Good morning. The season is finally here. After much anticipation and an offseason of celebration, the Eagles will kick off their Super Bowl defense at 8:20 p.m. at Lincoln Financial Field. There will be a Super Bowl banner hanging in Philadelphia for the first time. A team that's in position to repeat will try to start the season on a positive note even though it will be playing without Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, and Nigel Bradham.
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— Zach Berman
After an uninspiring outing by Nick Foles in the third preseason game, coach Doug Pederson noted that the Eagles were still using a vanilla game plan. Compare the past 10 days to the two weeks leading up to the playoff game against the Falcons. The Eagles used that time to put a game plan together that best fit Foles. Even though the Eagles did not announce who would start at quarterback until this week, they knew this was a possibility and they also have last postseason to know what Foles can do best. So look for more run-pass options and quick passes from Foles, allowing him to make early reads and try to get into a rhythm. That's when Foles is best.
Of course, the chess game here is that the Falcons saw Foles in the Eagles offense in January's playoff game and might have answers the Eagles haven't seen.
If you look at the final statistics in the playoff win over Atlanta, Jay Ajayi's production seems modest (15 carries, 54 yards). But look at the first half, when he rushed 8 times for 50 yards. Ajayi's early effectiveness helped the entire offense. Ajayi could be a key to this game. In fact, the player who rushed for the most yards against the Falcons last season was Ajayi while he was with the Dolphins. The Eagles are going to make Ajayi close to their featured running back this season, and they should show it Thursday. The Eagles will trust their offensive line, which is perhaps the best in the NFL. They have Jason Peters back this year. The rushing offense behind that line can set the tone for the game.
Also, pay attention to how the Eagles use Darren Sproles. They have never had Sproles in the offense with Ajayi. You know Corey Clement will be involved, but Sproles adds a dimension the Eagles didn't have last season.
Without Alshon Jeffery or Mack Hollins, the Eagles are undermanned at wide receiver. That will hurt them, especially because Jeffery's presence on the outside is so important to the offense. But this was a good year to spend a second-round pick on a tight end. Look for the Eagles to get Dallas Goedert involved in the offense in two-tight-end sets with Zach Ertz. That could force the Falcons to make adjustments.
Ertz is one of the NFL's best tight ends, and putting Goedert on the field forces defenses to worry about two big, athletic targets. One of the defining characteristics of the Falcons defense is its speed, and as former offensive coordinator Frank Reich explained last year, the Eagles' strength can be an asset against speed. But the Eagles might be better served passing out of this set than running; they had more success running against Atlanta when they used three-receiver sets.
Watch how Nelson Agholor is affected by this change. With Ertz and Goedert on the field, the middle of the field can get crowded. Also, with Jeffery out, Agholor will get more attention from the defense. (The other wide receivers are Mike Wallace, Shelton Gibson, Markus Wheaton, and DeAndre Carter.) "I think just based on the production that he's had, he's somebody they need to account for, and we'll figure out quickly how they plan to attack us and try to defend Nelson and all the guys," offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. "But that will be the fun on Thursday night. That will be the challenge of it."
Fletcher Cox played perhaps the best game of his career in the playoffs against the Falcons. Pederson called him a "man on a mission" after Cox took 90 percent of the defensive snaps and finished with one sack, two quarterback hits, and two tackles for losses while dominating the line of scrimmage. Cox has said his goal for this season is to win defensive player of the year. That's a tall task, but he'll have a national audience watching him start his campaign.
He'll be playing without Tim Jernigan and Beau Allen next to him to start the season. It will be Haloti Ngata or Destiny Vaeao on early downs, with Michael Bennett and Brandon Graham expected to contribute as interior pass rushers. So Cox could help those players by drawing extra attention on the inside. The Falcons have a new right guard, Brandon Fusco, who came from San Francisco. They start five-time Pro Bowler Alex Mack at center. The Eagles' recipe for success is often winning the line of scrimmage. Cox gives them the best chance to do that.
Try watching last year's game and not be impressed with Bradham. He played every Eagles defensive snap and was a force, finishing with four tackles (including two for losses) and one sack. Bradham helped pace the run defense, which limited Devonta Freeman to seven yards.
Bradham is suspended this week. Yes, the Eagles have Jordan Hicks back, but they're going to miss Bradham. Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill will both get work with the first-team defense on Thursday. (The Eagles also no longer have Mychal Kendricks, who was the other linebacker last year.) The Falcons use a fullback more than most teams, so that could mean the Eagles play their base defense more often.
