Jalen Hurts has come a long way since leading the Philadelphia Eagles to an upset victory over the New Orleans Saints in his first career start 11 months ago.
The Eagles (4-6) are favorites this time against the Saints (5-4) and Hurts is thriving.
“I’ve grown, been able to build better relationships with my team, learn this city, learn everybody around here since all the changes we’ve had,” Hurts said. “As I’ve grown, I had to approach it as getting better every day. Just trying to grow as a player, as a leader, as a man.”
Hurts’ improvement over the past month could change the team’s thoughts about pursuing a franchise quarterback in the draft or through a trade after the season. He leads all quarterbacks with 186 yards rushing and is second with a 102.6 passer rating in the last three games.
“I just see him making strides in all aspects of his game,” rookie coach Nick Sirianni said. “My job here and Jalen’s job is to not focus on franchise quarterback moving forward. It’s about, ‘What can we do today to get us ready for Sunday and what can we do tomorrow to get us ready for Sunday?‘”
The Saints have lost two in a row since knocking off Tom Brady and the defending Super Bowl champion Buccaneers. They haven’t lost three straight since the first three games of the 2016 season.
Quarterback Trevor Siemian suspects one reason is the ability of coach Sean Payton, who has been the team’s head coach since 2006, to help players rebound productively from off days.
“He’s got a gift for giving the team the right message at the right time, probably just as good as any head coach I’ve been around,” Siemian said. “There’s no doubt when we get into a team meeting where our compass is going to be set as a team, and the guys feel that.”
The Saints’ defensive front has no lack of confidence in its ability to stuff the run, ranking No. 1 in the league with 72.9 yards rushing allowed per game.
But the Eagles present a bit of a different challenge. They’re third in the NFL in rushing and gouged New Orleans for 246 yards on the ground in a 24-21 victory last December. Hurts rushed for 106 of those yards, routinely breaking containment and scrambling for significant gains.
“We have some fire built up in us,” Saints defensive end Carl Granderson said. “They had a lot of rushing yards against us last year, so we’re coming and bringing everything we have this year.”
The Saints’ offense this season has borne little resemblance to the prolific Payton-designed attacks that led the NFL in passing a half dozen times while Drew Brees was the quarterback. New Orleans ranks second to last in passing, averaging 202.2 yards per game through the air. It hasn’t helped that top receiver Michael Thomas is missing this season because of complications related to his offseason ankle surgery.
But last week offered a sign of improvement. Siemian threw for 298 yards and Taysom Hill passed for an additional 11 yards, giving the Saints their most yards passing in a game this season.
“We’ve hurt ourselves the most, where we’re not catching the ball,” receiver Marquez Callaway said. “Everyone in the receiver room knows what we’re capable of. We just have to go out and play and put it on film. That’s the biggest thing.”
Miles Sanders is set to return after missing three games with an ankle injury, but Philadelphia had excellent success on the ground with backups Jordan Howard and Boston Scott in his absence. Sanders has averaged 4.8 yards per carry this season and 4.9 in his three-year career. Howard and Scott each are averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
“I know how good of a player that Miles Sanders is, and looking forward to getting him back in there and getting him carries,” Sirianni said. “If Miles is healthy and ready to go, he’s our starter. But that doesn’t mean that every situation equals the same thing, right? Because every situation, you have to be able to adjust and you have to be able to do things, and every situation does have different circumstances and different thought processes behind it.”