An offseason of coaching upheaval, the loss of a franchise legend, and a pre-season without a single win. The post-season gives way to the off-season. Off-season gives way to pre-season, gives way to final round of cuts, and here we are. Arriving just as quickly as the previous iteration ended, the 2021 NFL season is here. And the Falcons have a game.
Yes, the Arthur Smith-era of the Atlanta Falcons may have begun in earnest back in January, but the real starting point is this Sunday. September 12th, against the Philadelphia Eagles. You may recall that the last era of Falcons football, helmed by Dan Quinn, began under very similar circumstances. At home to the Eagles on the first day of the season. While we don’t have the pomp of Monday Night Football as the backdrop, there’s something eerie about the way the football Gods devised such a schedule.
Much like the Falcons, the Eagles are a team troubled. They, too, have question marks all over their roster, not least at the role of quarterback. Jalen Hurts took over the role of starter towards the end of 2020, and did a pretty ok job under the circumstances. His performances were solid enough for the franchise to feel comfortable moving on from long-time starter Carson Wentz, despite the financial implications involved with such a transaction.
It remains to be seen whether Hurts is the long-term answer for the Eagles, but you can to commend them for investing in him moving forward. Both he and Wentz had very little to throw to in 2020, so they add college phenom Devonta Smith. Injuries have plagued the Eagles offensive line in recent years, so they added Alabama center, Landon Dickerson. These are smart moves, and good players, coming from a school that only knows how to win. That should help the Eagles long term.
That’s not to say the Eagles are a good team. They’re not, really. They finished 2020 with a 4-11-1 record for a reason. The late resignation of Doug Pederson did nothing to help them prepare for the draft and beyond. In many ways, Nick Sirianni has a bigger job on his hands than his fellow rookie counter-part on the opposite sideline. Outside of Smith, the bulk of the Eagles passes will be headed to either Dallas Goedert, or Zach Ertz (despite their best efforts to move him on this summer). You can expect a step forward from Jalen Reagor, but it’s hard to look at what he does without immediately comparing him to Justin Jefferson. And their run game, while effective, leaves plenty to be desired.
The Eagles built a Super Bowl-winning team on their defense. That defense didn’t become the dynasty we expected it to, but a lot of the pieces in their 2021 effort can flash. Fletcher Cox is likely to look across the trench at Jalen Mayfield and Matt Hennessey, and wonder if time had broken and it was actually his birthday. In the secondary, Darius Slay, taking full advantage of the new numbers rule, struggled to live up to his own lofty expectations in 2020. It would be foolish to expect that to be the norm in 2021.
That said, however, the Eagles aren’t exactly vintage this time around. Their pre-season, much like the Falcons, suggested a lack of seriously talented depth. They too managed exactly 0 wins over their 3 games (though they did nab a tie again the Jets). Looking at both sides, they feel like they’re inversed mirrors of each other. The positions the Falcons are assured in, the Eagles aren’t so. Where the Eagles excel, the Falcons flounder. If there were a way to smash these two sides together, you’d get a pretty alright team. As it is, we have two largely bad teams trying to nullify each other.
Where it’s won and lost
So how do the Falcons win? It’ll be no surprise that the secret to the Falcons’ success, both this weekend and moving forward, will likely be found through the air. Julio Jones might be gone, but the addition of Kyle Pitts should go some way to making up for that loss. When you look at the collection of linebackers that’ll attempt to cover him and Hayden Hurst, it’s clear that’ll be the route to victory for Atlanta.
The issue, of course, will be giving Matt Ryan time. Ryan was sacked 41 times in 2020, and it’s tough to look at the current crop of offensive linemen with the genuine belief that they’ll do a better job in 2021. Fletcher Cox, Ryan Kerrigan, Brandon Graham, even Derek Barnett, should all look at this match-up with wide eyes.
The Eagles will look at their defense as the route to victory, but they, too need to give Jalen Hurts the time to work. If you thought Matt Ryan was hard done by, protection-wise, you’ve not seen anything yet. The most sacked QB in the NFL last season was Carson Wentz. And he only played 12 games. While the Eagles should be healthier in 2021, the new-look Falcons defensive line should consider this an excellent opportunity to get the season off to the best possible start.
The most exciting thing, from the perspective of the Falcons, is that Arthur Smith and company showed absolutely nothing in pre-season. Kyle Pitts played exactly one down. Key starters didn’t even get on the field. We know nothing about how this side will actually look come Sunday, and the Eagles will have been preparing using Feleipe Franks tape. That must be a nightmare to deal with.
Get on with it
So who wins this Sunday? Excellent question. You’d imagine that the Eagles’ defense should give them the edge, as their offense will be playing against one of the league’s worst in 2020. If Jalen Hurts can get comfortable, and find a rhythm with his receivers, it could be a long afternoon for Atlanta. If Dean Pees can find a way to get this defense playing to a reasonable level early, however, it opens the door for the Falcons’ offense to click. First game of the season, at the Benz, under a new setup? I’m willing to back emotion winning out on this occasion.
Falcons 24 – 17 Eagles