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The Eagles’ smothering defense gave Matt Ryan and the Falcons nowhere to go

The Eagles allowed Atlanta just 59 total yards in the second half in Week 1.

Eagles defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway forces a grounding penalty on Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
Eagles defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway forces a grounding penalty on Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

ATLANTA – All throughout training camp, the Eagles’ new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon had been adamant about limiting big plays. In the season opener, the Eagles defense did just that while facing a veteran quarterback in Matt Ryan and a pair of explosive weapons in wideout Calvin Ridley and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts.

Pitts, tabbed as one of the best tight end prospects ever, was limited to just four catches on eight targets with 31 yards. Ridley, who Eagles cornerback Darius Slay had labeled as one of the best route runners in the NFL, had just five catches for 51 yards.

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“Our defense played lights out,” first-year coach Nick Sirianni said after the Eagles’ 32-6 victory. “The guys played together, for each other and with each other. I can’t say enough good things about our defense.”

Not a single Falcons player recorded a touchdown. As for Atlanta’s six points? The Falcons recorded 146 total yards during their first two drives, which resulted in back-to-back field goals from kicker Younghoe Koo. That was all Atlanta’s offense could manage against Philadelphia’s veteran-led defensive front.

“The defense held together,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “Man, that was a great start.”

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Said Sirianni: “Those two red zone stops changed the whole course of the game.”

The defensive line thoroughly controlled the line of scrimmage. Fletcher Cox didn’t appear on the final stat sheet, but he was consistently moving Falcons rookie left guard Jalen Mayfield backward. As the game progressed, Cox earned extra attention from Atlanta’s offensive line, which created more one-on-one opportunities for his teammates. Defensive linemen Javon Hargrave and Hassan Ridgeway combined for three sacks; Hargrave was the highest-graded defensive player (92.9), according to Pro Football Focus’ weekly rankings. Linebacker Eric Wilson finished with a team-high nine tackles.

“We started making tackles [after the first two drives],” Hargrave said. “[Gannon] was calling some good things, and we made big stops.”

With the Falcons playing from behind, Ryan struggled to string together any consistency as his pocket often collapsed within a few seconds. The Eagles allowed only 59 total net yards and six first downs in the second half. Heading into the season opener, the Falcons were 3.5-point favorites. The Eagles wound up winning by 23.

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The challenge ahead doesn’t get any easier. Philadelphia’s next three opponents — San Francisco, Dallas and Kansas City — combined for 102 points in Week 1. The defense had a strong performance, but the unit still showed some early rust — it was flagged for 12 players on the field during the opening drive. Those miscues can be expected in the season opener.

“We still had too many pre-snap penalties,” Sirianni said. “We have to clean up the things that require no talent. We have to master those things. We have to clean it up.”

Other updates:

  1. Safety Marcus Epps suffered a concussion during the first half. He exited the game and was ruled out shortly after. On Monday, Sirianni said Epps is currently in the concussion protocol. Fellow safety Rodney McLeod (knee) was inactive on game day.

  2. On Monday morning, the Eagles activated defensive tackle T.Y. McGill from the reserve/COVID-19 list and subsequently waived him. McGill flashed a bit during camp, although defensive line is one of the team’s deepest position groups.

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