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September 12, 2021

Final observations: Eagles 32, Falcons 6

The Eagles were dominant in the opening game of the Nick Sirianni Era, romping to a 32-6 win to open the season 1-0. Jalen Hurts was excellent and exceeded expectations behind center, making few mistakes en route to three touchdown passes and more than 250 yards on terrific accuracy through the air. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Whether you came into the season a skeptic or a believer in Jalen Hurts, you have to feel good about what you saw from him in Week One. There's not a whole lot more they could have asked for out of him — Hurts made big plays, minimized catastrophic mistakes, bought time with his legs, and ultimately controlled the game from the pocket, going a long way toward earning Philadelphia an opening win by himself.

Having the ability to do so many things with Hurts gives the Eagles options on every single play no matter what formation they're starting out of. He seems to be the rare mobile QB who has dynamic running ability but rarely puts himself in harm's way, taking what's given to him instead of risking his body for a few extra yards or a highlight. That gives Sirianni the confidence to use him on designed running plays, knowing that his guy will take exactly as much as he needs, and Hurts saved the Eagles from a bunch of negative plays by bouncing it to the outside with pace.

And then, of course, there's what he did as a thrower. There weren't many big strikes down the field, save for the big touchdown to DeVonta Smith in the first quarter, but Hurts was hitting his guys right where they needed it in space in order to grab the ball and immediately look upfield to make plays. Jalen Reagor came alive last season when Hurts took over for Carson Wentz, and though it was a relatively quiet day for the second-year wideout otherwise, Reagor made the most of his opportunity on the screen pass that came his way in the fourth:

Hurts' pocket presence gets dinged at times (and I expressed my own concerns in the first half!) but he did a tremendous job of seeing this play through in spite of the pressure bearing down on him behind center. Throwing off of one leg with a guy hanging off of him, Hurts ultimately delivers the ball right on the money as if he was operating from a clean pocket. Reagor certainly deserves his share of the credit for turning on the burners here, but this was one of many occasions on Sunday where the QB made the best of an imperfect situation. There were a few plays Hurts would like to have back, but you'd be hard-pressed to find more than a small handful of plays he'd like to have back.

All summer long (and even dating back to last season) you have heard great things about Hurts as a leader, and when you look at how his day played out, that even translated to how he played on Sunday. Hurts made sure every guy who took the field stayed involved in the game plan, spreading the ball around to wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs alike. His "favorites" will certainly emerge over time (and Mr. Smith already looks like one of them), but it will serve the young QB well to make sure everybody stays locked in for all 60. Strong start to the year for No. 1.

• If anyone was dissatisfied with Philadelphia's use of the rushing attack in the opening 30 minutes, all your concerns were put to rest by the time this game was over. Nick Sirianni largely turned the game over to his backfield in the final 30 minutes of football, and the two-man combination of Miles Sanders and Kenneth Gainwell absolutely went to work on the Falcons, putting this one to rest before the third quarter was over.

We've gotten used to seeing Sanders put guys on highlight tapes, and he had the bigger day of the two players, but Gainwell being such a big part of the game plan this early is an excellent sign for the rookie. He was Philadelphia's runner on the field during their excellent two-minute drill to close the first half, and he grew in stature as the game went on, eventually punching Philly's third touchdown of the day as he ran untouched to pay dirt.

Gainwell did not have a whole lot of success as a pass-catcher coming out of the backfield, a surprise given his preseason and his reputation heading into the league, but it's hard to be too upset about that today. Sanders was dangerous basically every time the ball hit his hands, and if he has a capable understudy to make sure they're firing on all cylinders when he's on the bench, even better. Fresh legs lead to big plays.

(Kudos to Sanders for some excellent pass protection to keep his QB upright, too. He bought Hurts an extra second or two of time with a big block early in the fourth quarter, allowing Hurts to step into a throw for a big gainer to DeVonta Smith.)

• My favorite part of the Nick Sirianni Era through exactly 60 minutes of meaningful football is how each player on the roster has been asked to do what they're good at — nothing more, nothing less. We expected guys like DeVonta Smith to be big-time performers, but it was striking to see guys all the way down to JJ Arcega-Whiteside used effectively. Speed players were put in space, power guys were asked to navigate through traffic, and the Eagles didn't keep their mobile QB in a box, encouraging him to use his legs and hurt the Falcons on the outside as well as the pocket.

That may not sound like a huge deal on paper but it matters a ton in practice. You can get a lot more out of a thin roster, even an untalented roster if you're constantly looking at the guys you have available and adjusting based on what they can do rather than what you want to do if all things are equal.

(The exception to this rule: using Gainwell to try to pick up a tough two yards on fourth down in the middle of the third quarter. Either use a bigger back there or use Gainwell differently, should you choose to go that way.)

