In roughly 48 hours, the Eagles will play their first meaningful football game since winning Super Bowl 52. Their title defense begins with an Atlanta team who, last January, were a Jalen Mills finger tip away from ending the Birds playoff run before it even started.
Atlanta views that as a game they should have won, and understandably so. The Eagles are now playing with a target on their backs and Atlanta has the advantage of the “underdog” mentality that underscored the Birds run last season.
While the circumstances and context of this game are very different from last January’s, something that hasn’t changed very much are the individual matchups that will likely decide the game. Here are four key battles to follow on Thursday night:
1. Sidney Jones vs. Calvin Ridley
Personally, this is the matchup I’m anticipating the most. Sidney Jones will ride a preseason loaded with hype (he was recently named to Pro Football Focus’ All-Preseason Team) into a matchup with one of the more polished rookie receivers in recent memory.
Calvin Ridley spent three seasons competing for championships at Alabama and will now have the advantage of lining up in the slot flanked by offensive weapons like Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman, and Tevin Coleman. Needless to say, Ridley will be allowed to operate without much attention due to the focus that Jones and their RB-duo command.
What makes this matchup even more exciting is the history between the two players. Washington and Alabama matched up in Jones’ final college game in the 2017 Peach Bowl, and despite ‘Bama winning the game 24-7, Ridley was held to just 1 catch for 6 yards while being matched up with Jones for nearly the entire game. When you watch the film from that game, Jones absolutely put the clamps on a player who was widely considered a future 1st round draft pick even as a freshman.
Despite starting as the slot corner, Jones could very well be the best cover man on this team in terms of pure mirroring ability. And the Falcons drafted Ridley with the expectation that he can be the dynamic receiving compliment to Julio that they’ve lacked for pretty much his entire career. The combination of hype, history, and overall uncertainty makes this an obvious matchup to follow.
2. Jason Peters/Lane Johnson vs. Vic Beasley/Tak McKinley
Two seasons ago Vic Beasley established himself as one of the league’s premier pass rushers after leading the league in sacks. His 2017, on the other hand, was marred by injuries and uneven play. Despite that regression, Beasley is now healthy and expected to return to double-digit sack production.
More than likely, he’ll be lined up against another player who saw injuries lead to a disappointing 2017—Jason Peters. Peters was obviously absent from last year’s matchup, so this battle won’t be as familiar as the rest. Beasley will also spend equal, if not more time lined up across Lane Johnson, whom he did face a little bit in last season’s game.
Regardless of the side he lines up on, he’ll have a bookend tackle to get through. And regardless of which of those players has to deal with Beasley, the other one won’t have a break with Tak McKinley complimenting him on the opposite side.
Beasley & McKinley figure to be one of the best pass rushing tandems in football, and Johnson-Peters is the best tackle combination in the league. With Foles slated to start this particular matchup becomes all the more important.
3. Nelson Agholor vs. Desmond Trufant/Brian Poole
We saw Agholor vs most of the Falcon’s secondary last January with the exception of Trufant, who spent the majority of his time on Jeffrey. With Jeffrey not available for this game and Agholor in line for snaps on the outside, we can fully anticipate to see an Agholor/Trufant matchup at some point. When Agholor is in the slot he’ll likely draw both Brain Poole—their nickel for the playoff matchup—and some of rookie Isaiah Oliver. Poole is a legitimate talent in the slot and we know Trufant himself is capable of giving a lot of receivers problems.
What makes this matchup so vital is the absence of Jeffrey. If Agholor is unable to get open against this secondary then we’ll likely see Foles rely heavily on Ertz and quick passes to Clement and Sproles. It’ll be up to Agholor—and to a lesser degree, Mike Wallace—to open up the downfield passing game for Foles and company.
4. Fletcher Cox vs. Falcons offensive line
Cox vs the opposing offensive line is always a key matchup considering he has the ability to wreck games single-handedly. We’ll see him line up in just about every possible spot along the line, but no matter where he lines up he’s guaranteed to see a double or triple-team from various Falcons lineman.
Cox dominated in last year’s playoff matchup—he lived in the Falcons backfield and was the main reason that their prolific offense couldn’t get in rhythm. If he’s able to do anything similar to what he did in that game then it’ll be hard for the Falcon’s to put points on the board once again.