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Intriguing players to watch in Falcons vs. Eagles

How can the Falcons best attack the Eagles’ defense? Can the pass rush get home against a talented OL? Is Steve Sarkisian ready to take a step forward as a coordinator? We take a closer look at some of the most interesting players to watch during Thursday’s game.

Divisional Round - Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

I can’t believe it: the 2018 NFL season is almost here. That’s right, in approximately 24 hours, the Atlanta Falcons will take on the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL’s season opener on Thursday night. I am pretty hyped, and I hope you are too. You should be especially excited, however, because the Falcons actually have a legit chance of winning this game.

The Eagles are still dealing with some preseason injuries, and there might not be a better opportunity for the Falcons to steal a win against them. QB Carson Wentz is still recovering from his previous injury. LB Nigel Bradham is suspended. WRs Alshon Jeffery and Mack Hollins are out. DT Timmy Jernigan is out with a back injury and Brandon Graham is just getting back on the practice field after a preseason ankle injury. Let’s hope the Falcons can take advantage on Thursday night.

Below are some of the most interesting players and match-ups to watch during the Falcons’ Week 1 game against the Eagles. Check them out below, and share some of your own match-ups to watch in the comments.

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman

With the Eagles missing LB Nigel Bradham (suspension) and run-stuffing DT Timmy Jeringan (injury), the Falcons would be wise to test the Philadelphia defense early and often with their dynamic RB duo of Freeman and Coleman. In the divisional round of 2017, Devonta Freeman was dealing with an injury which significantly impacted his play—while Tevin Coleman looked great and should have been used more in that game.

Getting advantageous match-ups will be vitally important against a stout defense like Philadelphia’s. Running the ball against the Eagles’ front, even without Bradham, might be difficult. Instead, the Falcons should test the Eagles’ inexperienced LBs by using their RB duo in the passing game. Having Freeman and Coleman on the field together would force one of Nathan Gerry or Kamu Grugier-Hill into coverage, and that’s a match-up that Freeman and/or Coleman could exploit.

The Falcons OL

One of the biggest stories of the 2017 divisional game was the inability of Atlanta’s offensive line to protect Matt Ryan and get much of anything going in the run game. It wasn’t entirely unexpected—LG Andy Levitre was on IR, forcing Ben Garland into the line-up alongside struggling rookie RG Wes Schweitzer. Despite this challenge, the Falcons probably still should’ve won that game.

Heading into Thursday night, Andy Levitre is healthy (which is a big deal for this offense), and the team has a shiny new RG in free agent addition Brandon Fusco. Fusco isn’t an elite option, but he’s an above-average veteran that should provide far more stability than Schweitzer—who has been relegated to a depth role this season. Whether or not this healthier, more experienced offensive line can succeed where the 2017 iteration failed will be one of the biggest factors in deciding the outcome of Thursday’s game.

The pass rush

On the other side of the ball, the most important thing might be getting to Nick Foles and disrupting the Eagles’ offense. Philadelphia has elite bookend tackles in LT Jason Peters and RT Lane Johnson to go along with a top-tier center in Jason Kelce and a very good guard in Brandon Brooks. The weak point on the offensive line is LG Stefen Wisniewski—who is merely an average player in most respects. That is who the Falcons must target on Thursday night.

We saw during the preseason that the Falcons’ greatest pass rushing strength might be their interior defensive linemen. Grady Jarrett is an elite player, and Jack Crawford looked impressive against Jacksonville. You can count on the Eagles doubling Jarrett whenever possible, so it’ll be up to Crawford, Vic Beasley, and Takk McKinley to get pressure elsewhere. Whether Atlanta can generate enough pressure to make things difficult for Philadelphia’s offense will likely be the difference between which QB they get: 2017 regular season Nick Foles, who was downright abysmal at times—or 2017 playoffs Nick Foles, who won the Super Bowl.

Duke Riley and Foye Oluokun

If you think the Falcons are likely to test the Eagles’ LBs early and often, you can bet that Philadelphia will be doing the exact same thing to Atlanta. Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell are both quality starters, but Duke Riley and/or Foye Oluokun are totally unproven. How these two perform on Thursday night could have a big impact in the outcome of the game.

Riley is listed as the starter at WILL on the team’s official depth chart. He looked anywhere from awful to serviceable during the preseason, but we should expect the Eagles to target him whenever he’s on the field. Don’t be surprised if Philadelphia uses 2 TEs most of the time on offense—particularly with Alshon Jeffery and Mack Hollins, two of the team’s top-4 WRs, out. Those 2 TE sets will likely force the Falcons into a base package on defense, meaning that Riley will see the field a lot. Here’s to hoping that he’s ready to go—or that the Falcons have some sort of plan devised for this, like Kazee playing in a “big nickel” 3 safety set.

Keanu Neal and De’Vondre Campbell

While we should all be a bit concerned about the play of Riley and/or Oluokun, we can take solace in the fact that we have top-notch players like Keanu Neal and De’Vondre Campbell backing them up. If the Eagles’ do indeed stick with mostly 2 TE sets during Thursday’s game, the Falcons have the perfect personnel to cover them. We saw in 2017 that Neal is one of the NFL’s best coverage safeties against TEs, and the big, athletic De’Vondre Campbell is tailor-made for the job.

Not many teams have two quality TE coverage options that could match-up with the likes of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert, but the Falcons do. Being able to effectively defend this personnel grouping will be key to stopping the Eagles’ offense. The Falcons have the CBs to neutralize just about any WR group—Alford and Trufant should have the advantage over Nelson Agholor and Mike Wallace—but just how well Neal and Campbell rise to the challenge will tell us a lot about the overall potential of Atlanta’s defense in 2018.

The new offensive weapons and Steve Sarkisian

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the defense, now let’s switch gears back to the offense—or, perhaps more appropriately, the offensive coordinator. It’s no secret that Falcons fans have a love-hate relationship with Steve Sarkisian after he presided over a rather precipitous drop-off from the historic 2016 offense. Some of that drop-off should’ve been expected, but the rest likely had a lot to do with Sark’s bland and predictable offensive playcalling.

It’s now year 2 with Sark, and he’s reportedly much more comfortable running the offense. He’s also got some shiny new toys to play with in the form of first round rookie WR Calvin Ridley and second-year TE Eric Saubert—who finally appears ready to step into an actual role. Will we see from Sark what we all loved about Shanahan: gameplanning for an opponents weaknesses and attacking them relentlessly? Will Calvin Ridley be what we all hope: a top-flight WR3 that can feast against a team’s third best CB? Can Eric Saubert take the next step and give the Falcons a good 2 or even 3 TE set? We’ll get our first glimpse into these answers on Thursday night.

Who are some players that you’ll be watching closely on Thursday? Any particular match-ups that you’re interested in, or concerned about? What are some predictions you have for Falcons vs. Eagles?