By Pete Baxter
The Philadelphia Eagles came hot out of the gates to kick off the 2021 regular season. The Eagles travelled to Atlanta and crushed Matt Ryan and the Falcons by a score of 32 to 6.
Yes, it is just one game. Yes, the Falcons are rebuilding and are in for a long season of their own. It was an extremely encouraging performance, however, that seemed to answer many of the questions left lingering from last year.
Let’s take a look at five key takeaways from the Eagles’ dominant victory:
Jalen Hurts is the Real Deal
Jalen Hurts, the second-year quarterback who was handed the reigns to the offense this season, looked outstanding. Hurts was highly effective through the air and on the ground.
He finished 27 of 35 for 264 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also picked up 62 yards on seven carries and kept the offense consistently marching down the field. He showed his elite athleticism by scampering away from pressure and keeping plays alive where 90% of quarterbacks in this league would have most certainly been sacked.
The biggest concern with Hurts after last season was his accuracy. So far, so good. After completing just 52% of his passes last season, he was extremely precise against Atlanta. He finished with an outstanding 77% completion percentage on the day.
Hurts also showed greatly improved chemistry with the weapons at his disposal. He started off the game with three straight plays to third-string speedster Quez Watkins, while eventually connecting with starting receivers DeVonta Smith and Jalen Reagor six times each. Reagor, Smith and tight end Dallas Goedert all caught touchdown passes. Hurts’ chemistry with his one-time college receiver, Smith, the tenth pick in this year’s draft, looked as strong as ever.
The offensive line, which we will touch on in a moment, is healthy and will be exponentially improved this year. Yes, this was one game, but Jalen Hurts could be poised to have a breakout season.
We May Have Underrated this Defense
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the game for Philadelphia was just how good the defense looked. They let Matt Ryan lead two effective drives early on that resulted in field goals. However, from that point forward, the Eagles’ defense stepped up their game and completely shut down the Falcons’ attack.
The defensive backfield looked strong. Darius Slay held Calvin Ridley to just 51 yards through the air. Kyle Pitts, the fourth pick in the draft, was held to just 31 yards.
The defensive line was even better. We knew the front four would be the strength of this defense, and they did not disappoint. Javon Hargrave had two huge sacks in the fourth quarter that essentially put the Falcons out of their misery. Hassan Ridgeway had one as well, helping redeem what had previously been an uneven, oft-penalized performance. The defensive line had Ryan running for his life from the second quarter onward, finishing with 10 quarterback hits. They seemed to utterly destroy the confidence of highly touted rookie tackle Jalen Mayfield, who was repeatedly pancaked by the Eagles’ pass rush.
Cordarrelle Patterson was able to bust out a few decent runs for Atlanta early on. However, as the game drifted out of reach, Atlanta went purely to the air. Without having to worry about the run, the Philly pass rush tortured Matt Ryan for the rest of the game.
The unproven linebacking corps is still a bit of a question mark. However, it appears the strength throughout the rest of the defense will provide a great deal of support as they develop under first-year defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.
Again, the Falcons are a rebuilding squad and weren’t expected to light the world on fire on offense. However, from what we saw week 1, the Eagles defense should be somewhere in the top half of league rankings, if not top-10. Great start.
The Offensive Line Needs Time
The Eagles’ offensive line was obliterated by injuries last season, resulting in the worst performing line in the league in 2020. It prevented Carson Wentz or Hurts from generating any consistency on offense. It was perhaps the biggest weakness of the team.
That is clearly going to be different this season. The three stars on the line in Jason Kelce, Jordan Mailata and Lane Johnson are all healthy. Mailata, fresh off signing a four-year extension with the team, absolutely demolished a Falcons defender downfield on a fourth quarter run. This unit has potential to be dominant. Hurts still faced some pressure today but compared to last season he must have felt like he had the whole field to himself.
The one downfall of the offensive line today was penalties. There was a total of eight penalties called on the Eagles’ offensive line, three against Lane Johnson alone. This is a concern that Nick Sirianni will certainly address.
However, as the line continues to get reps together with Jalen Hurts, the penalties should clear up. This should be a top offensive line in the league. They just need time to find their groove again.
Depth at Running Back
Miles Sanders is certainly the number one running back for the Eagles. He had a strong performance in week 1. He finished with 15 carries for 74 yards, good for 4.9 yards per carry. He also caught 4 passes for 39 yards out of the back field.
Sanders is a very dynamic back, averaging 5.3 yards per carry in 2020. However, he had ball control issues through his first two seasons, leading to some concern that he is not a long-term answer. So far, so good for 2021.
The Eagles also got a pleasant surprise in week one with rookie runner Kenneth Gainwell. Gainwell was a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft. Gainwell received a considerable number of snaps in his regular season debut. He finished with 37 yards on nine carries for an impressive 4.1 yards per carry. He also had the lone rushing touchdown for Philadelphia. Additionally, he caught two passes out of the backfield.
Gainwell and Sanders made for a highly effective combination in week 1. Together, they rushed 24 times for 111 yards (4.6 yards per carry) and a touchdown. Add in Jalen Hurts’ rushing prowess, and the Eagles have potential to produce a highly effective rushing attack this year.
We Have One Heck of a Punter
Gainwell and Smith were far from the only rookies who produced an impressive pro debut. Australian punter Arryn Siposs, a 28-year-old former Australian rules footballer, had as effective a performance as a punter can muster in his first NFL game.
Siposs punted four times for an impressive 47.3-yard average. He pinned three of those kicks inside the 20. He did a phenomenal job trapping Matt Ryan and company deep inside their own territory.
This may be the only time I talk about a punter in a post-game highlight article this season. Much deserved, however, as Siposs was essentially perfect today. Great stuff.
The Eagles were truly dominant against the Falcons and seemed to be firing on all cylinders. The offense moved the ball up and down the field and Jalen Hurts looked like a certified star. The defense was dominant and looked like a top-10 unit in the league. They even had highlights on special teams thanks to an Australian sensation.
The NFC East should be on notice. The Eagles are back, and they are poised to make a run in this mediocre division.
More to come from Philly.