ATLANTA – The Eagles spotted the Falcons a 20-3 lead at the break, but rebounded in the second half and even took a brief lead before ultimately succumbing, 26-24, in the season opener. There were a number of troubling issues -- some which were rectified after the break but also some that could be season-long problems. There were also a number of positives and thus no reason to panic after one game. Here's what we learned:
1. Cody Parkey could be one more big missed kick from getting the boot. The hook should be that quick. Parkey did some spectacular things last season, especially considering that he was a rookie. But he faded down the stretch – his kickoffs were short and he missed two costly field goals against the Redskins – as he battled a groin injury to his kicking leg. He had another groin injury during camp and sat out the final two preseason games. But he didn't look so hot before he was sidelined. He was inconsistent during training camp and missed a couple of kicks in the preseason opener. Parkey wasn't on last week's injury report and he said after the game that he's OK physically. But reporters noticed a wrap on his leg before he slipped on one of those compression leggings that treat muscle injuries after the game. Injury or no injury, something isn't clicking. He missed what would have been the go-ahead 44-yard field goal by some seven yards. Faced with the option to go for it on fourth down and one or trot Parkey out there, Chip Kelly paused on the sideline. That tells you something. It should have been a no-brainer taking the three points. And as Kelly intimated, 44 yards for a NFL kicker should be no big deal. Kelly did the right thing after the game and said he had full confidence in Parkey. It was one miss. But dating back to last season, the kicker has now cost the Eagles two wins. Pro Bowl kickers aren't just walking the street, but Kelly can't afford to let the season get away if his young kicker can't get the job done.
2. Sam Bradford had what was, overall, a solid debut. You have to consider the full meal, and Bradford wasn't sharp in the first half. He missed an open Miles Austin, telegraphed a throw to Jordan Matthews and tossed an ill-timed interception off his back foot. He was rusty. But wasn't that to be expected after a 600-something-day layoff? Preseason speed isn't regular season speed. But Bradford played very well in the second half, completing 21 of 25 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown. The last interception wasn't a great throw, but it hit Matthews in the hands and deflected to a Falcon. Bradford took a number of hits and kept getting back up. He wasn't sacked once, and did a fine job getting the ball out quick, taking what the Falcons defense gave the Eagles underneath. Maybe he could have tried to go long once or twice early to keep the Atlanta secondary honest. But he also didn't need to force deep throws because receivers were running free in the 5-20-yard range. I don't know what to make of the X-ray he had on his ankle after the game. He said it was precautionary and Kelly said the following on 94.1 this morning – "From my understanding, there was no issue with Sam." – but you don't take X-rays unless something is bothering you. Bradford's health will obviously always be monitored closely.
3. The interior of the offensive line, particularly Andrew Gardner and Allen Barbre is of significant concern. Aside from Parkey, Gardner and Barbre would be the most pressing problem for the Eagles moving forward. They were getting dominated inside in the first half. The running backs had nowhere to run and linemen were springing free and at Bradford. Kelly started mixing things up and got some decent outside carries from Darren Sproles and DeMarco Murry in the second half, but he needs his inside run plays – particularly the zone – to click if this offense is to hit its max. You can hide average-to-below average guards with strong exterior blocking, but Jason Peters had a rough night and Jason Kelce at center wasn't at his best. The Eagles were lopsided in favor of the pass because they trailed early and because the Falcons typically had one safety roaming near or in the box. But line play was probably the main reason why Kelly was forced to abandon the run. You have to think Gardner and Barbre will improve. But what if they can't – even marginally?
(UPDATE: After re-watching the broadcast, I have to point out that Gardner didn't play as bad as I had originally thought. He had early struggles, but was solid in the second half, particularly in pass protection. Can't say the same for Barbre, however.)
4. Byron Maxwell isn't Richard Sherman. OK, no one was saying Maxwell would be as good as his former Seattle teammate, but those are the expectations when you sign a $14 million-a-year deal. Maxwell needs to be a shutdown corner, or at least be able to cut off his side of the field and he didn't on Monday night. He was trailing receivers all game and it wasn't just Julio Jones. I'll have to re-watch the game to get a better take on how he played at the line, but he had no chance vs. Jones when the receiver beat him for 44 yards on the Falcons' eventual game-winning drive. It's tough to play press-man in that spot with no safety help over the top. I'm not sure why Bill Davis kept Maxwell on an island in that situation. He said he had been trying to shade a safety over top of Jones all game, but couldn't always because the Falcons can line him up almost anywhere. But there was nothing tricky about that play. Jones ran a straight go route and Maxwell got beat. It was a dagger.
