The stars are the stars, and of course we're excited to see how Jalen Hurts handles Atlanta's blitz-pressure defense, and how cornerback Darius Slay matches up against Atlanta's outstanding pass catchers, and how running back Miles Sanders leads a versatile Eagles running game on the road. The stars, they get all the attention.
But there are some names and some matchups under the radar that merit just as much notice and that deserve a mention here ...
1. Eagles pass coverage against WR Russell Gage
All the talk has been about Calvin Ridley, the outstanding Atlanta wide receiver, and Kyle Pitts, Atlanta's first-round draft pick who is listed as a tight end but who is more like a wide receiver playing the tight end position. Understandable. Deserved. Ridley enters his fourth season after busting out last year – 90 receptions, 1,374 yards, nine touchdowns – and he's so good that the Falcons deemed future Hall of Famer Julio Jones expendable. Slay said on Wednesday that Ridley is a "No. 1 receiver" in this league, and yeah, he's right on the mark there.
Pitts was the fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and is said to be the "next generation" of tight ends. The word from Atlanta is that the Falcons plan to move him all over the formation and use creative ways to get him the football. He's going to be a handful, and the Eagles know that. That will be a chess match to watch.
But Russell Gage is also a dangerous receiver and he has barely garnered a mention publicly this week. The Eagles are talking about him inside the confines of the NovaCare Complex, you can trust that. Gage had 72 receptions for 786 yards and four touchdowns in 2020. He's got speed and he is a strong route runner. The Eagles went out and signed Steven Nelson (pictured above) prior to the start of Training Camp for situations like this. Atlanta isn't just a one- or two-man show in the receiving game. Gage is also a weapon for whom the Eagles must account. Nelson has the size and tenacity to match up against Gage, if he gets that assignment. Even if it's not Nelson, the Eagles have a challenge here against Gage and a strong Atlanta receiving corps.
2. The run defense
Mike Davis enters the season as Atlanta's "featured" running back even though the 165 carries he had last season for Carolina were the most in his six NFL seasons. Atlanta has all the flashy passing-game weapons, but Head Coach Arthur Smith comes from Tennessee, where the Titans crafted one of the league's best running games. So, yeah, Smith believes in the run (and it sure helped that the Titans had Derrick Henry toting the rock). The Eagles need to make Atlanta one-dimensional.
To that end, they need to win at the line of scrimmage. Atlanta starts rookie Jalen Mayfield at left guard and he will have a quick introduction to the NFL lining up against Fletcher Cox and Co. The rule of defense in this league is to stuff the run first and then feast on the passing game. That's the goal for this defense on Sunday.
3. Jason Kelce communicating with the offense
Don't you just love Jason Kelce, who is scheduled to make his 106th consecutive regular-season start on Sunday? He's a leader, he's an All-Pro, and he's an ironman, and on Sunday he has the responsibility of communicating with the rest of the offense in the din of a hostile environment. The Eagles will have to go with a silent cadence on the road and so it's on Kelce to get everyone lined up and on the same page with what he is seeing from Atlanta's pre-snap defense. Timing is everything with the silent count, so Kelce has to be at his best in every way.
Communication is the critical factor in a road situation. Kelce is one of the best around in that department.
4. P Arryn Siposs
A key statistic in this game? Hidden yardage – the pluses and minuses that largely come from the kicking game. Siposs impressed the Eagles throughout the spring and summer and now he's punting for the first time in a real NFL game. This is huge. Avery Williams is listed as Atlanta's punt returner, and while he is a rookie, Williams comes with some eye-popping numbers from his days at Boise State. He had 948 yards on 82 career punt returns there, including – get this – six returns for touchdowns.
While we're on the subject of special teams, Jake Elliott kicks off to one of the league's best-ever kickoff return men, Cordarrelle Patterson. Remember what Chip Kelly tried to do against Patterson, when he kicked off short against Minnesota in 2013? Alex Henery tried, but it failed and the Vikings had three possessions beyond the 45-yard line and had an average starting field position of the 33-yard line. The Eagles played keep away from Patterson then. It will be interesting to see how they play it on Sunday.
5. Handling DT Grady Jarrett
A Pro Bowl player the last two seasons, Grady Jarrett is a beast inside. He's going to be a lot to handle for the interior of the offensive line because of his disruptive, up-the-field nature. When the Eagles last played Jarrett and the Falcons in 2019, he had a quarterback sack, a couple of hits on the quarterback, and six total tackles. In other words, he was quite a bit to contain. The Eagles have always said they consider him one of the best defensive tackles in the business.
6. Nick Sirianni and he plays it in his head coaching debut
We're all watching to see how the new head coach works in a live, regular-season game situation. How aggressive will he be on fourth downs? What is the personality this offense will cultivate? What kind of in-game adjustments are we going to see from Sirianni?
This is obvious, of course. It's his first game. Every decision matters.