ATLANTA — The Eagles opened the Nick Sirianni era with an impressive 32-6 victory over Atlanta on Sunday. The Arthur Smith-led Falcons could end up among the worst squads in the NFL, but the Eagles won in convincing fashion. It was a complete performance, and how long has it been since that phrase was used to describe this team? Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:
1. Sirianni, Jalen Hurts and the Eagles aren’t going to be a disaster. You can breathe a sigh of relief. The Eagles aren’t going to be drafting first next spring. Sirianni isn’t going to be a one-year bust. And Hurts isn’t going to be benched by Week 4. Anything can happen from here on out, of course. The Eagles could get whacked by the 49ers next week. They could lose four of their next five in games they’re likely to be underdogs. There’s no bigger “Overreaction Monday” in the NFL than after the first week of games, and the Eagles aren’t suddenly Super Bowl contenders. But all that being said, they could be better than most had predicted, certainly more capable than the three-win bar some had set before the season. Here’s why: They played with energy, poise and a sense of purpose. The last three years, especially in 2020, there was hardly a game without a puzzling plan, call, or decision. Why was Zach Ertz blocking DeMarcus Lawrence? Why did Carson Wentz throw into triple coverage? Why was Darius Slay singled up vs. DK Metcalf? Why was Hakeem Butler on the field, let alone your first read on a pivotal fourth down at the goal line? Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, for the most part, put their players in position to succeed. Can you ask any more of a coach?
It wasn’t perfect. It never is. There were some potential red flags. There were plenty of yellow ones -- 14 total -- too. A fair number were of the pre-snap kind. And there could have been more. Jason Kelce got away with a hold. Jalen Reagor’s touchdown should have been nullified when Lane Johnson was 10 yards downfield before the pass. And there were spots the Falcons exposed, but never enough because, well, they’re the Falcons. Eagles linebackers struggled to fill run gaps and make necessary tackles. The safeties were fooled by several play-actions. With Marcus Epps a question mark after a concussion, K’Von Wallace could be under attack next week, assuming Rodney McLeod is still out. But the positives far outweighed the negatives. Hurts looked a little jittery at times. He missed a few reads. He left early a few times and has a habit of moving to his right when flushed out of the pocket. But many of his passes were within the rhythm of the offense. And when he had to improvise, like on the touchdown pass to Dallas Goedert, he made tremendous throws. He also saved the o-line with several scrambles. All is well in Eagleland, and while there may now be unrealistic expectations, fans should enjoy this one. You earned it by enduring last season.
2. All will be well as long as the defensive and offensive lines stay healthy. It all starts up front. It’s an eye-rolling cliché at this point, but the most stable organizations know to invest in their lines at the cost of their skill-position spots. The Eagles certainly haven’t been perfect in this regard (see: Derek Barnett and Andre Dillard), but they’ve hit on enough later-round draft picks (see: Josh Sweat and Jordan Mailata) to compensate some for those first-round errors. In free agency, there have been mixed results, but Brandon Brooks was a hit and Javon Hargrave is starting to show what all the hullabaloo was about. The defensive tackle had arguably the best day of any defender. He recorded six pressures and two sacks on 26 pass-rush attempts, per Pro Football Focus, and consistently collapsed the pocket on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. He wasn’t alone. Hassan Ridgeway had a couple of offside penalties, but he made up for the mistakes with several strong rushes. Fletcher Cox had his moments inside. And the ends — Brandon Graham, Ryan Kerrigan, Sweat, and Barnett — forced Ryan off his spot on multiple occasions. There were some early issues against the run. But adjustments were made and when the Falcons fell behind by double digits, they had to abandon the ground game.
On the other side, the starting five played every snap. That didn’t happen once last season. Kelce, Johnson, and Brooks had solid outings. Kelce took out two defenders on a kick-out during one long Miles Sanders run. Even at 34, there isn’t a better center in space. But the star of the group was Jordan Mailata. He showed why the Eagles signed him to a four-year, $64 million extension Saturday. If he continues to fortify the left flank, that deal will end up a steal. Mailata protected Hurts’ blindside for the most part, but he also flashed his athleticism when he destroyed a defensive back in paving a lane on Reagor’s score. “I was just doing my job,” Mailata said. “I had that play earlier in the week and the timing wasn’t right. So when we called the play out in the huddle, I knew what I had to correct.”
