It wasn't pretty, but the Eagles came back to topple the Falcons, 18-12, Thursday night mostly behind the strength of their defense. Here's what we learned from the season opener:
1. The Eagles are one resilient bunch. Their resistance spirit shouldn't come as a surprise at this point, but the Eagles, despite injuries, a sloppy preseason and setbacks against the Falcons, showed that last season wasn't a fluke. They led, 10-6, early in the fourth quarter – a seemingly large enough lead with the way the defense was performing. But a Nick Foles pass to Dallas Goedert was intercepted and Jim Schwartz's unit, for once, couldn't keep Atlanta out of the end zone on the ensuing drive. But the Eagles didn't get down. There was "just no panic on the sideline," Doug Pederson said. The Eagles coach, of course, deserves his share of credit for the team's character. Pederson rarely loses his cool (unless he's asked about his injured quarterback). But his team has been excellent in games decided by one score or less over the last season-plus. It wasn't always that way. The Eagles lost their first six one-score games under Pederson in 2016. But since then, they've gone 9-1 — not counting a 6-0 loss to the Cowboys in last season's meaningless season finale. Winning those close ones can often be the difference between being a playoff contender and not. "I don't want to keep doing this – but I know a lot of people who didn't really give us much of a shot," defensive end Chris Long said. "The sky's falling – this, that and the third. It's just the beginning for us, and we need to keep building on that."
2. The defense can be dominant. Schwartz's unit rebounded nicely from a less-than-stellar showing in the Super Bowl (not that anyone cared that much). But consider these numbers: The Falcons gained just 4.6 yards per play, they converted only 4 of 15 third downs (27 percent), and they were a woeful 1 for 5 in the red zone. Atlanta's red-zone issues date to last season. But when you drive inside the 10-yard line four times and can get in the end zone only once, the defense deserves as much credit as the offense deserves blame. The opening-drive, goal-line stand set the tone. I'm not sure what Falcons OC Steve Sarkisian was thinking on third down with his play call, although Matt Ryan had six points if he didn't overthrow Devonta Freeman. But Dan Quinn gambled on fourth down and an outside run was strung out by linebackers Jordan Hicks and Kamu Grugier-Hill. The Eagles defense, for as well as it played last season, wasn't great in the red zone and finished 20th in the NFL. There was room for improvement, and Schwartz's crew has gotten off to a great start. "We put a big emphasis on red zone," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Our scheme is pretty simple, we're really good at what we do, we detail every small thing, and we trust our players."
3. "Philly, Philly" was a special play call. Pederson is an unorthodox play-caller. Who else would call his most famous play – a gadget play, no less – in the game after it helped win a Super Bowl? "Philly, Philly" wasn't exactly "Philly Special." There was no dummy call or direct snap to Corey Clement, but the principle was the same: a double reverse, option pass to the quarterback. It was pretty much a copy of the play the Patriots unsuccessfully tried in the Super Bowl – except the Eagles were in "11" personnel rather than "12." Some may joke that Pederson was trolling, but it was a sound decision. The Eagles offense was sputtering. Foles was struggling. It was third and 5. When Foles came to the sideline, he said that he had one play in mind and that Pederson thought the same way. It was on the call sheet under "third down." Foles said the Eagles had practiced it once this past week. Jenkins said he didn't recall it. I do remember there being a version of the play early in training camp. Nevertheless, it worked splendidly. Clement flipped to Nelson Agholor, who tossed to soft-hands Foles for 15 yards, and the Eagles were rolling.
4. The defensive line was relentless. Ryan was sacked four times, hit 13 times, and hardly ever had a clean pocket. Fletcher Cox was a beast inside. He was credited with only two tackles, but his numbers don't show the impact he had because Cox consistently collapsed the pocket. He's a smart player, as well, once thwarting a screen pass that set up others for the tackle for loss. Cox did record a sack, and should have had another if not for a Derek Barnett penalty. The second-year defensive end didn't have a good game. Barnett had another offsides penalty to negate a third-down sack. But his teammates picked him up and got off the field on the ensuing plays. Long had a sack – he lost another thanks to another Barnett infraction – and four hits. Brandon Graham and new guy Michael Bennett got into the backfield on multiple occasions, as well. The Falcons have a good line. If the Eagles' front keeps playing at this level, they should be able keep offenses from sustaining drives.
5. The plan for covering Julio Jones worked again. Back when Michael Jordan reigned supreme, but lacked the supporting cast that would eventually help him win titles, the Pistons employed a defensive tactic to limit his effectiveness. Deemed the "Jordan Rules," Detroit varied its defense and doubled Jordan whenever he got the ball. Julio Jones isn't quite Jordan, and this is football not basketball, but Schwartz has a template for covering the Falcons receiver that has been effective in the Eagles' last three meetings with Atlanta. He's willing to let Jones get his – he finished with 10 catches for 169 yards – at the expense of not getting beaten deep. The corners will play off, and there will be a safety to sometimes double over top. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills gave up their share, but they also made plays when necessary – Darby's last-second pass breakup in the end zone being the most crucial. The Eagles' depth at corner came in handy when Darby left briefly with cramps. Rasul Douglas stepped in and recorded an interception when Ryan underthrew Jones on a key red-zone third down. The Falcons' other wide receivers, meanwhile, caught just four passes for 18 yards.
