It’s finally here. The 2021 season opens with a game that could set the tone for the Falcons defense going forward. Dean Pees is inheriting a unit that actually finished the 2020 season ranked 14th in DVOA, a surprising rank given the usually dire impressions fans have of this defense, and one aided by Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich righting the ship partway through the season.
By contrast, the Eagles offense was ranked 28th in DVOA, even though they have some scary pieces. Both teams are coming in with new coaches and renewed hope for their franchises. How is this one going to play out? Let’s take a look.
Note: Assessments partly based off of PFF scores.
In the trenches
The Eagles will be fielding a very good offensive line yet again. Even with stalwart left tackle Jason Peters gone, this unit has quality across the board with no major weak points. Jason Kelce remains one of the best centers in the league and Lane Johnson a force at right tackle. Left tackle Jordan Mailata surprised everyone last year in relief of Jason Peters, finishing the year strong and allowing the team to walk away from the veteran. Brandon Brooks and Isaac Seumalo solidify the interior very well. This is a really good unit that could be even better under Nick Sirianni.
The Falcons defensive front is one that finished in the top 10 in run defense (per DVOA) but 19th against the pass. Grady Jarrett remains the lone superstar here, but there is some potential for improvement with other players. Tyeler Davison is a decent enough run stopper in the middle and Jonathan Bullard has been one of the pleasant surprises of training camp with some pass rushing potential. Marlon Davidson also looks prime for a jump in year two while John Cominsky really needs to deliver on his promise this year.
Dante Fowler could surprise with a strong year after playing injured for most of 2020 while the team may turn to rookie Ade Ogundeji to help him on the other side, with Steven Means, Brandon Copeland and others mixing in. This is not a terrible group, but outside of Jarrett, it’s not clear whether they’ll be able to pressure QBs regularly this year.
I do think Pees will help scheme pressure and have this group looking better than they did even at the end of 2020, but the pass rush will remain a concern until they can consistently prove otherwise. The top-tier Eagles OL gets the nod.
The skill positions
The Eagles QB situation has changed dramatically. They’ve now turned things over to Jalen Hurst, who PFF ranked as 37th out of 38 QBs in 2020. The question is whether he can make a big leap forward in his second year. Opinions appear to be split on this, but his surrounding talent should help.
Philadelphia took promising wide receiver DeVonta Smith with their #10 pick in the draft and are pairing him with 2nd year WR Jalen Reagor (1st round, selection 21) and slot receiver Quez Watkins. These are 3 fast receivers who could give the Atlanta secondary fits. Tight end duo Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert are as good a duo as you’ll find in the league. Running back Miles Sanders is a quality runner but has been a bit of a mixed bag in the passing game, though rookie Kenneth Gainwell may mix in to help there. This has the potential to be a very good unit, but there’s also a lot of youth here as well, and therefore a lot to prove.
Atlanta has two incredibly talented inside linebackers in Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun. These guys may be poised for a big leap forward under the tutelage of Dean Pees. The outside corners are also poised to improve, with A.J. Terrell looking like he’s ready to become a true CB1 and Fabian Moreau being a decent option on the other side. Isaiah Oliver proved to be serviceable as a nickel corner in the back half of 2020. Safeties Duron Harmon and Erik Harris are not world beaters, but they’re veterans who are biding time for the more promising young guys behind them, particularly rookie 2nd rounder Richie Grant. There are some quality players here, but the secondary is going to be tested by the speed of those Eagles receivers early.
Despite their 2020 DVOA standings, Philadelphia actually has a good bit of talent on offense. The question is whether or not Jalen Hurts and this coaching staff is ready to fully take advantage of it. The Falcons also have some talent on the opposite side, but I think Dean Pees ultimately makes the difference here. He is going to do whatever he can to confuse the young QB and pressure him from all angles. I think this - along with playing at home - will give the Falcons a very slight nod here.
Ultimately, this match up comes down to what Jalen Hurts can do. He’s got a good offensive line in front of him and some good weapons at tight end and wide receiver. His athleticism and ability to evade pressure could prove to be a problem, but guys like Deion Jones and Foye Oluokun have the speed to track him down if need be. This could actually be a really good matchup, and while I have faith that Dean Pees is going to cause havoc, I also think this is a talented Eagles offense. In my mind, this one is too close to call.