The Philadelphia Eagles trounced the Atlanta Falcons in their season opener, 32-6. In what was a very encouraging start for the Nick Sirianni-Jalen Hurts era of Eagles football, there are a few key takeaways from Sunday’s matchup.
1) The Eagles now have a number 1 receiver!
For years the Eagles have lacked a true alpha receiver, someone who could win one on one situations and make the other team pay. Someone who can carry entire drives and seemingly always be open.
DeVonta Smith is that receiver. In his NFL debut the Alabama product was as advertised, catching 6 receptions for 71 yards along with a beautiful touchdown on his first reception. That touchdown reception was in the same corner of Mercedes Benz Stadium where he first caught the world by storm, in the 2017 National Championship.
After throwing him the 18-yard touchdown, Jalen Hurts continuosly looked Smith’s way including a stretch that included four times in a row on a drive midway through the game. The two made it look deceptively easy carrying the drive down the field, giving fans a glimpse of the deadly duo the two have the potential to be.
Having a receiver as polished and explosive as Smith on the Eagles roster is an incredibly exciting prospect–it has been a very long time since fans have been able to depend on a receiver to get open and catch the ball when needed…it seems DeVonta Smith might just be that guy.
The separation Smith gets on his routes from the release off the line along with the explosiveness he shows after the catch looks elite, and should give Eagles fans a lot to be excited about.
2) Cohesiveness as a unit
Even for the average fan, the dysfunction within the Philadelphia Eagles organizations was obvious every time they played last year. It was obvious the Eagles were not a cohesive unit, which made watching every game that much more laborious.
Through the first game of this season, it is obvious that this team is different. The chemistry and camaraderie on the team could not be more obvious. Whether it be Jalen Hurts and Nick Sirianni celebrating touchdowns with a handshake created by Sirrianni’s son or the offense seemingly having an unshakeable belief in themselves and being steady throughout the course of the game, the chemistry within the team was obvious.
Jalen Reagor, a player many fans were already ready to anoint a bust had 6 catches on 6 targets for 49 yards and a touchdown, which is already more receptions than he had in a game all of last year. He showed the raw athleticism, explosiveness, and potential that made him a first-round pick last year on the touchdown he scored off of a screen.
Even J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, a player who most had given up on had several timely plays that won’t show up in the stat sheet. JJAW was also one of the two receivers to start the game, an obvious homage to his hard work throughout camp, willingness to be a hardnosed blocker, and Sirrianni’s cultural emphasis upon competition and letting the best man win. Although he did not record a reception he looked strong and confident as a blocker and was flying around on special teams, making one tackle and almost blocking a punt in the process. He, unfortunately, hurt his ankle during the game but if he can stay healthy, he has an important role within the offense.
It was also nice to see Quez Watkins play a prominent role early on in the game, catching three balls early for 23 yards. It will be interesting to see how the receiver rotation continues to evolve as the year progresses and all of the young receivers continue to gain experience.
The impact Nick Sirianni and his staff have had on the younger player’s confidence cannot be understated. This coaching staff has an obvious idea of the culture they want to foster in the locker room and they are doing a strong job of instilling the correct values to make this a reality.
This coaching staff’s prowess with playcalling also cannot be understated. After watching the forced debacle that was the Philadelphia Eagles offense last year, it was enthralling to see this iteration of the Eagles offense having a clear and balanced attack that looked like a cohesive offensive approach and not random plays put together by a bunch of coaches.
3) Running Back by committee has good balance…but no Boston Scott?
The emphasis upon a strong running game throughout the opening game was a welcome change-up from the “Forced Air Raid” that was the Eagles’ offense last year.
The running back committee ran the ball 24 times with an additional 7 runs (for 62 yards) tacked on by Jalen Hurts. Interestingly enough, the main two running backs were Miles Sanders (74 rushing and 39 receiving) and Kenny Gainwell (37 rushing and 6 receiving), with Boston Scott notably absent from the snap count (Maybe they’re saving him exclusively for the Giants games, I’m kidding….maybe).
Sanders looked especially explosive during the game, both as a runner and as a receiver out of the backfield. With all of the talk this summer about him struggling with drops, it did not seem to be an issue today.
Whether it will be an issue later on down the road remains to be seen. Regardless, it was encouraging to see him catch the ball naturally and get his groove as a runner.
Gainwell, the Eagles fifth-round pick this year is the most recent running back to come out of the running back factory that is the University of Memphis. Known for his natural hands and explosiveness, Gainwell may remind many of the legendary Darren Sproles, as his career continues on, due to his diminutive size at 5’9 but powerful running as well as his dominance as a receiver out of the backfield.
Seeing that this coaching staff is high on Gainwell is a great sign as he has incredibly high-upside and is on a cheap rookie deal for the next four years.
Both running backs showed great toughness as blockers as well, setting strong blocks to give Jalen Hurts time on crucial third-downs. The ability of all the backs to be able to play on third-down bodes well for the team’s ability to keep defenses on their toes.
4. The flexiblility of the defense
Many Eagles fans started to get nervous early on about the defense, as the Falcons were on first couple drives gashed the Eagles for nice gains on the ground. But what stood out in those first couple drives is that despite the Falcons being able to drive on the Eagles, they always managed to bend and not break, meaning they were driven on all the way down to the red zone but were able to stop the Falcons from scoring a touchdown and held them to only a pair of field goals.
