With the Eagles and Falcons set to kick-off in a few short hours, they find themselves in a similar situation heading into this week 1 matchup. Both enter the season with moderately low expectations, and both are breaking in a new coaching staff led by first-time head coaches.
The Eagles are slight underdogs heading into Atlanta, and while there are a number of factors that’ll decide the outcome, beating Matt Ryan on his home turf historically comes down to slowing him through the air.
While Calvin Ridley steps right into the shoes of the departed Julio Jones as the Falcons premier receiving threat, Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathon Gannon should be comfortable matching him with Darius Slay on the outside. Rather, it’s Falcons rookie tight end Kyle Pitts who poses the biggest threat to the Eagles defense.
Atlanta’s fourth overall pick was one of the few universally admired talents atop this rookie class, and he’s expected to be a difference-maker in the NFL from the opening snap. Pitts is a wide receiver in a tight end’s body whom defenses will need to gameplan for in the same way they would a Kelce, Kittle, or Waller—that may sound like an exaggeration for someone yet to play in an NFL game, but it’s not.
The Eagles defense has had a tendency of getting burned by tight ends over the past few years, and while they’ll be led by a new defensive coordinator in this matchup, the roster lacks a clear answer to the league’s dynamic receivers at the position.
Eric Wilson was signed over the offseason to be a coverage specialist amongst the starting linebackers, but even the best of his skillset aren’t equipped to match-up with a player of Pitts’ ability. Ideally, Wilson’s duties on him will be limited to snaps where Pitts is attached to the LOS (in-line), in which case he’ll mostly be in bracket coverage with safety help over top (leaving him on island for any amount of time will be a mistake).
Though chipping him off the line and into a Hi-Lo bracket of Wilson and a safety might suffice when Pitts has his hand in the dirt, Gannon will need to be more creative when the Falcons line him up in the slot or flex him out wide—something I expect them to do a majority of the time.
That’s where newly-signed Steven Nelson comes in. With a void behind Ridley on the Falcons depth chart, there’s no need to pin Nelson to the WR2 in the same way Atlanta’s opponents had to last season. Instead, the Eagles should be more than comfortable sliding starting slot corner Avonte Maddox outside to handle the likes of Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheus if it allows them to move Nelson onto Pitts (especially given Maddox relative comfort level on the outside for a slot skillset).
While Steven Nelson may be listed a hair under six-foot, he’s every bit the physical presence that’s required to face-off with the likes of a Kyle Pitts. It’s difficult to project how a defensive coordinator will choose to cover a rookie in their respective debut, but Gannon shouldn’t hesitate to pin Nelson to Pitts each time he’s detached from the line of scrimmage (too boot, Nelson has plenty of experience in the slot).
SEC opponents consistently chose to cover Pitts with their most physical cover corners, and that strategy won’t change in the NFL. If the Eagles still had the swiss-army skillset at strong safety that left with Malcolm Jenkins then they might be able to tinker with different looks, but current strong safety Anthony Harris likely isn’t up to the task.
I’ll reiterate, it’s difficult to project how a rookie head coach will deploy a rookie tight end/wide receiver, and it’s even more difficult to project how a rookie coordinator will defend that; but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Steven Nelson—the Eagles newly-signed CB2—doesn’t wind up covering Pitts for the majority of snaps. If that’s the case, Howie’s latest addition will be put to the test immediately.