Eagles’ Jalen Hurts offers dynamic test for Vikings’ remade run defense

Nose tackle Harrison Phillips appeared to earn his three-year, $19.5 million contract in the second quarter of his first Vikings game against the Packers. He forced his way between Packers center Josh Meyers and left guard Jon Runyan, stonewalling any progress from running back AJ Dillon on fourth and goal at the 1.

“I don’t know if anyone is talking about [Jonathan] Bullard,” Phillips said. “But he’s the one who made that play happen.”

Neither Phillips nor Jonathan Bullard, the ex-Bears journeyman, were here when the Vikings defense ranked 29th against the run last year, or 21st the year before that. The newcomers helped show this group can be different on the goal-line stand, which was the closest Green Bay would come to tying the game in the Vikings’ 23-7 win.

Bullard (#93) pressed Packers right guard Jake Hanson into the backfield, forcing Dillon (#28) to cut upfield and into Phillips (#97).

“That’s 1 yard, right?” Bullard said. “You got to get off the ball and try not to let him get 1 yard. He can’t even fall forward and get 1 yard. It’s just my responsibility to hold up in there, try to get a little knock back and keep them out.”

Run defense becomes an every-down concern Monday night in Philadelphia, where Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts has run for more yards than any passer since the start of the 2021 season. Through designed runs and improvised scrambles, Hurts leads an Eagles rushing attack that is potent again after leading the league in yardage last season.

“He’s a guy that, preparing for a team like this, it keeps you up at night,” Vikings cornerback Patrick Peterson said. “You have to account for that extra element.”

‘Only a few of them’

Hurts leads all quarterbacks in rushing after one week with 90 yards, taking 17 of the Eagles’ league-high 39 carries in their season-opening win over the Lions. He’s the decision maker for Philadelphia’s varied option game, both run-pass options and run options, under head coach Nick Sirianni.

The Eagles vary at running back, where Miles Sanders, Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell each had a rushing touchdown against the Lions. The constant is Hurts, who led Philadelphia in rushing attempts for the eighth time in his 20th start last week. The Eagles’ willingness to lean into Hurts’ mobility makes him dangerous.

“A guy that can actually tuck the ball and run and is schemed to do that, there’s only a few of them,” linebacker Jordan Hicks said. “Between him, Lamar [Jackson]you got Kyler [Murray]. Ultimately, that position means more than any other position on the field and you don’t want to constantly take that beating, so. You know it’s something they take pride in and something we’ve got to stop.”

The Vikings’ perimeter defenders will often be put into conflict by the Eagles’ run and pass options, which lean on Hurts deciding whether to hand off or run (or throw or run) based on how a certain defender or group of defenders reacts to the beginning of the play.

The Lions saw mixed success against Hurts, corralling him on a 2-yard run in the fourth quarter because of sure tackling, which will be “at a premium” this week for the Vikings, said coordinator Ed Donatell. When Lions edge Charles Harris (#53) crashed inside on the option handoff, Hurts ran the keeper to the perimeter and was taken down by safety JuJu Hughes (#33).

“There’s times you could tell by the scheme that they’re running,” head coach Kevin O’Connell said, “they’re blocking up everybody but the corner and leaving the corner for the quarterback, which is pretty rare for a guy to then be able to make that guy miss, go get the first down and line up and do it again.”

Corralling Hurts

Receiver Trishton Jackson ran around the practice fields at TCO Performance Center this week wearing a mock No. 1 jersey and giving the Vikings defense scout-team looks as Hurts.

Jackson, the 6-foot-1, 197-pound receiver, offered Vikings defenders a shiftier ball carrier to prepare for a quarterback unafraid to take off downfield. More than half of Hurts’ runs against the Lions were scrambles; the 6-foot-1-inch, 222-pound quarterback ran for first downs on third-and-15 and third-and-6 plays. Coverage can’t get distracted because Hurts can escape the pocket and throw, too.

“That’s where the plastering to your coverage becomes a big part when he does get out of the pocket,” Peterson said, “because you don’t want to make a broken-down play turn into a touchdown.”

The Vikings’ zone-heavy schemes under Donatell will help defenders keep “all eyes” on Hurts, according to Hicks, while the onus first falls on the initial pass rush to corral him. The Vikings may also assign a “spy,” or defensive lineman or linebacker to mirror Hurts at the line of scrimmage.

“It takes a combination,” Donatell said. “If you do any one thing all the time, they will catch on it. But we’ll have to be smart with our rush lanes and our attack and we’ll have a variety of ways to rush him

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