>> PHOTO GALLERY: Eagles 18, Falcons 12
6. The loss of Alshon Jeffery will continue to hurt. The Eagles were without Jeffery (shoulder) and placed Mack Hollins on injured reserve before the game. That meant that the Eagles' top three receivers were Agholor (eight catches for 33 yards), new guy Mike Wallace (no catches) and DeAndre Carter (one catch for 10 yards). Carter, who was a camp addition, played 53 of 72 snaps, significantly more than Shelton Gibson (4) and Markus Wheaton (2). He was targeted only once, though. Wallace saw three passes come his way – two of them deep – but he couldn't pull them in for whatever reason. Agholor was the focal point, but most of his passes were of the dink-and-dunk variety. Wallace will need to pull in a few deep passes to keep defenses honest. I focused on Foles in my column for the newspaper. He wasn't good by any means, but he hung in and got the job done. The Eagles will need more consistency out of the quarterback if they are to keep winning until Carson Wentz comes back. It could be later than sooner. "I've said it all along: you try to prepare as a starter, but it is a unique situation," Foles said of waiting for Wentz's return. "That's where I just stay in the moment, give everything I have to my teammates, prepare like I always do, and see what happens."
7. The tight ends were shaky. Zach Ertz is going to win far more than he loses, but he had a forgettable stretch in the second half, dropping two passes and bringing back a third-down conversion when he was called for pass interference. There was another pass over the middle that he made a business decision on. "I didn't have a great game. I had drops that just don't happen," Ertz said. "I don't think I've ever dropped that many balls in a game in my life." He did catch five passes for 48 yards. I thought the Eagles would employ more two-tight-end sets, but Goedert was on the field for only 17 snaps. Foles went to him on a corner route in the end zone in the first half, and while he made the grab, he could get only one foot inbounds. You're not in college, anymore, rookie. Goedert also couldn't pull in that fourth-quarter pass that was knocked from his hands and to Falcons linebacker Deion Jones for an interception. It was a rough debut, but he clearly has the tools and will be more involved as the season progresses.
8. Jay Ajayi's foot injury was more significant than believed. Ajayi had just three carries in the first half. Darren Sproles received the bulk of the early snaps in the backfield, but he couldn't get going on the ground, rushing for only five yards on four carries. Maybe Pederson wanted to get Sproles his after a near-year off. But Ajayi said the foot injury limited his practice time and the plan coming in was to feature Sproles early. Ajayi didn't show signs of the injury. He ran hard, and after the break gained 51 yards on 12 carries (4.3 average). Ajayi scored both touchdowns and converted a two-point conversion. "In the second half, we made some adjustments at halftime, and I made a conscious effort just to keep [Ajayi] in there on some of those runs," Pederson said. Clement rushed five times for 26 yards and had a big 21-yard burst on the game-winning drive. Pederson might eventually ride Ajayi – as he said he would this offseason – but he also likes a by-committee attack on the ground. I think the best allotment of snaps would have Ajayi handle the bulk of carries on first and second downs, and Sproles and Clement as complements on third down.
>> READ MORE: Running backs got going just in time
9. Jordan Hicks is back. Much has been made of the linebacker's return after last season's Achilles tendon rupture, but Hicks wasn't really himself last season before the injury. He was banged up, and a setback seemed all but inevitable. The Hicks the Eagles wanted to see again was the 2016 version when he was arguably the most consistent performer on defense. He looked that way against the Falcons, leading the team with seven tackles, 1 1/2 sacks, and a pass breakup. The Eagles needed Hicks to hold down the fort with Nigel Bradham serving a one-game suspension. Nate Gerry and Grugier-Hill were solid in their first steady action on defense. But Hicks was a force. "It's been in my mind for a long time," Hicks said. "It's special to be back on this field."
10. And some leftovers: Gibson gained 30 yards on his first NFL kick return, dragging a few tacklers along the way, but he looked dreadful on his second. He should have just stayed in the end zone for a touchback. … Cameron Johnston boomed six punts for 52.2 yards and a 47-yard net. He looked very good. … Tre Sullivan got blocked into a short punt that resulted in a turnover. The safety is likely to be cut when recently acquired Deiondre' Hall comes off his one-game suspension.
Get insights on the Eagles delivered straight to your inbox with Early Birds, beat writer Zach Berman's newsletter for Eagles fans. Click here to sign up.
Our mission is to provide top-notch coverage for the best fans in sports. We can't do it without your support. Join us: philly.com/birds