Another coaching quirk that I appreciated was Sirianni seemingly riding the hot hand when they had one. If a particular play worked early in a series, the Eagles would often go right back to it, forcing the Falcons to stop what they weren't able to on the previous play. It didn't always result in big follow-up plays for the Eagles, but it shows a coach actively paying attention to what's happening in front of him rather than sticking to whatever script he had coming into the game. That should serve Sirianni well as the competition picks up in the weeks to come.

A+ debut from Sirianni, if you're asking me.

• DeVonta Smith's big play was the opening touchdown of the season for Philadelphia, but even without that score, he would have had an excellent day at the office. He feels like the sort of wide receiver the Eagles have rarely had but have so often needed — an elite technician who can manufacture openings out of nothing and help extend drives long enough to buy other guys chances to make big plays. 

It's not as though Smith is incapable of big playmaking (see: the opening touchdown), but there's a lot more to being a top wide receiver than taking a deep throw for six every so often. Smith appears to have all the positive indicators of a featured wideout. He's consistent, fundamentally sound, engaged when he's not the preferred target on the play, and always there when his quarterback seems to need him the most.

• All the way down here in the recap, you could make a case for Dallas Godert as the player who had the best opening week of any guy on the Eagles. We know he can be a big-time receiving threat, and though he had an outstanding day on that front with a couple of monster plays to close the first half, the more encouraging thing was seeing him get things done as a blocker. Goedert becoming a more complete tight end would be a gamechanger for Philly, and much like his older peer Zach Ertz, he appears to be finding himself as a blocker with more reps and experience.

Although Ertz managed to stick around this year to the surprise of so many, Goedert breaking out would nonetheless be a huge deal for Philadelphia, especially as they strive to play out of two tight end sets. And Sirianni is already using him in creative ways, mixing Goedert into screen looks, throws over the middle, and plays down the sideline. Sign me up for a big Goedert year.

• After a rough start to the game in the defensive trenches, the Eagles eventually settled in and settled down to dominate the Falcons up front. Pressures turned into QB hits, with Matt Ryan's time in the pocket slowly dwindling over the course of the game until he looked downright miserable to be back there, unable to find enough time to get the ball to Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts, and the rest of the gang. If the matchup didn't match pregame expectations through the opening 30 minutes, it found its way there in the second half, with the Eagles shutting down the run game and forcing the Falcons to play out of suboptimal situations late in possessions.

The capper came on what initially looked like a forced fumble for Hassan Ridgeway, but would ultimately be ruled (correctly) intentional grounding on Matt Ryan, who panicked as he was being brought down in the pocket by the big man bearing down on him. Ridgeway was an unlikely candidate to make one of the highlight plays of the game on defense, but it's a testament to how the entire unit grew in stature over time, with Hargrave following that play up with a monster sack on fourth down to really drive the point home. Philadelphia's interior linemen absolutely ate Atlanta's lunch to kill this game off, and that's always a beautiful thing to watch. 

The trench dominance did not stop on the defensive side of the ball. As previously mentioned, Gainwell could have stopped to have a smoke break on his way to the endzone for Philly's third touchdown, and that was indicative of an offensive line that did plenty of good, a series of penalties aside. I would expect guys like Lane Johnson to clean up the mistakes next week.

(Another offensive line note: Jordan Mailata's block on Jalen Reagor's touchdown was an absolute leveling, the sort of play that might draw cheers and yells when they show it in the film room this coming week. No wonder this organization felt confident giving him a ton of money.)

• Arryn Siposs is not going to lead many recaps or stories today, but he had a hell of a day in his first career game. The Falcons routinely started drives inside their own 10-yard line when the Eagles were forced to punt on Sunday, with Siposs uncorking some absolute beauties with backspin to do the job mostly by himself. Great debut.

The Bad

• Not a whole lot to complain about in this one outside of Philadelphia's horrific tackling in the first half, an issue they cleaned up big time in the final 30 minutes of football. While I wouldn't crown these guys just yet — maybe the Falcons are just a bad team rather than a team who needed some late-game luck last season — the Eagles look well ahead of schedule regardless of who they were up against in their opening game. They have all the signs of a well-coached team, and they were surprisingly fun to watch. At the very least, you can spotlight a bunch of guys you're excited to watch grow this year, which will make them worth watching even if they sputter at times in the weeks to come.

(I do think the Eagles got far too conservative as the game wore on, one of the only marks against Sirianni on the afternoon. A better team might have punished them for going that route, and I don't much like "prevent offense" regardless of who is running it. Then again, we don't know that Sirianni would have played it that way if they were up against a better team, so I'll reserve judgment until we have a better indication of how he chooses to kill off games in second halves.)

The Ugly

• The verdict is in: consider me a new fan of Greg Olsen as an in-game analyst. Provided plenty of insight, didn't talk over the play-by-play guy, wasn't afraid to admit a mistake when he made one, and had the requisite enthusiasm for the job. No complaints from me. 

[Editor's note: I'm not sure why Kyle put this in the ugly, since Olsen's performance was anything but. However, there wasn't really much else ugly from an Eagles perspective in the second half, so we'll let it slide.]

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