December 13, 2021   5 MINUTE READ

Passing Chance

With Improved Pass Game, Birds Can Make Playoffs

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The mere thought would’ve been considered absurd six weeks ago, but a surprising midseason surge has the Eagles in playoff contention coming off their bye week with four games left on the slate.

But in order for the stars are to align the Eagles need to stave off the Giants, Cowboys  and Washington – twice – for a bid to return to the postseason.

With three of the four divisional matchups to be played in front of their home crowd, and with the team seemingly beginning to hit its stride, the Eagles could very well have the inside track in a crowded NFC playoff picture.

Let’s take a look at three keys to securing a postseason berth:

Nick Sirianni, Jalen Hurts

Eagles HC Nick Sirianni and QB Jalen Hurts need to improve the pass game

Revitalize the passing game

Sure, the newfound running game proved to be the principal component in unlocking the Eagles’ second-half turnaround. The physical element also translates favorably in the potentially cold and blustery conditions that await.

However, the turbulent passing game remains a glaring sore spot and must improve for the Eagles to become viable contenders.

Jalen Hurts, who presumptively returns from his ankle injury next week against Washington, has been a mixed bag as a passer. The second-year quarterback currently ranks 22nd in passing yards (2,435), and 27th in passer rating (83.9) and 28th in completion percentage (60.1).

Hurts is averaging just 202.9 passing yards per game — 28th in the NFL — slotted just above the Jets’ Zach Wilson. His first-half struggles highlighted accuracy and mechanical issues, impatience, and poor field vision.

On the flip side, Hurts has proven to be a dynamic weapon as a runner, accumulating the 12th-most rushing yards in the NFL (695). He’s made incremental improvements in his ball placement since the first few weeks, along with his decision-making and pocket presence, though you’d like to see measurable consistency week-to-week.

The lack of impactful secondary options to complement tight end Dallas Goedert and wide receiver DeVonta Smith has also hampered both the aerial attack and Hurts’ development.

For perspective, wide receivers Quez Watkins and Jalen Reagor have combined for just 14 receptions for 165 yards on 28 targets over the past four games. Even adequate defenses will devise a game plan to minimize the impact of Goedert and Smith, forcing an underwhelming supporting cast to win its matchups.

Whether it’s running back Kenny Gainwell, wide receiver Greg Ward, or tight end Tyree Jackson, it’s become painfully evident that another receiving option needs to emerge during the final stretch to support a floundering passing game.

Pressure the QB

The Eagles have tons of money allocated to a defensive line that was regarded among the NFL’s elite entering the season. But aside from defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who leads the Eagles with 7.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits, the pressures and sacks have been sporadic, allowing quarterbacks to pick apart the short-to-intermediate levels of the field with ease for much of the season.

Defensive end Josh Sweat, signed to a three-year, $40 million contract extension earlier this season, is second on the Eagles in the sack department (5.0) and quarterback hits (11). The fourth-year edge rusher is undoubtedly the team’s most pure pass-rusher and has already achieved a career-high in snaps (549) through 13 games but has developed a tendency of disappearing for stretches.

Veterans Fletcher Cox and Derek Barnett, who have combined for 1,216 snaps this season, have just three sacks and 17 quarterback hits between them.

Currently, the Eagles are tied for 27th in sacks (21).

Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has shown a willingness to scrap his passive philosophy and implement blitzes at a higher frequency in some spots, though he’s hasn’t  fully commited.

With the front four hardly getting home with regularity, Gannon will have to be creative in how he opts to manufacture pressure against quarterbacks Taylor Heineke, Daniel Jones, and Dak Prescott – or continue to risk playing soft and adopting a death-by-thousand-cuts approach.

Keep foot on the gas

Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni has exhibited growth for a first-year head coach. However, one gripe is that he tends to call a conservative game after the Eagles establish a lead and he loses his sense of urgency.

In those instances, his offense often fails to generate any semblance of cohesion and gifts the opposition too many opportunities to come back.

The most recent example was last Sunday, after the Eagles reeled off three first-half touchdowns and went into halftime with a 24-18 lead, only to manage nine second-half points on three field goals.

Though it’s never advised, you can survive complacency against a team like the Jets. But the Eagles have little margin for error with what’s at stake.

Shifting into cruise control at any point over the next four games could prove to be the difference between clinching or ending the season early.

– Andrew DiCecco (@ADiCeccoNFL) is a Staff Reporter/Content Producer for InsideTheBirds.com.

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