The Falcons were held entirely scoreless in the second half and although it was a valiant effort from the entire defensive unit and coaching staff, it would not have been possible for them to be so stifling without the defensive line coming together as a unit.
The pressure the defensive line unit as a whole got was suffocating to Matt Ryan, sacking him 3 times and pressuring him countless more. Javon Hargrave, the crown jewel of last year’s free-agent class showed just why the Eagles signed him with 2 sacks and 6 combined tackles.
Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox additionally showed that they still “got it” with dominant overall performances from both. Josh Sweat also had an encouraging day, flying around and making plays.
Rookie Milton Williams continues to impress whenever he is on the field. He is incredibly strong and knows how to use his strength which gives him sky-high potential, especially as he can work on his technique with help from the accomplished veterans in the locker room.
The strength of this team could truly be the defensive line, a unit that could potentially be the best in the league, so their dominance today should have Eagles fans excited for the rest of the season.
Jonathon Gannon should absolutely be commended for this game as well. Not only did he call a great game, but he was not afraid to make in-game adjustments to his game plan (something his predecessor was very stubborn about). Early on it was clear that Calvin Ridley was finding weak spots within the zone and that we needed to do something to combat his early dominance. Gannon put Darius Slay on Ridley and essentially erased him from Atlanta’s offensive plan.
Falcons’ first-round pick, Kyle Pitts was absolutely a threat to break this game in favor of the Falcons today, however, Gannon’s scheme had Pitts uncomfortable all day and limited him to a measly 4 receptions for 31 yards and no touchdowns.
The Eagles’ defense should be applauded for their effort throughout the entire game. Holding an NFL team out of the end zone and to only two field goals for an entire game is an incredible achievement and speaks to the limitless potential this defense could have, despite certain weaknesses.
The Eagles were also one of the only defenses in the NFL to not allow a passing play of more than 25+ yards this week. It seems the Eagles have found a great defensive coordinator in Jonathan Gannon. One who knows how to coach around his personnel and put his players in the best position to succeed.
5. Offensive Line – Strong but obviously returning
Seeing the offensive line return to form with Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks was a welcome sight, as both are All-Pro players when healthy. The unit which allowed 65 sacks last year allowed one total sack today and mostly provided Hurts with clean pockets and time to make throws.
The offensive line was dominant in the running and screen game as well, showing off the athleticism and power that makes this unit as special as it is. These strengths were on clear display with Jason Kelce’s lead blocking on a Miles Sanders run and Jordan Mailata’s bone-crunching block on Jalen Reagor’s touchdown screen.
One would be remiss, however, if the penalties during the game were not mentioned. Although the Eagles looked dominant in nearly all phases of the game, they still left points (money as Jalen Hurts would say) and drives on the field. The reason for most of these dead drives were self-inflicted wounds and not the result of anything special from Atlanta’s defense.
During the game, there were various false starts and holds from nearly every member of the offensive line. I do not, however, believe this to be a place for concern. The Eagles have one of the strongest and most veteran offensive lines in the league, yet many of their star players missed significant time last year and did not have a significant snap count in the preseason, therefore most of these mistakes can be chalked up to rust and returning to the speed of live games.
I do not foresee the Eagles offensive line struggling with penalties as they did today, but rather for them to be one of the strengths of the offensive unit (assuming they are all able to stay healthy) and one that will become even stronger with the addition of highly touted second-round left guard Landon Dickerson.
6) Just for Fun
- I thought Greg Olsen did a great job in the booth. He did not seem biased towards either team, was knowledgeable, and had good chemistry with Kevin Burkhardt. He is definitely one of the better ex-player broadcasters to come out in the last couple of years and is lightyears better than Jason Witten.
- Arryn Sippos has an absolute boot. The punter from Australia averaged 47.3 yards per punt and landed two of four punts inside the opponent’s 10.
- I thought Nick Sirianni and Jalen Hurts did an incredible job in the two-minute drill at the end of the first half. It did not seem rushed once and the entire drive felt methodical and well planned.
- It never felt like the moment was too big for either of the two. Jalen showed a great balance of using his legs to extend plays and pick up yardage throughout the two-minute drill as well as throughout the rest of the game. His most impressive throw of the day was the touchdown throw to Dallas Goedert (credit to Goedert as well for making an incredibly difficult catch) with four seconds left in the half. The poise and maneuverability in the pocket as well as the placement and touch on the throw were elite.
Sirianni’s play calling and game management was up to par throughout the entirety of the game. His aggressiveness on fourth-down and going for two after a touchdown was a welcome change from what most had been expecting of him due to how he had spoken about those situations in press conferences.
Although the Eagles were unable to execute on both of their fourth-down attempts, Sirianni’s intrepidity in going for it multiple times spoke to his willingness to be aggressive. I expect the execution of these situations to occur more often as the team spends more time together and with the playbook. The play designs they unveiled were exciting as well, full of purposeful misdirection and getting your best players in space to make plays. The screen Reagor turned into a touchdown was the perfect example of that, with the run fake to Sanders before throwing it out to Reagor.
The potential of this offense in terms of play calling and the unit itself should have Eagles fans thrilled about this season and the long-term future of this team.
The Jalen Hurts and Nick Sirianni era is here, and I for one, could not be more excited. The Eagles take on the San Fransisco 49ers in their home opener next Sunday.
Cover Image Credit: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson