The Eagles will kickoff their 2021 season this Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. Both teams are in a similar position. Both will have brand new head coaches on the sidelines, both are coming off four-win seasons, and both teams have fallen from top tier NFC teams to after thoughts in recent years.
Nevertheless, this game should serve as a barometer for how far along each squad is in their respective re-tool. Here are three matchups that will likely decide the outcome of this Week 1 contest.
Eagles defensive tackles vs. Falcons interior offensive lineman
While the Falcons have some solid starters along their offensive line, like right tackle Jake Matthews and right guard Chris Lindstorm, they have some pretty glaring holes and center and left guard.
Second-year center Matt Hennessy and rookie third-round left guard Jalen Mayfield are scheduled to start at those respective positions Sunday. Mayfield isn’t the Falcons preferred starter at left guard, but he’ll be forced into action because guard Josh Andrews broke his hand in practice a few weeks ago and is on IR. Even if he did suit up, it wouldn’t do the Falcons many favors. Per Pro Football Focus, Andrews posted the second-worst pass-blocking grade in all of football last season grading out at 18.1.
Mayfield will make his NFL debut this week against the likes of Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave, and Milton Williams. A true baptism by fire. He’s had a nice camp in Atlanta, but it’s hard to imagine a rookie third-round pick having much success against the interior lineman for the Eagles.
Hennessy probably won’t be much help to the rookie guard, as he has his own struggles to iron out. He filled in at guard and center last season for Atlanta and he did terribly in each of his three starts. PFF gave him a 47.0 overall grade and a 28.6 pass-blocking grade in 2020.
Jonathan Gannon will surely look to exploit this glaring weakness along Atlanta’s front. Expect to see a handful of blitzes up the middle of Atlanta’s line, as well as several pass rushing stunts sprinkled throughout.
I simply can’t see Mayfield and Hennessy doing much of anything against Cox and Co. in this one.
Eagles linebackers/safeties vs. tight end Kyle Pitts
Out of all the weapons on Atlanta’s offense, rookie tight end Kyle Pitts is the hardest to matchup with on a play-to-play basis. For years, Julio Jones held this title, but Pitts brings so much versatility to the tight end position that some teams may opt to put corners on him throughout the year.
The Eagles don’t have the luxury of having any NFL tape on how defenses have been matching up with Pitts. Of course, Gannon can turn to the college film, but that will only provide so much.
I’d imagine Gannon will throw a few different looks at him to see what works. My guess is Anthony Harris or third safety K’Von Wallace may have the most success against Pitts. Putting a linebacker on him would just be foolish. Despite Eric Wilson being brought here for these kinds of matchups, Pitts is a different kind of animal.
Slowing down Pitts should be Gannon’s top priority heading into this one. Limiting his targets will stymie the Falcons passing attack and force Matt Ryan to improvise, which isn’t his strongest attribute.
Eagles passing attack vs. Falcons pass defense
Atlanta had one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL last season. They allowed 66 passes over 20 yards, most among any team in the league, and they gave up 34 passing touchdowns, third-most in the NFL. With Dan Quinn now gone and a handful of new faces in the Falcons secondary, their porous pass defense may improve, but by no means will it be a strength.
Fabian Moreau and A.J. Terrell at corner, with Duron Harmon and Erik Harris at the safety positions is an average secondary group at best. None of those players graded above a 66 on PFF last season.
Obviously, the beneficiary of this should be Jalen Hurts and the Eagles wideouts. But truthfully, we just don’t know what this passing attack is going to look like. DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, Quez Watkins, Dallas Goedert, and Zach Ertz should all be able to get open against whoever is covering them in Atlanta’s secondary, it’ll be up to Hurts to get them the ball on time.
With Smith in particularly, his route running should be no match for either Moreau or Terrell on the outside. I think he’ll have an immediate impact in this one.
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