The 2018 NFL season officially kicks off on Thursday night. We get a great matchup between two legitimate contenders in the NFC – the defending Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons.
While most commentary and analysis has revolved around the Eagles’ quarterback situation and Super Bowl run, our focus will be on where this game will actually be decided.
Who wins and why? If the Eagles emerge victorious, it will be because they dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. If the Falcons win, it will be because their skill players and speed on both sides of the ball made the difference.
Make no mistake about it, this was an evenly matched contest last January in the NFC divisional round. One play here or there, and maybe the season is kicking off in Atlanta instead of Philadelphia. We anticipate more of the same tonight. Yes, it is not exactly going out on a limb predicting a close game, but this is an intriguing matchup from an X’s and O’s standpoint.
Philadelphia has a slight advantage in the trenches on both sides of the ball. In the Divisional Playoff last January, Nick Foles came out struggling and missed some easy throws. While this could maybe be chalked up to nerves, the Eagles needed their ground game to truly get going. Jay Ajayi consistently gained positive yardage behind an elite offensive line, and this opened up the run-pass option (RPO) game, where Nick Foles excels. As the running game began drawing in Falcons linebackers, the Eagles started mixing in some play-action, and Foles began taking more pass options. He was able to complete some easy and defined throws as a result.
Still, Atlanta was able to keep themselves in position to win the game on their final offensive drive by blanketing Eagles receivers on the outside and taking away big plays in the passing game. We expect a similar dynamic tonight.
Offensively, Atlanta moved the ball using their speed and size on the outside as well as with their fast and shifty running backs. Their problem was finishing drives, largely because of the Eagles’ ability to put enough pressure on Matt Ryan.
In 2017, a glaring weakness for Philadelphia was getting beat on double moves in the secondary. When your defensive line is clicking and getting pressure on the quarterback, it allows your defensive backs to be more aggressive and jump routes, causing turnovers and pass break-ups. When the Eagles were on point last year, this strategy worked. However, when the pass rush didn’t do its job, Philly’s corners were often exposed. Jim Schwartz also had no answers for short, quick passing games that negate a great pass rush. We saw this clearly and repeatedly in the Super Bowl against New England.
A few things to watch on this side of the ball: How will Atlanta uses rookie wide receiver Calvin Ridley to complement Julio Jones on the outside? If the offensive line can hold up against Philly’s pass rush long enough, they should be able to win downfield vs. the Eagles’ secondary.
Another thing to keep an eye on is how the Eagles handle running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman in the passing game. Last year, Philadelphia used safety Malcolm Jenkins to match up on Freeman or Coleman in critical situations.
They did the same in Super Bowl LII against the Patriots and did so with success (Limiting New England’s running backs in the passing game was just about the only thing the Eagles did right on defense in the Super Bowl).
Keep in mind that the Eagles will be without two linebackers who were instrumental to their Super Bowl run; Nigel Bradham (1-game suspension) and Mychal Kendricks (Out of football due to insider trading…that was weird to type). Malcolm Jenkins won’t be able to cover both Freeman and Coleman if/when they’re on the field at the same time. That means the Falcons should be able to find a mismatch between one of their backs and Philly’s linebackers. Regardless of how they do it, we anticipate the Falcons taking advantage of their running backs in the passing game in order to wear down the Philly defense and reduce the impact of their pass rush. Some no huddle would help as well.
Given the emotion of opening the NFL season in their building coming off their first Super Bowl championship, it would not be surprising to see the Eagles come out on top. Both teams match up well against one another, and that extra emotion could be enough to put the Eagles over the edge. However, if the Falcons are who we think they are, they will come out and win a tough game on the road, setting them on a path to become one of the NFL’s best, if not the best, this season.