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September 06, 2018

Final observations: Eagles 18, Falcons 12

Eagles NFL
090718-JayAjayi-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia Eagles running back Jay Ajayi reacts to his touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons during the third quarter at Lincoln Financial Field.

It wasn't often pretty, it was more nerve-wracking than it probably should have been, and so it was exactly the sort of game you'd expect from the Eagles and Falcons after their playoff duel last winter. It even ended in near identical fashion, with Julio Jones failing to bring in what could have been the decisive catch. The Eagles escaped once again, this time with an 18-12 victory.

Here's what I saw from Thursday night's game.

The Good

• A cynic would look at the performance from Jay Ajayi in the second half and say to themselves, "Why wasn't he getting more touches in the first half?" That's honestly a rational thought process, because the other guys certainly didn't get it done in the first half when given their chances.

Thankfully, it was the presumed No. 1 rusher who took over things in the second half, and he looked like the guy who will set the pace for Philadelphia's ground game this year. Ajayi was decisive when he needed to be, patient when the moment called for it, and had the physicality to barrel through weak tackle attempts. And mercifully, he offered up Philadelphia's opening touchdown of the year in the third quarter.

Later in the game when they deseparately needed to score to preserve their chance at a victory, it was Ajayi who scored yet again, and it was Ajayi who punched the ball in for a critical two-point conversion following that late-game touchdown. Turns out, he's pretty good at running the football.

An ongoing question for Doug Pederson to answer may be why he isn't featuring Ajayi even more. Sproles is absolutely not a featured runner at this stage in his career, though the Eagles used him prominently in the first half on Thursday. If the idea is to let Ajayi run against a worn down defense in the second half, is using the diminutive back in the first half the option that suits that strategy?

Ajayi deserves a chance to get momentum going and be the guy. Whether he gets it is another story.

• It was not an exact replica of the Philly Special, but could the opener have really taken place without reliving some of the magic from the Super Bowl?

It may have taken until the second half, but Pederson finally decided to shake things up. And not only did it have an uplifting effect on the crowd, it clearly seemed to get some of the gunk out of Philadelphia's gears. Foles stepped up and made some authoritative throws from the pocket, one thing led to another, and soon Ajayi was stretching out for the team's first touchdown of the new season.

Everyone love's Pederson's creativeness and risk-taking because it has so often worked over the last year, but I think boldness empowers players above all else. When they know their coach is willing to be creative and switch things up as needed, they know a big run is just one play from getting kickstarted.

• If his play in the first half did not make it clear enough, the body of work over the course of a full game should: Ronald Darby wants to get paid next offseason. While the Eagles' cap situation makes it difficult to imagine that happening in Philadelphia, they will certainly benefit from his quest to hit the jackpot.

Darby did the best job by far at covering Atlanta's Julio Jones on Thursday night, which was even more noticable because of how silly Jones made everyone else on the team looked. The Falcons' star torched Jalen Mills with a double move early in the second half, but the worst he did to Darby was force him to allow a few completions underneath of minimal consequence.

If this is the Darby the Eagles are getting all season, their defense is going to hit a completely different level this season.

• Rasul Douglas is often one of those guys who plays tight coverage and still ends up giving up big catches to the opponent anyway. He flipped the script with a monster takeaway in the fourth quarter as the Falcons were knocking on Philadelphia's end zone.

Some of that comes down to a poor throw and decision from Matt Ryan — a 1 v. 1 matchup of Douglas vs. Julio Jones should be a pretty easy Falcons win — but the play from Douglas could not have come at a better time. After a Derek Barnett penalty gave the Falcons new life, Douglas closed the door on a dangerous drive for the Falcons.

• Almost across the board, the defense was good enough to win this game on Thursday night. Jordan Hicks flashed in his return from injury, Fletcher Cox was his usually disruptive self, and guys like Darby put it all together in the secondary. Despite having to spend an inordinate amount of time on the field, they did an admirable job to keep the game winnable almost all night.

This group is not going anywhere. That's something to be excited about after a dreary first game. They were elite all night, and buckled down at the goal line when it mattered most.

The Bad

• The good news for Nick Foles? He's being graded on a completely different scale to start this season. With Carson Wentz soon to return rather than out for the year, the fate of the season does not rest on his shoulders. For a guy who took the Eagles to the promised land, simply holding down the fort in the early season is no sweat.

That doesn't mean he gets to play with no expectations. Foles was not good against the Falcons, and was a major reason why the offense went through long bouts of ineffectiveness. Downfield throws were all but off the table for most of the night, and though it helped the Eagles keep turnovers down it wasn't for lack of trying — Foles threw a couple ducks into traffic that easily could have turned into Falcons takeaways.

(Ironically, the interception he did end up throwing was more a product of the reciever than his throw.)

This Eagles defense looks plenty good enough to win some games on their own this year, but it would be really helpful if they got just a middle-of-the-road performance from whoever it is behind center. Foles didn't offer that Thursday, and they'll need better from him if Wentz continues to sit out.

• Tre Sullivan, you're not asked to do a ton, my guy. Do yourself a favor and get the hell away from the football when the other team has punted it and is waiting to down it. That's Pop Warner level stuff.

• I wrote this exact blurb about Derek Barnett after the first half:

The Eagles continue to have high hopes for Derek Barnett, but in year two some of the typical "rookie mistakes" are not going to fly if he wants to continue earning more reps. He was not all that effective as either a pass rusher or a run stopper, often getting into the backfield too late to make a difference. 

 So that made it worse when he forced the Eagles to get another stop in the redzone late in the first quarter because he lined up offsides. That's an easily avoidable screw-up, and the sort of thing he'll get grilled on in the film room next week.

All he did in the second half was make that exact same mistake, this time neutralizing a huge sack from Fletcher Cox on third and five. He was eventually bailed out by the Douglas interception, but this is totally unacceptable. Clean it up.

• For a tight end group that is expected to be a major strength of this team now and in the future, it was an ugly opener for Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert. The latter had two straight drops to kill an Eagles drive in the second half, and the rookie had an even costlier bobble when his drop bounced into the hands of the Falcons, setting up their first touchdown of the game.

Sometimes there's not a whole lot to say or analyze about a performance beyond saying it wasn't good enough. That descriptions is about all these two deserve after that opening night. Here's hoping it gets better.

The Ugly

• Kill. The. Green. Zone. Tomorrow.

• As you're reading this, Thursday's officiating crew threw another flag in the parking lot. Not because anything else happened, but because it's the only way of life they know.


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