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Winning from pocket is litmus test for every NFL QB

It struck me watching Lamar Jackson drive Cleveland's defense crazy in the Monday Night Football thriller that the Eagles have that similar skill set starting this week in Arizona when Jalen Hurts takes the field for his second NFL start. It is difficult for defenses to play quarterbacks who are dual threats, who can win games with their arm and strike fear into defenses with the threat and the actual usage of their legs.

"Because a lot of times," Head Coach Doug Pederson was saying when asked why a mobile quarterback puts so much stress on a defense in today's NFL, "they don't account for him. They think he's going to be 7, 8, 9 yards deep in the pocket and he's going to sit there and throw the football from the pocket. Any time you can create a passing lane and you've got a quarterback that can push up in the pocket and then separate from there, it stresses the defense. It stresses the coverage, especially if teams want to play man coverage because all eyes are on the receivers and they're not on the quarterback. And that's where some of the plays can really show up.

"Jalen has a good feel, a lot like Carson (Wentz), they have a good feel for the pocket. When the pocket breaks down, they have an awareness of when to escape the pocket and really put pressure on defenses and sometimes the defense just doesn't account for that time of that quarterback."

This is a new-world NFL, and while the Eagles have had mobile threats in the past with the likes of Randall Cunningham, Donovan McNabb, and Michael Vick at the position, Hurts is part of the new generation. Seattle's Russell Wilson is the gold standard of the mobile quarterback who can also win from the pocket, a Super Bowl Champion who is annually among the league's most effective quarterbacks deep into the postseason. As much damage as Wilson does with his legs – and the Eagles certainly know this first hand, having lost to him all six times Wilson has started against Philadelphia dating back to 2014 – he ultimately wins because of his skill set in the pocket.

And for all that he does darting for first downs with his great running instincts, and the way Jackson destroys defenses with his legs, and the challenges that Arizona's Kyler Murray presents to Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz this week, at the end of the day defenses are ahead of offenses in this NFL, and every quarterback has to show he can do it from the pocket.

For Cunningham, back in the day, his kryptonite was reading defenses and going through his progressions quickly enough. McNabb didn't have many weaknesses, and perhaps his only fault was that he didn't win a Super Bowl, although he did play in one along with five NFC Championship Games. The one season he had a dominating receiver (Terrell Owens) was the one year that McNabb went to the Supe, but that's just such a painful memory to live again.

For Vick, it was the blitz off the edge, first introduced by the Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield on the game's second play of that Tuesday night game in Week 16 of 2010. It was like a bolt of lightning, and Vick never recovered from that kind of edge pressure, combined with a disciplined pass rush that bottled up the escape lanes tackle to tackle, that hemmed in his production.

Wilson doesn't have any shortcomings. He takes sacks here and there, but for the most part, he is smart with the football and he avoids big hits and he wins games from the pocket throwing the football down the field. At the end of the day, that's the litmus test for every quarterback in the NFL: You have to win from the pocket. Defenses are going to find a way to take out a singular dimension from every quarterback, and the offense has to counter that with a move of its own. If a defense wants to "mush rush" a quarterback to limit his running ability, the quarterback must strike with his arm. If a defense dares "spy" a quarterback with a single player devoted to shadowing his every move, the offense then looks to exploit the hole in the defense.

We're in the getting-to-know stages of Hurts' development, of course, but his mobility on Sunday in the win over New Orleans introduced an element that the Saints could not defeat. The Eagles ran for nearly 250 yards (246, to be exact) and Hurts added another 167 through the air with a touchdown pass. There are going to be games, undoubtedly, when the defense schemes to take away Hurts' running lanes and he is in the pocket to win with his arm. That's the natural order of development for every quarterback at this level.

There is no doubt, though, that the Eagles, with Hurts at the helm this Sunday, are in the new era of quarterback play that is sweeping the NFL. The offenses are spreading out the defenses, looking for vulnerabilities and big-play opportunities. The defenses are replying with speed and varying pressure packages from sideline to sideline. Who wins in the end?

Generally, it's the quarterback who can beat a defense ultimately from delivering big plays from the pocket, even as he is taking advantage of the run lanes when they are there. For Hurts, the question is going to be how he fares when a defense takes away his legs and he is forced to win from the pocket. That's just the natural order of the position in the NFL, no matter the era.

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