The 2018 Philadelphia Eagles season finally begins on Thursday night after an offseason of preparing to defend their Lombard Trophy. However, an injury report filled with starters and star players is poised to throw a wrench in that goal. Last year’s “next man up” and underdog mentalities that led them to a Super Bowl must show up early this season. Let’s dive into the opening night matchup against the Atlanta Falcons and what I will be watching for.
Darren Sproles and the fully loaded offensive line is back
The Eagles have not had their five best starting offensive linemen on the field together since Jason Peters went down with an ACL tear during Week 7 of last season. The Bodyguard is back, and while he did not play during the preseason, it should not take long for this unit to click.
Speaking of legendary veterans returning, Darren Sproles makes his much-awaited return for his final NFL tour. While you should always expect jaw dropping and, “What the f***!?” moments from the shifty veteran, I am looking to how he’ll be utilized after the emergence of Corey Clement. With the Eagles down to just five receivers on the roster, Sproles could find a vital role in the slot. Which brings us to…
The Eagles only have five active wide receivers
With Alshon Jeffrey still healing from rotator cuff surgery and Mack Hollins revealing he has been dealing with a groin injury, the Birds will be shorthanded at wideout. The unit will be Nelson Agholor, Mike Wallace, Shelton Gibson, DeAndre Carter and the re-signed Markus Wheaton. Four of those five receivers have never played significant time in Philly. While Gibson and Carter have looked terrific in the preseason, playing against full-time starters is another animal. Dougie P will utilize a ton of two tight end sets with his impressive rookie tight end Dallas Goedert and Pro Bowler Zach Ertz, and the versatility of Sproles and Clement as quality pass catchers should be very effective in short yardage situations.
Jay Ajayi needs to control game’s tempo
When Nick Foles became the Eagles starter, the offensive scheme became much more RPO (run-pass option) heavy. Foles gained just 5.3 yards per attempt last season, as the coaching staff wanted to rely on the offensive and defensive lines to win. That is until Foles absolutely blew up against the Vikings and Patriots in the playoffs. Against the Falcons, Foles played a very efficient game, going 23 of 30 for 246 yards with no touchdowns. This preseason, it seems Foles has come back down to Earth after a brilliant playoff run.
Last year’s NFC Championship (for what it is worth) was a defensive slugfest, and it may have to be again on Thursday night if the Eagles want to win. The Falcons defense is one of their most formidable units — veterans Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford man the outside corners while budding stars Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen lock down the safety spots. Jay Ajayi averaged 4.19 yards per attempt in the RPO scheme while splitting carries with two other backs. This time around, Ajayi will need to handle the workload in order to control the tempo of the game.
Since you asked, here’s my Sriracha-level hot take on what I think Ajayi can accomplish this season if healthy:
Jenkins, McLeod, and Hicks will play the entire game
These three player are too important to not play nearly 100% of the defensive snaps on Thursday, mainly due to depth. Malcolm Jenkins was deservedly named a defensive team captain, and Rodney McLeod remains an extremely underrated safety for all that he is asked to do. In the NFC Championship, Jim Schwartz dialed up a blitz that led to a key sack by McLeod at the end of the third quarter. This eventually forced a much-needed three-and-out with the Eagles only leading 12-10.
Jordan Hicks has proven to be an elite pass defender when he’s healthy. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are notorious for breaking games open with their ability to stretch the field in pass catching situations. It’s an absolute must that Hicks and Kamu Grugier-Hill lock that tandem down.
Matchup I’ll be most focused on
Sidney Jones and rookie Avonte Maddox have been battling for the ever-important nickel cornerback spot, and it appears Jones has won it for now. The Falcons wide receivers was already fearsome in 2017, then they added former Alabama wide receiver Calvin Ridley with the 26th pick in the draft. If we are going by Ben Simmons standards (which we are), it’s Sidney Jones’ rookie year as well, so he will face an important challenge against a top receiving prospect. Jim Schwartz will likely continue to use the nickel position as a revolving door, so Maddox will also have the opportunity to face off against another rookie.
Prediction: Eagles 10, Falcons 17
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