Considering they're undermanned at linebacker, the Eagles will probably be better in the nickel. I think they're best in a heavy nickel or dime, when Corey Graham is on the field as a third safety and Malcolm Jenkins can play almost as an extra linebacker. The key will be stopping the run. The Eagles had the NFL's top-ranked rush defense last season. The Falcons rushed for only 86 yards in the playoff game. If the Eagles keep Atlanta to fewer than 100 rushing yards again, it'll be a success.
The best player on Atlanta's offense is Julio Jones, whom I consider the top wide receiver in the NFL. Jones was targeted 16 times in the playoff game last season and finished with nine catches for 101 yards. He couldn't haul in the potential game-winning catch on the Falcons' final offensive play, though. When the Eagles played Atlanta in 2016 during Jim Schwartz's first year, Jones was also targeted 16 times and finished with 10 catches for 135 yards. It seemed the Eagles made a concerted effort to keep Jones in front of them. He's going to get his catches, but the Eagles wanted to get him to the ground and live to see another down. They won both games, so it worked.
The Eagles' secondary has a chance to be one of the best in the NFL this season, but they're not going to stop Jones. They just need to contain him and make sure no one else goes off against them. Jones can move around the formation. The Eagles will stick to Jalen Mills on one side and Ronald Darby on the other. They'll all see time on Jones. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is going to look in his direction, and the Eagles know it. But how strong will the coverage be on Mohamed Sanu and Calvin Ridley, the other top two receivers? The Falcons did not have another wide receiver with more than three catches in either of the two matchups against Schwartz's Eagles defense. (And Ryan's passer rating has been below his career and season marks in both games.)
It's going to be an electric atmosphere at Lincoln Financial Field starting with the pregame festivities. There's always excitement for a season opener. Add in a Super Bowl banner going up and a prime-time game, and it qualifies as the most anticipated season opener in recent memory. The players have made a concerted effort to move on from the Super Bowl, and they must harness the emotion Thursday night. The Thursday opener for the Super Bowl champs is often viewed as an advantage, although New England lost last season and the Giants lost in 2012.
The Eagles have been outstanding at home during Pederson's tenure, winning 15 of 18 games (including the playoffs). They are tough to beat in Philly. The crowd will be a major advantage. But the Eagles must use it properly.
Zach Berman: In the playoff game last year, you had early success. What does that do for the offense?
Ajayi: I think to be able to control the ball on the ground helps out the passing game, keeps us on schedule, and keeps us balanced. I think my role and especially the role of all of us in the running-back room is we pride ourselves on being the best group and making big plays for this team. We're going to be counted on a lot on Thursday to make big plays. They have a defense that's going to challenge us, and we're excited about that.
ZB: The passing game had success after your quick start. Do you think that could happen Thursday?
JA: I think the great thing about us as an offense and our personnel is we can keep defense on their toes. If they really want to press down on the run, we have great players on the outside and at tight end that create mismatches and personnel problems for the defense. For us, whatever the play is called, it's about executing that, and when those runs happen, make those big plays so if we do have a play-action pass, that defense is thinking run, run, run. And boom! That's when we hit them with a big play. It's always about having that "pick your poison" mentality, have our receivers and tight ends killing them, and us running backs doing our jobs running the ball with a punishing mentality.
ZB: You said last year you want a train whistle to be played when you score a touchdown. Have you spoken to the team about that? Is that something they'll introduce?
JA: I think we should be lucky enough to hear that train whistle. At the end of the day, you have to get into the end zone to hear it. That's just another little motivating thing for me, I guess.
That's a bit too ambitious, and this combination is different from those two when looking at size and playing styles. Plus, I don't anticipate the Eagles duo getting as much playing time together once the Eagles are healthy as the Patriots duo did, especially with the other targets the Eagles have on offense. But I do think the Eagles have a tight-end combination that will be among the best in the league. I expect a big year from Ertz, his finest yet in the NFL. And Goedert will be a part of the offense, albeit not one on the field for the majority of the snaps. Going forward, the Eagles will continue finding creative ways to use them together.
Good question. I'd say yes, to an extent. They can't rest on the Super Bowl laurels. And they make mistakes — they've already cut Donnel Pumphrey and Corey Nelson. They're not going to hit on every move, and Howie Roseman knows this. But I think they showed they're a smart front office that has a vision in mind for how to build the team. They do a good job managing contracts and they've identified the personality fit that they want for the locker room. What I like most is they're not risk-averse. Ultimately, every year is different. It's OK to question moves this year and going forward. But the Super Bowl roster showed they know what they're doing.