Unanswered Questions: Falcons vs. Eagles Week 1

Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Rejoice, my Falcons brethren, the 2021 NFL season is finally upon us! We’ve listened as the coaching staff has laid out their vision for this team over spring and summer. We’ve parsed through every scrap of news coming from training camp in July and August. Fans and writers have spent months crafting narratives for this new-look Falcons team, but September is the first step onto the proving grounds. September is when speculation cedes to evidence, where words give way to action; it’s time to put up or shut up. Questions must be answered.

The Falcons and Eagles are teams in search of answers. Both are sporting new head coaches, and whether either fan base is willing to admit it, both are entering the first year of a long-term rebuild. Fans are searching for answers too. Neither team has done much to tip their hand in the preseason, leaving everyone wondering what these teams will look like exactly. We will get our first meaningful data points on Sunday, with the outcome likely hinging on the answers to the following trio of questions.

How does Philadelphia respond to Atlanta’s use of 12 Personnel?

Arthur Smith’s preference for multiple tight ends sets is not exactly a trade secret. In Tennessee, he deployed two or more tight ends nearly 40% of their offensive snaps. With the presence of Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst, you can expect that trend to carry over to this season. Pitts and Hurst can line up anywhere in formation, allowing for a tremendous amount of flexibility for Smith to create mismatches. How teams respond to this will be a focus throughout the season.

That leads to the first of our burning questions. Can the Eagles stand firm against the run if they opt to line up in nickel? Alternatively, are Philly’s linebackers and safeties up to the task of covering Atlanta’s tight ends? In the preseason, the Eagles tended to use three linebackers against 12 personnel, but I would caution against any assumption that continues on Sunday. I suspect the Eagles feel confident their veteran defensive line can hold the LOS against a Falcons offensive front with more questions than answers. It seems reasonable to expect they will lean heavily on their nickel defense when presented with 12 personnel.

Darius Slay and Steve Nelson may present a challenge for Ridley and Gage, but the rest of the cornerback room in Philadelphia isn’t particularly inspiring. The Eagles have a solid pair of starting safeties in Anthony Harris and Rodney McLeod, but neither seems likely to have an advantage in man coverage against Pitts and Hurst. McLeod, who is recovering from a torn ACL, is expected to be a game-time decision. If McLeod can’t play, the onus shifts to the unproven second-year safety K’Von Wallace. The Eagle’s linebackers aren’t particularly imposing in coverage but aren’t incompetent either. Alex Singleton and Eric Wilson are capable players, but I would be shocked if we saw much one-on-one coverage from them.

The big takeaway here is that the Eagles will likely struggle to cover Calvin Ridley and company even in nickel. Jonathan Gannon is bringing over the Zimmer-esque scheme that relies heavily on zone coverage, so their plan is likely to concede the short pass game in hopes of limiting big plays. For that strategy to work, they will need to win the LOS with their front four, which brings us to our second of our big questions.

Can the Falcons contain the Eagles’ defensive line?

Despite having a roster in transition, the Eagles do have a formidable defensive line. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox are the veteran anchors, but this is a deep group. Eagles media has trumpeted Javon Hargrave’s performance in training camp all summer. Ryan Kerrigan, Josh Sweat, and Derek Barnett give Philly a solid rotation opposite of Graham at defensive end. Though the stars of this defensive front are aging, they haven’t fallen off a cliff yet. It will be a formidable challenge for the Falcons, particularly for their young interior linemen. As Arthur Smith said, though, everyone has to get baptized sometime.

The Falcons will need to keep this offense on schedule to meet this challenge. The run game must be efficient. Arthur Smith has proven he can wring good performances out of lower-quality linemen. That history, however, is predicated on a solid run game. I believe the Falcons will have opportunities here, especially if the Eagles line up in nickel against their multiple tight end sets. However, if Cox and Hargrave consistently find their way into the backfield, this entire offense may falter. An inability to establish the run could doom this offense.

