s 35-13 win that moved the Eagles to 7-0 on the season, Hurts was an entirely different quarterback. He completed three passes of 20 or more air yards — and all three were touchdown passes to A.J. Brown — in the first half. It wasn’t as if the Steelers presented a specifically favorable defense for this. Per Sports Info Solutions, Pittsburgh had allowed 10 completions on 25 attempts of 20 or more air yards for 315 yards, 272 air yards, three touchdowns two interceptions, and an opponent quarterback rating of 91.2.

This wasn’t about exposing the Steelers; this was about the Eagles having the confidence in Hurts to break him out of his mistake-proof paradigm, and letting him eat. Hurts responded by lining up to the buffet, and gearing up with a plate that was bending at both sides from the weight.

A.J. Brown was uncoverable.

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

The carnage began with 9:23 left in the first quarter. The Eagles ran a deep crosser to the right side out of a stack formation with DeVonta Smith outside, and Brown inside. The two receivers did well to slow-play the separation element of the crosser, but as the routes develop, you can see that Hurts also had a deep throw open to Smith as Smith cut inside. No dice, as Hurts knew that Brown was open, even in double coverage. The personnel also worked in the Eagles’ favor, as they were playing a five-man front with two linebackers. Pittsburgh was gearing up for Philly’s run game on second-and-10, and why wouldn’t they?

Because Hurts was about to burn safeties Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick with this deep arrow against Cover-1.

The final touchdown to Brown came with 6:20 left in the first half. This time, the Steelers were in Cover-6 — but everything fell apart when the Eagles lined up in trips right, and Brown ran the same kind of slow-play go route against Witherspoon. Inside slot receiver Quez Watkins ran a screen, DeVonta Smith ran a deep over, and Brown just grown-manned Witherspoon. Fitzpatrick was watching Smith’s over, so he couldn’t help with Brown, and that was that.

A.J. Brown isn't the only option.

(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

By the way, Hurts’ fourth touchdown of the day came with 12:53 left in the third quarter, and this time, Zach Pascal was the target. The throw was 19 air yards, so Hurts just missed all four of his passing touchdowns on this day going 20 or more air yards. Again, not had for a guy who had completed just six deep passes of any kind through the first seven weeks. Pascal and tight end Dallas Goedert crossed Pittsburgh’s defense up at the line of scrimmage, Edmunds came down to Goedert when somebody should have covered Pascal, and all Fitzpatrick could do (once again) was to watch things develop in horror as he tried to get to the ball as quickly as he could.

This isn't going away.

(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)

The Eagles did this all the right way. They established the run in every way possible, and didn’t ask Hurts to do too much before he was ready. They also went out and got a true No. 1 force multiplier receiver in Brown, and worked him into the system.

Now, it’s breakout time. Now, the Eagles can cat-and-mouse you any way they want. You still have to watch out for the power runs out of passing personnel, and the Steelers were certainly doing that with their single-high coverage and heavy fronts. But the fact that Hurts will now attack those looks with explosive passing plays — and to multiple receivers — means that no matter what you do on defense, you’re going to be wrong more often than not.

Which is the idea behind every truly great offense.

Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles now have a deep passing game. And it’s appropriate that they really unleashed it the day before Halloween. Because the rest of the NFL should be very, very afraid.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire