With a lull before offseason workouts and more Julio Jones trade rumors than anyone wants to talk about, it’s the right time to look ahead to a season we’re all looking forward to. The 2021 schedule is now written in stone for all 32 teams and the Atlanta Falcons find themselves with the third easiest schedule in the NFL based on 2020 records. Coming off a 4-12 campaign in 2020, the new regime in Atlanta will have a manageable slate in their initial season, and it’s never too early to start diving in to what will make those games interesting.
Starting off the 2021 season for Atlanta is a very familiar opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles. The last time these two teams met, the Falcons needed a late connection between Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to capture a 24-20 nail biter at home in 2019. This time around, the Falcons will have to deal with an Eagles team that is also ushering in a new coaching regime. Inside of that matchup, however, are some key matchups worthy of drilling down into.
Yes, even this far from the season. Let’s dive into it.
Falcons offensive line vs. Eagles defensive line
Believe it or not, this matchup will play a large role in how this contest plays out. The Eagles defense finished the 2020 season ranking third in the NFL in total sacks with 49. Between defensive ends Derek Barnett, Brandon Graham and Josh Sweat, as well as defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave, the line’s best combined for 30.5 of those 49 sacks. So yes, the strongest component of the Eagles defense (and possibly their entire team) is an active and deep defensive line that got even deeper with the recent free agent signing of former Washington edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan.
The acquisitions of running back Mike Davis and rookie tight end Kyle Pitts added reliable offensive weaponry to Atlanta’s armory. However, offensive success rests on the shoulders of an offensive line that showed glaring inconsistencies throughout the entire 2020 season. The offensive line allowed 41 sacks and 71 total hits, ranking 11th and sixth respectively.
Play scheme is expected to be improved this upcoming season with head coach Arthur Smith as the team’s play caller. Yet, none of that matters if this offensive line does not taken a considerable step forward collectively. A tough test awaits the group to open the season.
Falcons linebackers Deion Jones/Foye Oluokun vs. Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts
Rewind back to the 2018 season and then-Titans defensive coordinator Dean Pees oversaw a defense that recorded blitzes on 29.8% of their defensive snaps. That particular statistic ranked ninth in the NFL. During that season, inside linebackers Jayon Brown and Wesley Woodyard were first and second on that Titans defense in recorded blitzes, combining for 111 total.
Seeing where I am going with this?
Fast forward to present day and Pees now has a pair of athletic linebackers in Jones and Oluokun at his disposal in Atlanta. They are also a pair of linebackers who will likely anchor the middle of the Falcons newly installed 3-4 scheme. They will need every bit of that athleticism as they face off against a quarterback in Hurts that is look to establish himself as starting quarterback in the league.
This past season, Hurts showed a little promise and some notable red flags as a first time starter. In one particular matchup against Arizona last season, Hurts was blitzed a season-high 25 times, was sacked on six occasions and pressured a total of 12 times. While he passed for 338 yards and three touchdowns, he completed barely 55% of his passes and the constant harassment proved to be enough for the Cardinals to earn a hard fought win.
Keeping Hurts in line with the athleticism of Jones and Oluokun should be a main priority for the Falcons defense in week one.