The first game of the Falcons 2021 season is finally here! Atlanta takes on Philadelphia on Sunday in what has become a familiar early-season clash. Unfortunately, season-opening losses have also become routine for this team: the Falcons have dropped their last 3 Week 1 games. The last time they won was against the Bears in 2017, which was coincidentally the last time this team was competitive.
Atlanta is a slight favorite over the Eagles at home, as both teams struggled mightily in 2020. For a breakdown of how these teams match up statistically, take a look at my stats preview for Week 1. Here are some of the key matchups for both teams as they look to start the season off with a win.
Falcons OL vs Eagles DL
This is the marquee matchup for most Falcons fans, and not for positive reasons. Atlanta’s offensive line is in a state of flux. There are three established starters: left tackle Jake Matthews, right guard Chris Lindstrom, and right tackle Kaleb McGary. Matthews and Lindstrom are fringe Pro Bowl-caliber talents, so that helps things, and McGary has been steadily improving. After them, there’s the promising but unproven second-year center, Matt Hennessy, and a total wild card in third-round rookie Jalen Mayfield at left guard.
Meanwhile, the Eagles feature a pass rush that ranked 2nd in the league in pressure rate in 2020. Their interior duo of Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave has to be among the most disruptive in the league, and on the outside Philadelphia has a deep rotation of quality talent. I think we can expect Atlanta to struggle to protect Matt Ryan in this game—and hopefully the gameplan is built around it—but they just have to do enough to keep the offense functional. Can they? We’ll see, but it’s quite the baptism by fire for Hennessy and Mayfield.
Falcons TEs vs Eagles LBs
While the Eagles have the advantage in the trenches, they have a clear weakness: the LB corps. Their starters in nickel packages—which are the vast majority of snaps these days—are Eric Wilson and Alex Singleton. Both are below-average starters who struggle in coverage. Philadelphia’s best linebacker is Genard Avery, who is more of a hybrid pass rusher instead of a coverage player.
This weakness plays right into the strength of Atlanta’s offense: 12 personnel packages. Expect Arthur Smith to take full advantage by using 2 and even 3-TE sets on a majority of plays to force the Eagles to play base defense and match up their LBs on Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst. The more LBs on the field for Philadelphia, the better things will be for the Falcons. We may not have to wait long for Kyle Pitts to put up a monster game: I expect he’ll be the focal point of Atlanta’s attack on Sunday.
Falcons LBs/Safeties vs Eagles TEs/Jalen Hurts
Eagles’ QB Jalen Hurts had his ups-and-downs as a passer in 2020, but where he excelled was as a runner. Hurts is a tremendous athlete, and he’s absolutely lethal if he can escape the pocket and find room to run. That’s why it’ll be imperative for the Falcons to limit the damage he can do with his legs. I believe Atlanta should put a spy on Hurts for the majority of the game, whether that’s Deion Jones, Foye Oluokun, or a safety like Erik Harris.
The strength of the Eagles’ passing game is their TE duo of Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. How Atlanta covers those two players with Jones, Oluokun, and their safeties will also be a key to this game. There will be a lot on the plate of these two defensive groups in containing this Eagles offense. Will Dean Pees’ new scheme be up to the task? It certainly won’t hurt that the Falcons have former Eagles TEs coach Justin Peelle on staff to help them come up with ways to defend Ertz and Goedert.
Falcons CBs vs Eagles WRs
The Eagles featured one of the worst WR groups in the NFL in 2020, but that could all change this season with the addition of DeVonta Smith. Smith has been impressive in training camp and could be exactly what Philadelphia needs to get their passing game back on track. There are still a lot of question marks behind him—Jalen Reagor, Quez Watkins, and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside aren’t scaring most secondaries at this point—but Smith could be a gamechanger.
Atlanta’s new-look cornerback trio could have their hands full on Sunday trying to limit these receivers. It’ll be interesting to see how Dean Pees deploys A.J. Terrell, Fabian Moreau, and Isaiah Oliver on Sunday to counter this group. Philadelphia has a lot of speed but very little size outside of Arcega-Whiteside. In theory, that should work out well for Atlanta: Terrell and Moreau are both excellent athletes, running a 4.42 and 4.35 respectively. The possible mismatch could be with Isaiah Oliver, who has tended to struggle with the speedier, more agile receivers. Expect Terrell to get 1-on-1 coverage on most plays, with Oliver or Moreau receiving safety help.
What are some matchups you’ll be watching when the Falcons take on the Eagles on Sunday?