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Spadaro: Inside the Jalen Hurts-A.J. Brown connection as Eagles rise to 7-0

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro
Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro

This was something quarterback Jalen Hurts talked about during the week, that returning from the 2022 bye meant taking the collective Eagles season to a new, higher, more focused level. To rise, he said. That is the only direction to take. On Sunday, as the Eagles returned to action at Lincoln Financial Field, Hurts did just that, passing for a career-high four touchdowns as Philadelphia blasted cross-state rival Pittsburgh 35-13 to reach the 7-0 mark for only the second time in franchise history.

Three of the touchdown throws went to wide receiver A.J. Brown, who became the first player in the NFL to record three touchdown receptions of 25-plus yards in the first half of a game in 18 seasons. All four of Hurts' scoring throws were for 25-plus yards as he became the first Eagles with that kind of statistical line since, get this, 1969 when Norm Snead did it against the Steelers.

Remember the narrative as the team won its first six outings about playing "a 60-minute game"? The Eagles came out of the gates on Sunday with urgency and played with explosiveness and precision and, really, had their way with Pittsburgh.

"It shows how dominant we can be because most teams come off a bye and lose," said safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who had a monster day with another interception (he has three straight games with an interception and has four total), one of the team's six quarterback sacks and eight total tackles. "To come off of a bye and get a win, I am just trying to tell the guys that this is how we go from good to great. A lot of guys get complacent like Haason (Reddick) said in a meeting one day, 'You cannot get complacent, but (you can get) damn good.' So, we have to continue to go out and play good football."

There was a lot to love in this game as the offense scored in every quarter, had terrific balance (Hurts passed for 285, Gardner Minshew had 23 more yards) with 308 passing yards and 111 rushing yards, and the defense sacked quarterback Kenny Pickett six times and took the football away twice. But what took center stage was the performance from Hurts and the continued chemistry he and Brown have developed.

When the Eagles traded for Brown on the first night of the 2022 NFL Draft, the hope was that the two great friends would bond instantly on and off the field. That surely has happened as Brown now has 39 receptions for 659 yards and five scores as the team won its first seven games in a season for the first time since 2004.

"I think we just want to be great. This is somebody that I call a friend," Brown said after catching six passes for 156 yards and the three scores. "He knows what I want to accomplish and I know what he wants to accomplish. When you're playing for somebody that you love, who you call family, it's a different meaning behind it. And I know I can't let him down. We're just having fun and playing for one another. I'm pretty sure he knows that I've got his back and I know he's got mine, too. I think that's exactly what this is."

The touchdown passes were works of art, for a variety of reasons.

TD PASS 1: Brown goes up and gets it in traffic

On a second-and-10 throw from the Pittsburgh 39-yard line, Hurts took a snap in the shotgun and threw down the right side for Brown, bracketed in coverage between safeties Terrell Edmunds and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Brown made a great adjustment with the ball in flight, knifing between the two defensive backs to make a sensational catch in the end zone as the Eagles took a 7-0 lead.

"Maybe that comes from my baseball past a little bit," Brown said, laughing in the locker room after the game. "I went up and got it. Just trying to make a play. I knew Minkah was right there. I didn't want to give him a chance to bring it up."

TD PASS 2: Hurts to Brown again, over outside shoulder

Lining up in single coverage on the right side of the formation against cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, Brown offered just enough room for Hurts to throw a perfect pass over his outside shoulder and the ball was right there for Brown to make the catch and give the Eagles a 14-7 lead. All of the practice throws and the timing the two worked on paid off on that play.

"Great throw. Perfect throw. It was right there for me," Brown said. "Jalen put it right there. It was easy for me. He did the hard part."

TD PASS 3: Against double team, Brown wins for his third score

Again lined up against Witherspoon on the right side, Brown created some space after a Hurts pump fake and Hurts dropped in a perfect pass just out of Witherspoon's reach and held on as Fitzpatrick arrived late with a hit. Brown pointed at both players after the score as he beat the double coverage with help from the perfect toss.

"Again, it was right there. He put it on the spot for me," Brown said. "All I had to do was catch it."

TD PASS 4: Hurts to Pascal and the art of deception

At 21-10 at halftime, the Eagles wasted little time asserting themselves to open the second half. Taking the opening kickoff at the 25-yard line, the Eagles moved quickly down the field after a Hurts incomplete pass deep downfield intended for Brown. Miles Sanders (9 carries, 71 yards) gashed the middle of the Pittsburgh defense for 21 yards to the 46. Hurts completed a 10-yard pass to DeVonta Smith. Then Sanders went off the left side for another 10 yards.

On first-and-10 from the Pittsburgh 34, the Eagles ran a perfect play. Tight end Dallas Goedert set up down the left side for a play that appeared to be a screen pass, but that's what it was – a beautiful piece of deception. Pittsburgh bit on the Goedert route and instead Hurts went over the top to wide receiver Zach Pascal, who caught the pass at the Steelers' 15-yard line and then eluded a diving Fitzpatrick to score his first Eagles touchdown.

"Usually when I'm in the game teams think I'm blocking in the run game or for a screen," Pascal said. "They definitely were expecting that and Jalen made a great throw. Once I saw that end zone, there was no way I was going to be tackled short or I would have heard it from the guys."

It was a day when the Eagles had their way with the Steelers and rested as many players as they could in the fourth quarter as they started preparations for the Houston Texans on Thursday night. It's a short week and a quick turnaround, so the team had a definite sense of purpose after the game.

"We have to be ready to go," said defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who had a huge game with eight total tackles, two quarterback sacks, a forced fumble, and a tackle for loss against his former team. "There isn't any time to celebrate. We're glad we're 7-0, but there is a whole lot more to accomplish with this team."

And with that, it's on to Houston and Thursday night and another opportunity to show a national television audience what this team is all about.

Check out the action as the Eagles host the Steelers in a battle for Pennsylvania bragging rights at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles have never lost at home to the Steelers in the Super Bowl era. Will the streak continue?

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