ONE AND YO!
Eagles Make Statement, Crush Falcons In Nick Sirianni's First Game
Rookie wide receiver DeVonta Smith caught the first touchdown and rookie running back Kenneth Gainwell ran in another to create score separation as Eagles rookies helped another first-timer – Nick Sirianni – win big in his head coaching debut.
Dallas Goedert and Jalen Reagor also caught touchdowns, and the Eagles (1-0) sacked Falcons quarterback and Downingtown, Pa., native Matt Ryan three times in the second half, to start their new-look 2021 season off with a commanding 32-6 win at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, emerging in a battle between two teams that won just four games last season and changed head coaches.
Gainwell, a rookie picked in the fifth round, scored an 8-yard touchdown run in the third quarter – set up by a Miles Sanders 25-yard gain on a screen – to put the Eagles up 22-6. From there, the Eagles shifted into cruise control and let their defense, which struggled early against the run, supply constant pressure on Ryan to make sure the Falcons (0-1) couldn’t come back. The Falcons eventually waved the white flag, removing Ryan for backup Josh Rosen – who had just joined the team less than two weeks earlier – with about 1 minute to play.
The Eagles will come home Sunday for their opener against the San Francisco 49ers, who also improved to 1-0 after throttling the Lions in Detroit.
Let’s go ahead with the observations:
1. Nick Sirianni’s offense, for the first week, used formational diversity to keep from being predictable. There was some motion here and there but Sirianni’s multitude of personnel packages really stood out. He used 11, 12 and 13 personnel. Multiple tight ends. Multiple receiver formations. Heck, even J.J. Arcega-Whiteside saw time in situations. There was read option, there were some RPOs, tight splits, wide splits, trips and empty backfield. There didn’t seem be one, base offense, which can make an offense hard to defend. DeVonta Smith (six catches, 71 yards) led the pass catchers in targets (8) but the all was distributed all over.
2. Despite the formational mashup, the Eagles appeared to want to move the ball laterally instead of vertically against a Falcons defense that isn’t exactly brimming with secondary talent. Most of Jalen Hurts’ passes were the short-to-intermediate routes, and as he promised, Sirianni’s offense featured plenty of passes to running backs. Six catches in total for Sanders and Gainwell. Eight overall targets to RBs. What we don’t know if this plan of attack was specifically catered to counteracting Atlanta’s defense or if the coaches aren’t yet ready, or aren’t yet comfortable, with trying to stress defenses over the top.
3. The big takeaway on Hurts: He threw accurately, delivered quickly and – most importantly – didn’t turn the ball over. He had one pass nearly picked off by Deion Jones near the right sideline when he tried to throw the ball away but otherwise protected the ball and didn’t give Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ offense any extra opportunities. That really helped in the third, as the Eagles extended their lead while the Falcons kept going backwards. The game reflected an excellent combination of the head coach and quarterback moving the ball with efficiency and balance.
4. As for Sirianni’s aggression, it was a big question going into the game. Would he be as aggressive on fourth down as Doug Pederson? Well, Sirianni kept the offense on the field on two fourth downs, although didn’t covert either of them. He also capitalized on a post-touchdown Falcons penalty by going for two – and getting it – with the ball placed at the 1. As for fourth down, Hurts avoided a bad sack and tossed the ball out of bounds after being chased toward the sideline by Grady Jarrett for a turnover on downs. Gainwell was stuffed on the second, a 4th-and-1 in the third quarter. It’s fair to question if Sirianni should’ve just taken the 3 points but the decisions didn’t come back to hunt him.
5. Just like they were in the preseason, the Eagles were carved up on the ground – until the second half. It helped that the Falcons couldn’t stop committing penalties, especially in the third, and kept getting behind the sticks, which took run out of play. It’s definitely something to watch for next Sunday, when the run-happy 49ers come to town. Remember, the Eagles are playing an entirely different style of defense up front, doing some read-and-react instead of flying at the quarterback with the wide nine mentality. The defensive ends were getting way too upfield in the first half, creating enormous cutback lanes for Falcons running backs. Atlanta ran for 124 yards and averaged 4.8 yards per carry, but found way fewer openings in the second half.
6. Still, Gannon’s two-deep coverages and his mix of schemes on the back end limited the Falcons’ ability to strike big plays. It was a bend-don’t-break kind of game for the Eagles’ defense early – helped out by a flurry of Falcons offensive penalties – but the two stops when backed up inside the red zone early were key. In the second half, Ryan never had the chance to go deep to Ridley or Kyle Pitts. Once the Falcons were forced into a double-digit deficit, the Eagles could stay in two-shell coverages, which forced Ryan to hold onto the ball and let the Eagles’ D-line do the work. The Eagles only had three sacks, but go watch the replay, they pushed the pocket constantly and forced Ryan into some hurried throws. Javon Hargave – Adam Caplan’s predicted player of the game in the ITB Pregame show – dominated the interior of the Falcon offensive line, along with Fletcher Cox and Hassan Ridgeway. Atlanta converted just three first downs on 14 attempts.
7. Dean Pees’ plan to pressure Hurts seemed cockeyed. The Falcons defensive coordinator blitzed him from the secondary quite a bit, moving him off his spot and out of the pocket, but didn’t maintain any rush integrity up front. None of the linemen could capitalize on pressure created by blitzes from the second level. Hurts ran 7 times for 62 yards, using his legs to move the chains, which also helped bail the Eagles out of some tight third-down situations.
8. Miles Sanders quietly had a really nice game, going over 100 total yards – 74 rushing, 39 receiving. They key: No drops, which was huge for him. His 25-yard screen catch set up Gainwell’s TD. We kept saying on ITB that Gainwell would get on the field early as long as he proved he could handle the workload. Boston Scott didn’t have any touches and Jordan Howard wasn’t even elevated from the practice squad.
9. It’s amazing that Calvin Ridley had just 5 catches for 51 yards after he caught three passes alone on Atlanta’s first possession. Credit that to the Eagles’ pressure up front but there were some good coverage in the secondary, too. The guy many thought would be a matchup disaster, rookie Kyle Pitts, caught just four passes for 31 yards.
10. Welcome to the Arryn Siposs moment. The new punter, yet another from Australian, excelled in his first shot to fill the role formerly held by Cam Johnson. Siposs showed that he could punt directionally, and dropped three inside the 10-yard line. Field position is such an underrated element of the game, especially for road teams, and the Falcons were constantly staring at long fields when taking over possession. Couldn’t have asked for a better debut.
– Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the “Inside the Birds” podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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