Eagles: Atlanta’s offense will be a great early test for Gannon’s defense

On paper, the Eagles defense should be in the top-half of the league in 2021. Howie Roseman managed to improve every position on the defensive side of the ball this offseason.

Ryan Kerrigan and Milton Williams add more depth to an already deep defensive line. Eric Wilson is coming off a breakout year and should pair nicely with Alex Singleton and T.J. Edwards. Anthony Harris should be an improvement over Jalen Mills at safety. And finally, Roseman found an adequate cornerback to place opposite of Darius Slay in Steven Nelson.

From top to bottom, this is a complete defense with good to great talent at each position.

In the Eagles first matchup of the year, defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon will have his work cut out for him.

Atlanta’s offensive arsenal

The Atlanta Falcons are not the prolific offensive juggernaut they once were, especially now that Julio Jones is in Tennessee. But they still have several offensive pieces that, if utilized correctly, should form a very good offense in 2021.

New head coach Arthur Smith will breathe some new life into Atlanta’s offense this year. Like the offense he coordinated during his time in Tennessee, Atlanta will have a balanced offensive attack.

The team lost Todd Gurley to free agency this offseason, but they were able to upgrade the running back position by acquiring Mike Davis from the Carolina Panthers. Davis started 12 games for Carolina last year in Christian McCaffrey’s absence, rushing for 642 yards, 6 touchdowns, on a 3.9 yards per carry average. Nothing special, but Davis is consistent and can grind out tough yards.

As always, the passing attack in Atlanta will cause problems for every defense they face.

Matt Ryan is still a very good quarterback. Last season, Ryan tossed 26 touchdowns and threw for over 4,5000 yards, all while completing 65 percent of his passes. It would be foolish to overlook Ryan heading into this Week 1 matchup.

Despite not having his No. 1 target in Julio anymore, Calvin Ridley is more than ready to take the reigns as the team’s top wideout. He’s coming off his best season as a pro in 2020, hauling in 90 receptions for 1,374 yards and 9 touchdowns. Russell Gage is a very under the radar receiver as well and will play opposite of Ridley. He had over 750 receiving yards last season on a 10.9 yards per reception average.

We can’t forget about rookie tight end Kyle Pitts either. He will likely be a matchup nightmare right from the jump this year.

How the Eagles matchup

In year’s past, this type of offensive arsenal would be way too much for the Eagles defense to handle. But their secondary is vastly improved over last year’s unit and it’s arguably the best assortment of players they’ve had in their secondary in over 10 years.

Matching up with Ridley is no easy feat for any corner, but Slay should be able to hold his own. Slay really only struggled in two games last season — Seattle and Green Bay. While Ridley is certainly an ascending player, he’s not on the same level as Davante Adams or D.K. Metcalf just yet.

Rodney McLeod’s health will be a pivotal storyline to watch throughout the week. If he’s healthy, the safety duo of McLeod and Harris should be able to contain Atlanta’s passing attack and limit big plays downfield. McLeod’s health will also be crucial in how Gannon decides to deal with Pitts at tight end.

I imagine Eric Wilson will get a few cracks at defending Pitts, then the tight end will rip off some big catches and Gannon will be forced to make a change. Bringing a third safety down into the box to disrupt Pitts may be the best option, but without McLeod in the fold, the Eagles are limited in who they can bring in to play that third safety role. Marcus Epps would likely be the first guy off the bench if McLeod doesn’t suit up, but K’Von Wallace is probably a better option to mirror Pitts in coverage, and Wallace will be the third safety when everyone’s healthy.

Regardless of how well the Eagles secondary can matchup with Atlanta’s skill players, the x-factor for this game may very well come down to the defensive line. They’re a top-five defensive line in the NFL and they’re as deep as they’ve ever been. Atlanta is entering the year with a few injuries along their offensive line, most notably starting left guard Josh Andrews.

Rookie third-round pick Jalen Mayfield is expected to start with Andrews on the sidelines. Mayfield had an impressive training camp, but facing Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave in your first NFL start is a hell of a way to enter the league. The Falcons will also be starting Matt Hennessey at center, a second-year player out of Temple, who only started three games last season. In those three games, Pro Football Focus gave Hennessey an overall grade of 47.0, with a pass blocking grade of 28.6.

The Eagles should be able to dominate the trenches on the defensive side of the ball in this one. If they accomplish that, the rest of the defense fall in line and lead this Eagles team to a victory in Week 1.

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