5. Darren Sproles may be the most lethal of the three-headed running back attack. Remember when Kelly corrected reporters that asked about Sproles as a receiver before last season? He said he's a running back. And that he is, but Kelly realized that he didn't use Sproles enough in pass situations and has found new ways to get him involved through the air. Sproles caught seven passes for 76 yards. But he was also the Eagles' most effective tailback on the ground. He ran five times for 50 yards including a 27-yard scoot around the corner. Sproles played only 25 of 74 snaps and still touched the ball 12 times. Murray was on the field for 33 snaps, while Ryan Matthews played 16. Those two combined for 11 carries for 13 yards. Murray took a 12-yard loss on one of his first carries. He flashed more in the second half, rushing eight yards for a score and getting over the goal line with a second effort on a short pass. But Murray's 1.7-yard average on 12 touches was disappointing.
6. Kiko Alonso may need to play all three downs. Alonso was on the field for 66 percent (51 of 77) of the defensive snaps. He mostly played in nickel situations in place of DeMeco Ryans (26 snaps) at inside linebacker. Mychal Kendricks played the entire game. Alonso displayed his rare athleticism with a one-handed interception in the end zone. Davis said after the game that the Eagles wanted to ease Alonso in since he didn't played much in the preseason. So maybe that meant he'll be on the field more as the season progresses, but the Eagles seem intent on keeping a three-man rotation at inside backer. I'd hate to count Ryans out, especially just one game in after rupturing his Achilles last November. He's as tough as they come, but he looked a step slow. Davis kept him on the field on base downs, but the Falcons went to the air and at Ryans on short-yardage plays that might have screamed "run" under normal circumstances. Ryans may not have the wheels he once did, but he's so valuable to the defense in terms of setting the front seven up in their proper alignments. Alonso should be able to handle that chore. He may have to.
7. Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor will get the bulk of receiver playing time. I was a little surprised Agholor played as much as he did (59 snaps). I figured the rookie would eventually be No. 2 in terms of playing time, but Kelly went with his most talented receivers for most of the game. That meant Riley Cooper (43 snaps) had his time reduced, Josh Huff (36 snaps) was limited and Austin (16 snaps) couldn't get on the field for an extended period. That's probably the way it should be. But while Matthews was electric (10 catches for 102 yards), especially in the second half, Agholor caught just one of two targets for 5 yards. Falcons corner Desmond Trufant is a solid defender, and Agholor was bound to have some first-game hiccups – it looked like he ran a bad route on one Bradford back shoulder attempt – but he'll need to justify that amount of playing time moving forward. At tight end, Zach Ertz played 52 snaps despite being questionable heading into the game. He had core muscle surgery only four weeks ago and didn't seem slowed at all in the passing game. But he struggled as a blocker. The time off didn't help the progress he was making in that regard. Brent Celek (27 snaps) had an up-and-down night as a blocker.
8. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry were quiet pass rushers. Graham and Curry were very effective last season in part-time roles. Their jobs are different this season. Graham is still at outside linebacker, but he's a starter and played 69 percent of the snaps vs. last season's average of 43 percent. I'll check his pass rush opportunities once they're compiled by Pro Football Focus, but I don't recall Graham getting into the backfield very often. Curry split time at outside backer and defensive end. He typically stands out at least once a game with his quick get off, but he didn't flash. I'm not sure if double duty had any affect on his pass rush, but Matt Ryan seemed to have a lot of time to throw. The Falcons like to max protect and that could partially explain the Eagles' lack of pressure – Fletcher Cox had the lone sack – but there was improvement as the game progressed. Cox would have had another sack and a forced fumble if Alonso's illegal contact (it looked fairly innocuous) hadn't negated the play. And Connor Barwin moved Ryan off his spot a few times or forced him to rush his throws. But if the Eagles are to have a potent pass rush Graham and Curry need to be more involved.
9. The slot cornerback position remains unsettled. Davis pulled a surprise and had Malcolm Jenkins drop into the slot spot and Chris Maragos take the field as the fifth defensive back in the nickel. Maragos is an excellent special teams player, but if you had to choose between Brandon Boykin and him as your fifth d-back who would you take? And, yes, I know that Boykin couldn't get on the field for the Steelers. I'm talking about Boykin in his defense. Davis said he could have a different nickel combination next week or the next. You can bet he'd rather have one guy to rely on. But he couldn't slide Nolan Carroll inside because his reserve options at corner aren't particularly appealing. Eric Rowe isn't ready and is apparently the fourth corner. When Carroll left the game briefly, E.J. Biggers and not Rowe replaced him.
10. And a few quickies. Jenkins needs to hit the JUGS machine after practice. He dropped two would-be picks last night. It wouldn't be huge ordeal if he hadn't dropped a few late last season. … Speaking of drops, Mathews dropped a ball in his bucket on a wheel route. He had all kinds of room. Murray had a drop, too. Sloppy. … Speaking of sloppiness, the Eagles had a total of 14 penalties (four were declined) and a whopping seven holds. … Huff had a ball hit him in the back when he apparently ran the wrong route. The kid has talent, but he always seems to mix in the mental errors. … The Eagles were 3 of 12 on third down. … The Falcons had six pass plays of 20 yards or more.