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New Orleans Saints defense angles to lessen Hurts from Eagles rushing attack

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts ran for 106 yards in victory over Saints in '20

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) in action during the NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Philadelphia

In 69 of its last 70 games including playoffs – with an NFL-record 55 straight tucked inside – the New Orleans Saints' defense did not allow a 100-yard rusher.

The 56th of those 70 games is the outlier: Last season, the Philadelphia Eagles ran for 246 yards and produced two 100-yard rushers – running back Miles Sanders gained 115 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries, and quarterback Jalen Hurts, in his first NFL start, ran for 106 yards on 18 carries.

New Orleans (5-4) doesn't need any reminders but just in case it did, the Saints will play Philadelphia (4-6) on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field less than a year after the Eagles ran wild in a 24-21 Philadelphia victory. And if anything, the Eagles are an even more potent running team than they were last season, when Hurts was a rookie.

This year, the Eagles run for 144.3 yards per game, third most in the NFL. But in the last three games, Philadelphia has gained 208.7 yards per game rushing, tops in the league by 52 yards per game, and in the last three games, the Eagles have run on 68.3 percent of their offensive plays; they're at 48 percent this season, 10 percent higher than last year.

The counter is that the Saints, as they have for the overwhelming majority of 69 of their last 70 games, again present an outstanding run defense.

New Orleans allows 72.9 rushing yards (roughly 20 per game less than last season), has given up 57 per game in the last three and allows 3.1 yards per attempt.

Still, Hurts helps the Eagles present a different kind of obstacle for New Orleans, which has faced several mobile quarterbacks, but few like Hurts. This season, he has completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 2,159 yards and 13 touchdowns, with five interceptions, and has run 97 times for 547 yards and five touchdowns.

"As shifty as he is, the speed that he has, he's probably as close to Mike Vick with that elusive speed, that dead-leg that he has, his ability to scramble and extend his plays, as you're going to see," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "I wouldn't call him typical in the least bit. For a D-lineman, it's something that you hate to see because you're not really allowed to rush, now it's all about containing the quarterback."

Saints Coach Sean Payton said Hurts presents some of the same issues as do running backs.

"And he throws the ball well down the field," Payton said. "I think he's playing exceptionally well.

"Their offense is unique relative to the run design. It's been real productive – I think probably the last three or four or five weeks, they've been running it as well as anyone. So your eye discipline, your scheme and understanding how you want to defend some of the zone read (is critical).

"And then the play action that comes off of it – they've done a good job with explosive plays. Obviously, they've added some key weapons in the offseason, all the receivers run well. So defensively, the discipline within the framework of what they're doing unique to anything in the last six weeks, eight weeks, a completely different run design."

Hurts is Philadelphia's leading rusher. Four Eagles have run for at least 205 yards, and each of them averages at least 4.8 yards per carry.

"Yeah, any time we know we play a quarterback that's capable of running the ball, there's little things we have to adjust," linebacker Pete Werner said. "Always having a player to key on the quarterback and that aspect (of the gameplan). We haven't seen much quarterback run aspect other than scrambles in the passing game, so we'll look into that.

"We know Hurts does a good job when he has the ball in his hands, and know they're well-respected in the run game. They have one of the top run offenses in the NFL, so we're happy to match up with this type of opponent. We just have to keep executing and eliminate the quarterback run."

Werner said that while monitoring Hurts is important, overemphasizing Hurts' presence also could be detrimental.

"It is all about numbers," he said. "There are numbers on offense that they try to create matchups with against the defense. Sometimes the offense has better numbers against the defense, so we just have to do well with those matchups.

"If we have heavy emphasis on the quarterback runs, then that might open up spaces for teams to create a high emphasis for more runs with the running backs. If we continue to do our job and have our eyes and techniques locked down, I do not think a good running quarterback should be an issue for us.

"You do see with the good quarterback runners, things do open up for the running game because there's so much emphasis put on the quarterback."

This quarterback, Payton said, has earned the attention.

"Obviously, (with a less mobile quarterback) you're dealing with the advantage that you initially have when the quarterback isn't a runner," Payton said. "Once that quarterback is a featured runner, it changes from a defensive standpoint what some of your normal fits (might be) and how you want to play certain plays. It's different. It's option football to some degree, and that requires a different discipline."

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