It is stating the obvious, but the key is avoiding conspicuous passing situations. With two very inexperienced players along the interior, and questions at the right tackle, this Falcons offensive line isn’t likely to hold up if the Eagles are allowed to pin their ears back and rush. The Falcons struggled mightily with stunting linemen in the preseason. Considering this offensive line has played precisely zero snaps together as a unit, it’s fair to question whether they’ll be cohesive enough right away to improve that deficiency in the regular season. The single best hope for Atlanta is to establish an efficient run/play-action game to keep the line off balance.

Who wins between Jalen Hurts and Dean Pees?

Dean Pees has built a legendary career on his ability to disguise his defenses and create confusion for quarterbacks. With constantly shifting coverages and a willingness to blitz from every position, Pees regularly confounds veteran quarterbacks. This may prove to be incredibly challenging for Jalen Hurts, who is suiting up for only his fifth career start in the NFL. His ability as a runner is the wildcard here. Can the Eagles coaches put Hurts in the best position to deal with Pees’ aggressive scheme? Of all the questions surrounding the Eagles offense, this is the most important for week one.

I’d expect Sirianni to try to keep the passing offense simple for Hurts. Half field reads, short throws, getting the backs and tight ends heavily involved — this is how you ease a young player into a game; keep it simple. The issue is that it simplifies the game for Dean Pees as well. We should all expect him to throw the book at Hurts. A veteran center in Kelce will help the Eagles sift through the noise the Falcons will present. However, Hurts still has to quickly make the right reads and get the ball out of his hands. That is a lot to ask of a young quarterback who isn’t a polished passer, which creates a considerable problem for the Eagles. The answer to that problem is readily apparent, however. Focus on the run game.

Hurts is a dangerous runner, and that persistent threat will force Atlanta into playing very disciplined football. Any breakdowns in run-fits or coverage can quickly turn into explosive plays, and Hurts’ ability to scramble may push Atlanta into worrying more about containment than pass rush. The plan is likely to keep Hurts in the pocket and force him to throw, but that only works if the coverage is competent. Atlanta has some obvious questions there, particularly when it comes to covering tight ends. Ertz and Goedert may be in line for an impressive start to the season. All eyes will be on Devonta Smith, but Quez Watkins vs. Isaiah Oliver may be the matchup to watch. The speedy Watkins is precisely the type of receiver Oliver struggled with last year.

Hurts will play a significant role for the running backs too. You can rest assured Sirianni has a playbook full of read-option plays he’s dying to debut. I expect Atlanta’s edge defenders to be put into conflict the entire game. Can Dean Pees assemble a game plan to combat that? If he does, can the Falcons defenders hold their water and play sound, disciplined football? Patience and discipline should be the mantra this week at Flowery Branch. The Eagles have a talented and experienced group of offensive linemen, so winning on physicality alone isn’t likely. This game will be about doing getting the basics right. Be sound in assignments, make the tackles, don’t give away yardage. Get the foundational stuff right this week, and that should be enough to win.

Final Prediction: Falcons 17 – Eagles 13

This game will be telling for the 2021 Falcons. Though the Eagles have veteran talent, this is still a bottom third roster coming into our stadium this week. Atlanta is arguably in a similar position, despite optimism from some of the fan base. If the Falcons go out, take care of business, and control this game from start to finish, it may be a sign some of us are underestimating this Falcons squad. However, anything short of a convincing win should be interpreted as a warning sign. Nothing is an “easy” win in the NFL, but, on paper, this is a winnable game. If Smith and Fontenot want to prove this isn’t a rebuild, they need to win this game.

Ultimately, I do believe Atlanta walks away with a win, but I don’t think it’s a pretty one. The Eagles’ defensive line will be a challenge, and I don’t think Atlanta is quite ready for it. Lucky for us, I have less faith in the Eagles’ offense. I think Pees will have this unit ready to answer questions and quiet doubters right out of the gate. I expect a sloppy game from both teams, as both rookie coaches try to find their footing, but the Falcons escape with a win in their home opener.

As a final note, I want to express how grateful I am to join the ATB team and look forward to helping our team bring compelling Falcons content to everyone! Keep an eye out for all the great content from the sports world on the Around the Block network, articles from a bevy of sharp Falcons writers, and the always excellent Around the Block Falcons podcast. Enjoy week one, and we’ll be back to celebrate (hopefully) in a few days!

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