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September 12, 2021

First half observations: Eagles 15, Falcons 6

The Eagles are up 15-6 heading into halftime against Atlanta, with the Eagles flashing encouraging signs early while still managing to leave some meat on the bone.

Here's what I saw in the opening 30 minutes.

The Good

• It would have been hard to script a more encouraging opening series for Philadelphia's new-look offense. Nick Sirianni did a masterful job of mixing up looks and getting different players involved, and Eagles would eventually punch it in using the two-man combo fans hope will push the franchise to prominence this season: Jalen Hurts and DeVonta Smith.

Philadelphia came out of the shoot playing up-tempo, leaning into Hurts' multi-faceted talents by using his legs and his arm on the opening possession. Hurts picked up a big first down with his legs on a great run fake that sucked the edge inside, and after some easy screen passes allowed him to get into a rhythm as a passer, he dropped a beautiful lofted pass into Smith for the opening touchdown of the season, which the Heisman winner brought in with ease:

(Credit both the play design and the rub route execution from Zach Ertz, who did just enough to free Smith without risking picking up a penalty in the process. Job well done.)

He was not done there. On an Eagles possession midway through the second quarter, Smith briefly took over the game, creating separation on four or five straight plays with Hurts finding his No. 1 target each and every time. It's jarring to see a kid this young win so many battles with nothing more than footwork, until you remember that's exactly what Smith did against the highest level of amateur competition in the SEC.

There were some missed opportunities for Smith in the first half, including on a throw over the middle where he couldn't come up with a ball through contact, and those moments make you remember this guy is still noticeably thin on the field. But slight as his frame may be, he threw a few nice run blocks on the outside, helping teammates pick up a few extra yards with the ball in their hands. The Eagles made it a priority to go up and get the Alabama product, and the early returns suggest it was a saavy move. The kid looks polished beyond his years.

• It was not a perfect opening half from Jalen Hurts, who underthrew Zach Ertz on what could have been a monster play on the sideline early in the second quarter (and might not have been a catch at all if the Falcons would have challenged). The bigger error arguably came on the fourth down of that same drive, with Hurts ultimately running himself backward into no man's land when pressure compromised the pocket he was trying to throw out of. But it was at least a solid effort to open the year from Hurts, who oversaw an offense that looked decent out of the gate, even if they sputtered as the half wore on.

Hurts leaned on Smith plenty as time wore on in the first half, but there will be no accusations that he locked in on one guy and limited his options, spreading the ball around and keeping Atlanta guessing where he was going. With a lot of young QBs relying too heavily on tight ends and check-down throws, Hurts did a decent job sharing the wealth.

And while his legs actually got him into some trouble a few times, you could see the benefit of having a mobile QB on more than a few plays, with Hurts escaping pressure and picking up first downs after breaking the pocket. It was especially critical in Philadelphia's final drive of the half, a masterclass from Hurts that should have ended with a touchdown throw to rookie Kenneth Gainwell in the middle of the field. Once a penalty wiped that throw out, all Hurts did was use his legs one more time to extend a play and deliver a touchdown to Dallas Goedert, who came up with an absolutely incredible diving catch in the endzone.

There's stuff to improve, but ultimately a good half from Hurts and Co.

• One thing I loved seeing from the Eagles early in the game — Nick Sirianni fully embracing the power of Quez Watkins' speed. On back-to-back plays to open their season on offense, the Eagles essentially ran the same play on opposite sides of the field, getting the ball to Watkins in space and asking him to make a play. Aided by some excellent blocking in front of him (including from the oft-criticized JJ Arcega-Whiteside), Watkins picked up some early chunk yards and got the Eagles moving into Atlanta territory.

Possessing speed does not mean you need to get sent over the top every time to get value out of it. Watkins lit it up in the preseason and looks like he's ready to build on an excellent camp, though he did completely whiff on a third-down block late in the second quarter.

• To say a good thing about the Eagles' defense, they certainly put pressure on Matt Ryan when they weren't being run ragged by no-huddle offense. Even on some of the third-down plays the Falcons converted, Philadelphia's big boys up front were getting in Ryan's face and driving him into the dirt, with Brandon Graham and Javon Hargrave the early standouts in the trenches.

Simply getting pressure is not going to cut it over 60 minutes (or the rest of the season, for that matter) but if they can keep bringing the heat consistently, they'll start converting a few of these. It only takes a few big ones to change a game — Derek Barnett had Ryan by the ankles when Atlanta's QB got called for a big grounding penalty, and that ultimately derailed an Atlanta possession and got the Eagles off of the field.