3. The youngsters are developing. The Eagles have been in need of foundational draft picks for some time. Of their current core, five came in drafts from 2010-13: Graham, Cox, Kelce, Johnson, and Ertz. No one is left from the 2014-15 classes. Isaac Seumalo (2016) and Barnett (2017) are the only pre-2018 picks remaining. And while there have been successful selections from 2018 (Goedert, Avonte Maddox, Sweat, and Mailata) and 2019 (Sanders), there haven’t been enough overall. The jury is certainly still out on 2020-21, but the Eagles got significant contributions from key guys: Hurts, Reagor, DeVonta Smith, and Kenneth Gainwell. The latter two scored touchdowns in their debuts. Smith’s first catch was a score. He said he knew he would be celebrating in the end zone once he realized the Falcons were in man coverage. Sirianni had called for a pick route combination, and when Ertz rubbed out Smith’s man, the receiver had more than enough separation for Hurts to loft a strike in stride. Gainwell’s touchdown wasn’t as complicated. The o-line opened a gaping hole, and he burst through it for an 8-yard score. The rookie running back was a competent complement to Sanders, rushing nine times for 37 yards. He also caught two passes for 6 yards. (Boston Scott, for the record, didn’t log a snap on offense). Even JJ Arcega-Whiteside got in on the act. The receiver made the best of his 16 snaps with able blocking and helped out on special teams. He’ll never justify the second-round pick, but he has willingly accepted a lesser role.
4. The Eagles’ schemes have answers. When one door closes, another must open. NFL defensive coordinators are too smart for offenses to run their plays at will. They will often take away first and second reads. Or they will force offenses to either pass or run. Every offensive coordinator wants to have a system that gives his quarterbacks outs. “I like to give our quarterbacks options on plays,” Sirianni said. But that doesn’t mean those options will necessarily produce successful plays. So you need a quarterback who can execute. Take for instance, the Eagles’ first three plays in which Hurts threw screen passes to Quez Watkins. Sirianni didn’t draw up three straight screens to the receiver. That would be odd. But he called plays that gave Hurts options based on the Falcons’ pre-snap looks. Atlanta had just two defenders for three receivers on two of the Watkins throws. Those are easy bubble screens for auto chunk plays. If the Falcons have the right numbers — as they did on the fourth play — then Hurts reads the end for an inside zone read. Bang. Thirteen yards.
On the defensive side, Gannon’s unit had some early problems containing the run. The Falcons netted 110 yards on the ground by the half. There’s blame to be sprinkled around, but Gannon’s 3-4 front lacked cohesion. “We knew that was something we’re going to have to get better with,” Graham said of the 3-4. “Obviously, we love the four-down look as a defensive line. But we know we got to do both.” As stated above, the second-line defenders weren’t in the right spots, and when they were, they missed a few tackles. Eric Wilson had four whiffs. But Gannon made a few minor tweaks at the half, one of which was going back to more four-down looks on run downs, and the Falcons gained just 14 yards on the ground after the break. Multiple fronts mean versatility, but you also have to be willing to adjust.
5. Extra points. Gannon had a solid plan for containing Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts. They had a few moments but finished with only a combined nine catches for 82 yards. Eagles cornerbacks played soft zones and never got beat over top. Slay allowed just five catches for 30 yards on nine targets, per PFF. Steven Nelson was as sound and surrendered just two catches for 23 yards on three targets. … T.J. Edwards got the start ahead of Alex Singleton, but the latter played more snaps than the former (43 to 29). Every defensive player got a snap on defense, with rookies Marlon Tuipulotu (6), Zech McPhearson (2), and Tarron Jackson (2) getting some garbage-time action. … Sirianni used 13 personnel (three tight ends) on 12 plays with Jack Stoll the third tight end. He called one play with 21 (two running backs). … Punters aren’t sexy, but Arryn Siposs had an impressive debut. He finished with a 44.5-yard net average and dropped three of his four punts inside the Falcons’ 20.