The 49ers may be facing a rebuilding Eagles squad in Week 2, but quarterback Jalen Hurts could make things awfully challenging on Sunday.
You don’t have to be a film guru or Xs and Os expert to understand one of the main issues the San Francisco 49ers defense has faced in recent years: mobile quarterbacks.
It’s not just quarterbacks who run. Rather the signal-callers who extend plays by evading pressure and getting outside the pocket, waiting for the defensive coverage to break down in order to exploit an opportunity.
For years, the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson has done this to the Niners. More recently, it’s been the likes of the Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray. San Francisco has even had to deal with other star QBs like the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen.
OK, Hurts is nowhere near the level of the other signal-callers mentioned here. Certainly not yet at least. But Philly’s lopsided 32-6 Week 1 win over the Atlanta Falcons revealed a number of key elements why Hurts could present problems for first-year San Francisco defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans and Co. on Sunday.
Jalen Hurts doesn’t have the arm but has the legs
The basic stat lines from Hurts’ performance last Sunday reveals a few things.
The simple line, he went 27-of-35 for 264 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions, and he also rushed seven times for 62 yards and averaged 8.9 yards per scramble.
Diving deeper, the high volume of passes that still didn’t get him close to 300 yards suggests he’s a short-area passer, which proves to be the case, according to Next Gen Stats’ passing chart for Hurts in Week 1:
Indeed, his intended-air-yards metric was a league-low 3.7, which suggests offensive coordinator Shane Steichen is intentionally calling for short, high-percentage passes that’ll include screens, many of which could easily go to running back Miles Sanders, and shots out towards the flat.
Hurts’ time-to-throw average in Week 1 was 2.86 seconds, which is notably high… for a true pocket passer.
But for someone with mobility, merely getting out of the pocket can extend that time by a lot. The 49ers are about to find that out.
49ers may have difficulty defending Jalen Hurts
The above info might be a bit too advanced for the novice football fan. So a little bit of Football 101 here.
The easiest way to beat a quarterback is to apply pressure. Sack him. Get him off rhythm. Force him to make a throw sooner than he’d like.
The Niners did this well in their Week 1 victory over the Detroit Lions, as both edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford registered one sack apiece and combined for four quarterback hits on the Lions’ Jared Goff.
But as Bosa and Ford already know, sacking a more mobile quarterback like Hurts presents a tougher challenge. He’s fast and evasive. And with both Bosa and Ford having the occasional tendency of overpursuing an opposing quarterback, particularly a mobile one, there are likely to be some occasions where Hurts simply avoids the pressure by escaping it.
The matter won’t be aided by San Francisco losing one of its starting linebackers, Dre Greenlaw, to a groin injury for the next month-plus. Greenlaw, a possible spy on Hurts, will force San Francisco to rely more on untested depth, which might have even more issues trying to contain Hurts.
How 49ers deal with the Jalen Hurts challenge
So far, much of this has painted Hurts out to be an otherworldly quarterback incapable of being defeated.
Hurts surely has his flaws, including a questionable arm that won’t take advantage of deep shots down the field too often. In that regard, the 49ers should be able to cheat their defensive backs up a bit without having to worry too much about being beat deep.
Yet the crux of the Niners’ defensive game plan should be a relatively simple one: staying on assignment and not missing tackles. Hurts and the Eagles are likely to “dink and dunk” San Francisco to death on Sunday. In that regard, quick tackling and proper coverage assignments may actually do more than a ferocious, overaggressive pass rush.
Scroll back up to the passing chart and note all those completions behind the line of scrimmage. Turn one or two of those per drive into no gain, a loss or even a mere 1- or 2-yard gain, and Hurts isn’t equipped to face a 3rd-and-long.
At least not with continued success.
That’ll be the key for the 49ers this Sunday.