• Dallas Goedert did a hell of a job to fight and get out of bounds with the first half clock winding down, ultimately saving the Eagles a timeout and giving them options as they tried to score before halftime. That play was only topped by his own touchdown haul moments later, the early highlight of the season for Philadelphia.

• Love, love, love the decision by Sirianni to play the aggressor and go for two once the Falcons committed a penalty on their second extra point attempt. 

The Bad

• To say it was an ugly opening series for Philadelphia's defense would be an understatement. With Jonathan Gannon subbing guys in and out despite a frantic no-huddle attack from the Falcons, the Eagles only seemed to succeed at confusing their own players for the first four minutes or so of the drive. Fortunately, they were able to hold down the fort around the goal line and force the Falcons to kick a field goal. 

Between whiffs on tackles (hello, Avonte Maddox), Calvin Ridley exploiting some zone looks, and some downright ugly open field missteps, the Falcons moved the ball between the 20s with ease. The third-down defense was/is an early problem for the northern Birds, and the decision to use Darius Slay on Kyle Pitts to start the game is one the Eagles may have to reconsider in the second half if Ridley continues to cook.

The most disappointing part of the first half on the defensive side was Philadelphia's inability to contain the Falcons' rushing attack. Atlanta's ground game vs. Philadelphia's defensive front was viewed as a huge mismatch in favor of Philadelphia coming into the game, but with the Eagles sitting in a lot of 3-4 looks, the Falcons had a decent amount of success attacking Gannon's defense on the ground, some Eagles highlights aside. There were missed tackles from defensive linemen, linebackers, and secondary members alike, and any time you give up nearly nine yards on a QB scramble from Matt Ryan, you should feel pretty bad about what you're doing.

(Tackling was just a big issue for the Eagles across the board, to reiterate the point above. Maddox was a one-man whiff machine in the opening 30 minutes, joined by guys like Darius Slay in an effort to make the Falcons look like a bunch of bruisers. Eric Wilson was the face of the problem for the linebacking group. They are going to have to clean it up big time or this team will have to win a few shootouts this season.)

Fortunately for the Eagles, the Falcons had some horrific self-inflicted mistakes around the goal line, which allowed Philly to avoid what could have been an ugly first half of football. And ultimately, if they find ways to keep points off of the board, it doesn't matter how bad it looks at times. 

• The negative side of things for Hurts has to start with his pocket composure. It was most evident in his fourth-down rollout that ended a drive for the Birds, but there were several plays where waiting another half-second or stepping into a throw would have bought him a better opportunity than his jaunts to the outside did. Easy to say from the analyst's chair, but it's an issue that scouts have spotlighted with him as a potential cap on his ceiling in the league.

If he doesn't clean that up, he can still be a solid, even winning QB. But knowing when to sit tight and wait for the opportunity that isn't quite there yet is a skill that separates average QBs from the guys who can carry you, so this is an important area to track. Doesn't take away from what he did do in the half. And, as mentioned above, he handled himself extremely well on the final drive of the half.

• The primary criticism of Nick Sirianni through the opening 30 minutes of play will be a familiar one to Philly fans who crave balance — they did not make much of an effort to run the ball in the first half. Miles Sanders was doing good work whenever he got the ball in the backfield, but his opportunities were limited and the Eagles asked a lot from Hurts in the first 30 minutes of action this season. Nothing wrong with skewing toward the pass in today's NFL, but with as many playaction plays and/or RPOs as they ran, it would serve the Eagles well to actually make Atlanta fear the threat of the run.

That being said, Philly's offense had variety, purpose, and some issues that came down to talent/execution rather than design. Thumbs up for the new head coach overall.

The Ugly

• Early returns suggest I'm going to like Greg Olsen as a color commentator. Offered enough insight to add value to the broadcast and was enthusiastic without completely dominating the feed as some guys tend to when they're first getting started. Stay tuned to see if I change my tune by the end of this game.

• Genard Avery just straight up falling down when he was the only guy with a clear shot at Mike Davis on Atlanta's opening series was less than ideal. 

• With the Eagles already thin at safety, Marcus Epps heading to the locker room five minutes into the game was a worrying sight. Ruled out for the game with a concussion before the half ended, the Eagles are going to have to hold it together with rubber bands and glue on the back end.

• Both teams need to cut down on the penalties in the second half. What started as a pretty exciting, up-tempo game slowly devolved into a flag fest by halftime. I know it's a pair of bad teams from last season under new management, but everyone's minds should be as sharp as they'll be all year, ready to go after the offseason. Not so much! 

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