It’s that time of week where we turn to a fellow SB Nation site and enemy of the week for insights into the team our Falcons are lining up to play. This week, we have the great Brandon Gowton from the great Bleeding Green Nation, one of my favorite sites on the network, to give us a better sense of what to expect from the Eagles.
I answered five questions earlier this week—and was accused of being cocky for predicting a win by readers at BGN, which is probably fair given how many issues with the Falcons I ticked off in my responses—and my Q&A with Gowton is below. The more I learn about the Eagles, the more I suspect they’ll be an improved team this year, and this should at the very least be a good game.
Dave Choate: Jalen Hurts is the unquestioned starter in Philadelphia. I think he’s got a bright future, but how are you (and Eagles fans more generally) feeling about his upside and the team’s changes at quarterback in 2021?
Brandon Gowton: I like Jalen Hurts. I felt like I was higher than most on him heading into the 2020 NFL Draft. But I certainly never thought he made sense for the Eagles to draft at No. 53 overall, especially if the plan was truly for him to be nothing more than a backup. But, hey, what’s done is done, and we’re here now. Carson Wentz is gone, as he should be, and Hurts remains.
I’d be lying if I said I feel confident in Hurts proving himself as the Eagles’ franchise quarterback, though. He was really bad last year. In an admittedly small sample size, he led the NFL in bad throw percentage and ranked last in on target throws (via Pro Football Reference). Accuracy was a major issue, as was holding on to the ball. Only six players fumbled more than Hurts last year despite the fact he played just 334 snaps (29.6%)
In fairness to Hurts, he wasn’t working in an ideal situation. Doug Pederson was burnt out, the Eagles’ offensive line was a series of revolving doors, the skill players weren’t any good, and so on. Rookie quarterback performance isn’t always necessarily indicative of a player’s entire career.
At the end of the day, though, I have a hard time believing Hurts is going to bridge the cavernous gap from being one of the league’s worst starters to one of the very best. And I believe the latter is the bar he has to clear for the organization to not look to upgrade on him.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is admittedly “obsessed” with having an elite passing offense. I can’t see him settling for “good enough” at the quarterback position. Especially when the Eagles will have the necessary assets to acquire a top talent such as Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson. If Hurts leaves any doubt that he’s the guy, the feeling here is that the team will look to pivot to a new starter under center.
I think a number of Eagles fans realize there’s a decent chance Hurts isn’t the long-term answer. I also think some evaluations of him could be clouded by wishful thinking. And I get it. It’d certainly be ideal if the Eagles could use three potential first-round picks in the 2022 NFL Draft to build around Hurts as opposed to replacing him.
And so I can easily envision there being heated debates about what the Eagles should do with Hurts after this season. He’s probably not going to make it easy on the team by either being really good (keep him) or really bad (move on). He’ll probably be somewhere in the middle.
Dave Choate: I’m concerned the Eagles defensive line is going to be a big problem for the Falcons. How good and deep is that group, and is the linebacker corps as shaky as it looks on paper?
Brandon Gowton: Not an unreasonable concern. It is indeed a good and deep group.
Fletcher Cox is a known commodity. We all recognize that him going up against third-round rookie Jalen Mayfield could be a huge mismatch. And it’s not as simple as dedicating extra attention to Cox. The problem with double-teaming him is that it gives Javon Hargrave more chances at 1-on-1s. Hargrave arguably had the best training camp of any Eagles player, regularly living in the backfield.
Fourth-year defensive end Josh Sweat is another player who had a standout summer. The rotation of him, Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, and Ryan Kerrigan is going to be able to generate pressure from the edge.
As for the linebacker corps? There’s actually some level of optimism about that position. It has to do with relative expectations, of course. The Eagles had some truly terrible linebacker options in recent seasons. Nathan Gerry was really bad last year. They don’t seem to have anyone THAT inept right now. Alex Singleton and Eric Wilson aren’t going to be Pro Bowlers but they at least bring some strengths to the table. Singleton is a tackling machine and Wilson boasts pass coverage skills. There’s hope that the linebackers won’t be a total liability.
Dave Choate: What do you expect this Eagles team to do well against Atlanta? What’s going to be the key to winning the game for them?
Brandon Gowton: The big key on offense is Hurts taking advantage of what appears to be a gettable Falcons secondary. I get that A.J. Terrell was a first-round pick and has some potential. But looking at the other starters there … Fabian Moreau, Duron Harmon, and Erik Harris? Those dudes shouldn’t be scaring anyone.
Moreau couldn’t prove to be a long-term piece in Washington and signed with Atlanta for under $1 million. Harris started for one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses last year and allowed an 124.1 passer rating when targeted. Harmon also started for a really bad pass defense and is on his third team in three years. If Hurts can’t do anything against this group, that’s a big problem.
The big key on defense is what we already touched on with the Eagles’ defensive line. Getting interior pressure to knock Matt Ryan off of his spot will be especially critical.
4) If you were Arthur Smith, what would you do to beat the Eagles? What are the most exploitable matchups and can you also send your answer directly to Arthur Smith?
I don’t think that last part will be necessary since he no doubt reads both The Falcoholic and Bleeding Green Nation. (Editor’s note: Correct.)
If I was Arthur Smith, I wouldn’t overthink it. I’d be looking to force feed Calvin Ridley and Kyle Pitts over and over. Make the Eagles prove they can defend those guys. Don’t rely too heavily on the run, only mixing it in when appropriate. Get the ball out quick to neutralize the Eagles’ pass rush.
If I was Dean Pees, I’d be looking to make Hurts prove he can beat the Falcons’ defense with an intermediate passing attack. That hasn’t been his strength as much as the Eagles quarterback has been able to hit the short and long stuff. Play back and force him to continue to lead long drives over and over.
5) What are your expectations for this game, this season, and coach Nick Sirianni?
I think the Eagles are going to win this game, 27 to 24. I’m surprising myself with that prediction because I spent most of the offseason not feeling good about this team’s outlook. What changed for me is watching them have a successful training camp. The vibes around this team just seem to be a whole lot better than they were last year. And I don’t think that leads to the Eagles being a Super Bowl contender by any means. I don’t even think they’ll be able to hit double-digit wins. But they could be about 8-9 or 9-8.
Then again, maybe I’m glossing over the possibility that Hurts could be pretty bad and that Sirianni and most of his coaching staff are largely unproven in their current roles. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the new Eagles head coach when he’s literally never been a primary play-caller over an extended period of time. I think we’ll see some signs of promise but hardly a finished product.
Thanks again to Brandon for taking the time and providing insights about the Eagles!