Game 1 in Atlanta is just a few sleeps away. Julio Jones is not in the new picture, he’s a Tennessee Titan now. That’s just one significant part of the novelty which possibly favors the Eagles’ chances over the Dirty Birds.
Both the Eagles and the Falcons have new head coaches. Arthur Smith was named the 18th head coach in Atlanta Falcons history on January 15, 2021 and takes over the club after serving as the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator for the last two seasons (2019-2020). During that span, Smith orchestrated one of the NFL’s top offenses with the Titans leading the league in red-zone touchdown percentage (75.2), ranking fifth points per game (27.9) and fifth in total offense (379.6). He oversaw the second-ranked rushing attack in the NFL, averaging 153.5 yards per game on the ground.
Over the last two seasons, the Titans have been among the league’s best in the red zone. The club’s 75.6 (2019) and 75.0 (2020) red zone touchdown percentages are the fourth and fifth-best single-season marks by a team since 2000. So it’s fair to say we should not expect a significant change of focus on offense in Atlanta since Smith has taken over there.
But Smith can design a good defense, too. Prior to joining the Titans, Smith spent two years as the defensive quality control coach for the Washington Football Team from 2007-08 serving on legendary coach Joe Gibbs’ staff. In addition to his coaching role, he also worked as a college scouting assistant in Washington in 2007. In 2010, Smith worked at Ole Miss as an administrative assistant/defensive intern, primarily working with the linebackers.
There’s legitimate fire at the top of the Falcons’ organization as well. President and CEO Rich McKay, after an offseason where the Falcons hired a new head coach and general manager, traded Julio Jones, and made the highest draft selection since Matt Ryan in 2008, is eager for the Falcons to return to the top of the league.
“When you finish the hiring process and get a new GM and a new coach, you’ve got a lot of turnover. There are a lot of people you know that move on and go to other opportunities. I think what’s good about it is to see a change in direction, a change of philosophy, a change of approach in many areas, and it gives you hope because I’ve seen it be successful before. We have every indication from GM Terry [Fontenot] and HC Arthur [Smith] that they will put us in a position to get the franchise back to where it belongs.”
So this opener will be a clash of two organizations in similar makeover missions and learning new systems, making comparisons based on past performances very difficult.
McKay was asked this question recently: What does success look like for the Falcons this year?
“I think I learned a long time ago that when you start saying, ‘We have to win 12 games. We have to win 10 games. We have to have a winning season. We have to get to the playoffs.’ It’s not the right way to look at it. There are so many variables that come into play that you can’t control; you just need to control the one you can, which is getting yourself prepared to play the first game. So to me, I’m just all about the process of getting ready for the season. Let’s do what we’re supposed to do in the NFL, which is to get better as the year progresses and be a relevant team by the end of the season.”
You could almost interchange McKay’s answer with something Howie Roseman or Nick Sirianni would be saying right now about the 2021 Eagles. Both franchises are rowing similar boats.
The Falcons are riding a lot of hope on their #1 draft pick Kyle Pitts.
“I think Terry [Fontenot] and Arthur [Smith] did exhaustive work on the entire draft process and did it the old-fashioned way, literally just going player by player and getting the board set. There was clearly one player rated the highest when we got to pick number four — it really wasn’t close. Sometimes you talk yourself out of it. I’ve done it, and usually, when I did it, I regretted it. It’s better just to take the highest-rated player on the board.”
Matt Ryan is still calling the signals at QB for Atlanta. Dean Pees is their defensive coordinator, and the flexibility Pees has showcased as a defensive play caller has become a staple of his career. With the Falcons in 2021, that flexibility is important to a defense that has: (1) underperformed in recent years and (2) been pieced together this offseason.
Pees isn’t in the business of throwing a cornerback out on the edge and leaving him there on an island. He wants each defensive back learning every single position in zone coverage. He said man-to-man is one thing: it’s easy. You find your man. In zone, he wants to get to the point where every single defensive back can play any and every position in zone coverage at any point in time throughout a game’s duration.
“Our corners learn how to play rolled up corner, they learn how to play half safety, they learn how to play the curl, they learn how to play the hook. They learn all the different spots in coverage,” Pees said. “… They have to know them all.”
So Eagles’ receivers will get a chance to prove their route-running concepts have improved (or not) right off the bat on September 12.
Falcons’ base defense? It’s a philosophy with a foundation based in what Pees wants to accomplish scheme-wise. The word “multiple” is nearly synonymous with Pees at this point in his career. When asked in his introductory press conference what the Falcons base formation would be – a 3-4, 4-3, 4-2-5? – Pees responded with a simple, “Yes.”
“People don’t really know that if I have a corner standing out there and he runs back to the half field or now all of a sudden he’s a corner that’s blitzing or now he’s a corner and he’s playing the curl,” Pees said. “The offenses have to try and figure it out. It’s that conceptually.”
Pees explained it’s that way with the linebackers: “Outside guys know how to play inside.” It’s that way with defensive lineman, too: “All the defensive linemen know how to play all three positions.”
This was something safety Erik Harris discussed when he brought up Pees’ conceptional teaching at the start of training camp.
“(We’re) learning the concepts of the defense, because you’re in different spots so you have to know where the pro drop is, you have to know where the flat drop is, deep thirds,” Harris said. “It helps you to understand the defense and where you can make plays within the defense because you know where your help is coming from. You’re not just always out there on an island every time, looking at one and reading two. You’re everywhere.”
Pees continued with the example of a cornerback: Let’s say he’s playing Cover 2. Let’s also say he needs to jam the receiver so the receiver can’t get deep on the safety. Put the corner back in the half field for a play or two, Pees said, have the receiver get jammed and then have him run free. Now the cornerback knows what dominos fall when he doesn’t do his job.
The Eagles completely remade their team from new coaching staff to talent – including barely second-year QB Jalen Hurts. Meanwhile, Matt Ryan returns with a steady offense, but it’s the defense that’s always in question.
Here is everything you need to know about the Eagles vs Falcons odds heading into Week 1.
Eagles vs. Falcons Key Matchups
Matt Ryan vs. Eagles Secondary: Ryan gets a super talented rookie TE in Kyle Pitts, plus Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage as means to replace any void left by Julio Jones’ departure. The Eagles have a new DC and are confident in both Darius Slay and Steve Nelson as their cornerbacks. If Ryan has time, this will be the most exploitable matchups for the Falcons.
Jalen Hurts vs. Falcons LB: While so much focus will be on how efficient Hurts can be throwing the ball in this new offense – don’t be surprised to see him take off for a couple of big runs. The Falcons will have to spy or sacrifice some deep-middle coverage to keep an eye on him.
Falcons DL vs. Eagles OL: The main strength of the Eagles is their offensive line; they simply haven’t been healthy over the past couple of years. The Falcons have some talent but just can’t put it together on defense. If the Eagles can stay healthy through four quarters of football, it will be plenty to open some wide holes for Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell.
Both teams – for completely different reasons – are going to be committed to the ground game, which should help move the clock. Mike Davis is Atlanta’s new feature back, and the Eagles boast two young talents in Sanders and Gainwell. Hurts will also be asked to get the ball out fast, and even run a little more than necessary.