Can the Dallas Cowboys stop Jalen Hurts from running?

(Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images) /

Is Dak Prescott healthy enough to start on Sunday? What will the Dallas Cowboys starting offensive line look like? Will Micah Parson be playing on the line or off-ball? Are the Eagles for real? Does Cooper Rush have a chance of beating them?

These are the types of questions floating around Cowboys Nation this week. But for as relevant as these questions are, there’s one question that’s leading the charge of curiosity and concern in my mind: Can the Dallas Cowboys defense contain Jalen Hurts?

Jalen Hurts is winning with his legs so if the Dallas Cowboys want to stop the Eagles offense, they have to bottle up their QB.

Jalen Hurts is having a fantastic season. He’s one of the most efficient QBs in the game, he’s surrounded by elite talent, he’s the leader of an undefeated team, and he’s in the MVP conversation. Despite all of this, he’s still largely the same player he always was, he’s just being used better.

Shots fired? Of course not, it’s just a testament to the Eagles leadership and how if you surround a good player with a great team and solid strategy, fortune ensues. Jalen Hurts hasn’t suddenly learned how to be a pocket passer or how to methodically decipher coverage and go through his progressions. He’s largely the same guy he always was: A guy who wants to throw to his first read, use run-pass options (RPO) as much as possible, and run the ball himself on zone-reads a ridiculous amount.

And it’s working out brilliantly.

At over 13 carries per game, Hurts in on track to blow Lamar Jackson’s highest usage season out of the water.

It’s hard to believe but five games in, Hurts has only thrown four touchdowns all season. He’s winning by running the ball. As a runner, he has six touchdowns this season, double-digit carries in all but one game (where he had nine), and over 50 yards in three of five games.

Want more perspective?

At over 13 carries per game, Hurts in on track to blow Lamar Jackson’s highest usage season out of the water. And after logging a sub-50 QBR in his first two seasons, the Eagles simplified things for Hurts. Instead of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, the Eagles opted for a short passing game that utilizes RPOs, screens, and YAC. His intended air yards per pass attempt (IAY/PA) are by far a career low and he’s never looked better because of it.

The Eagles screen game has been elite. A big reason why the Eagles air yards have dropped off so much this season is because screens have replaced a lot of downfield passing. Not only are they easier throws to make, but their YAC has made up for their short air time.

RPOs and Read-Options (zone-reads)

The Eagles brand of football relies on truckloads of RPO and read option. To understand the difference between the two, be sure to check out Understanding RPO, Play-action, and Read option football.

RPO’s are extremely common in the college ranks but remain underutilized in the NFL. The reason being, rule differences make things much more difficult for offensive linemen. They are far more likely to draw flags for being illegal players downfield in the NFL, so plays must develop quickly (again, check out my article above for a full explanation).

RPOs ask Hurts to make a single read of a conflict defender (often an off-ball LB but can be a box safety) and respond accordingly. If the defender plays the run, Hurts will throw. If the defender stays back and plays the pass, Hurts will hand off.

What the Eagles do differently than many other RPO teams is that they layer in a heavy dose of read-option/zone-read. Zone-reads give Hurts the opportunity to be a runner. He can read an unblocked DE and decide what to do with the ball. If the DE crashes on the handoff, Hurts can keep the ball and run it himself. If the DE freezes and stays on Hurts, then he hands it off to the RB.

Hurts has even added an “option” to the zone-read that essentially can give him a third option (explained). It would allow him to pitch or keep himself after he’s already determined he’s not handing off. Confusing? Yes, especially since people flippantly use the terminology interchangeably. Every week we’re forced to endure professional commentators call zone-reads, RPOs when there’s not a pass option involved at all. It’s painful.

The keys for the Dallas Cowboys are to shut down both the RPO and zone-read/read-option. And that task largely falls on the Dallas Cowboys linebackers (Leighton Vander Esch and Anthony Barr) for RPOs and defensive ends (DeMarcus Lawrence, Micah Parsons, and Dorance Armstrong) for the zone-reads. They are the players Hurts is reading and it’s up to them to make things as difficult as possible.

If they can, at the very least, contain Hurts as a runner on those many zone-reads, the Cowboys will be in solid shape. But if they let Hurts gash them on zone-read runs, they’ll be susceptible to big plays on RPOs. Philly wants to use the Dallas Cowboys defense’s aggressiveness against them, and Dan Quinn knows it.

Must Read. 5 Biggest Breakout Players in 2022. light

Next. The Cowboys have found a new identity. dark

The Eagles offense is thriving because Jalen Hurts wins with his feet. For the Dallas Cowboys it all starts with stopping Hurts’ runs.