The 2018 season is finally here. Winning the Super Bowl gave the Eagles an unusual offseason. There was less time to work with. There was more attention than ever. Things were a bit crazy, to put it mildly. The coaches and players can now put all of that behind them. Football is back. It's time to lace 'em up and go play some ball.
The Falcons visit Lincoln Financial Field to open the season. This is a rematch of the Divisional Round playoff game from last January. The Eagles won that 15-10, but it might as well be ancient history. There are new coaches and players. The basic playbooks are the same as last year, but teams make schematic changes every offseason.
As wild as it sounds, the biggest storyline isn't that this is a rematch of a playoff game. The football world has been focused on the Eagles' quarterback situation for much of the summer. Carson Wentz is still working his way back from a torn ACL and LCL in December's win over the Rams. He won't be ready for the opener so that means Nick Foles once again will start for the Eagles.
Foles was brilliant in the playoffs last year. He completed more than 70 percent of his passes. He threw for eight touchdowns against only one interception. He was brilliant on third down and constantly kept the chains moving. Foles was out-of-this-world good.
This summer has been a different story. Foles has struggled. I'm sure some people wonder how a player can beat the Falcons in a tough game in the freezing cold, shred the great Vikings defense, and outduel Tom Brady in a shootout, only to then struggle in preseason games.
Foles needs the right circumstances to be at his best. He needs focused practices. He needs a good game plan. He needs strong offensive line play and skill players who can make plays for him. Foles wasn't getting that this summer, but he should on Thursday night.
Jason Peters will start at left tackle and that should make a big difference. Pass protection was an issue in the preseason. Foles should have a clean pocket to work from most of the time. Creative plays and great game plans don't mean a thing if you don't win the battle up front.
As for the skill players, Foles won't have all of his weapons, but he will have plenty of good options. The Eagles rested their running backs for most of the preseason. Foles will have all of them in the opener. Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement should get the bulk of the touches. Darren Sproles will still be a factor on offense and special teams.
Alshon Jeffery and Mack Hollins are out on Thursday night, but Nelson Agholor, Mike Wallace, and Shelton Gibson will be playing. Wallace and Gibson are the guys with the speed to stretch the defense. Agholor will work the slot and be a weapon over the middle of the field. He can also play on the outside and make plays in space.
One area where Foles will have great options is at tight end. Zach Ertz has developed into a great receiver. He might be the best route runner of any tight end in the league. Dallas Goedert will be making his NFL debut, but he is incredibly talented. I would be shocked if Pederson doesn't have a few plays designed to get Goedert the ball.
Pederson was masterful with his playcalling last January. There was the inside run to Agholor that took advantage of Atlanta's overpursuit. There was the time when Pederson called consecutive screen passes and that worked brilliantly. The Eagles used a lot of RPOs in the third quarter to get the offense clicking.
You can bet that Pederson will have some new ideas on how to attack the Falcons and take advantage of their vulnerabilities. The Eagles' staff knows the Falcons have spent months figuring out how to deal with RPOs. The Eagles aren't throwing those out of the playbook. The challenge is to come up with some new wrinkles so the Falcons aren't sure what they're looking at.
Atlanta's defense is built on speed. The Eagles can use fakes and misdirection plays to get them off-balance and on the move. The Falcons have built a young, talented defensive line. It is critical that the Eagles keep Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett under control if they want Foles to play well and lead the offense to points.
The Eagles' defense has gotten the better of the Falcons for two straight years. The teams met in the 2016 regular season as well as last year in the playoffs. Atlanta scored 25 points in the two games combined. Six times the Falcons scored 25 or more points in 2017. The Eagles match up well with the Falcons.
While the Eagles' offense was highly inconsistent this summer, the defense was outstanding. It looks like it is ready for another big year. The Eagles were fourth in points and yards allowed last season. They could be even better this year.
Fletcher Cox was great in the playoff win over the Falcons and looked fantastic in the preseason. He wants to take his game to another level this year. Aaron Donald gets all the publicity, but I wouldn't trade Cox for any defensive tackle in the league. Any. If he can play even better, the rest of the NFL is in big trouble.
I'm excited to see the Eagles' defensive line in action. Cox will lead the way up front, but he'll have plenty of help. Brandon Graham is coming off the best season of his career and should play at a high level again. Derek Barnett will start at right end. It will be fun to see how much better he's gotten in his second season. Chris Long won't start, but he will play a lot of snaps. He got better as the 2017 season went along. I expect him to be a force all year in 2018.
There are some new guys. Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata will their debuts against Atlanta. Bennett will play end and tackle. He can be highly disruptive and should be a lot of fun to watch.
Linebacker will be interesting. Nigel Bradham is suspended for the opener, but Jordan Hicks returns to the starting lineup. Hicks can be an impact player when he's at his best. Jim Schwartz will use his linebackers creatively to make up for the absence of Bradham.
Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nathan Gerry will go from role players to key players. Both guys looked good in the preseason. Bradham is a Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker who won't be easy to replace. Grugier-Hill is the better athlete, while Gerry is more instinctive. Both guys can run and cover. Stopping the run will be the biggest challenge for them.
This should be the best Eagles secondary since 2008, maybe all the way back to 2004. Ronald Darby looks like he could be in for a monster year. Jalen Mills is ready to take his game to the next level. Opening against Julio Jones won't be easy for them.
Sidney Jones is getting ready for the first significant regular-season action of his young career. It will be interesting to see how he handles that. Schwartz will mix and match players in the slot. Malcolm Jenkins will sometimes play inside when Julio Jones lines up in there because they are similar in size.
The Falcons didn't generate enough big plays last year so they drafted Calvin Ridley in the first round. He will add speed and playmaking ability to the offense.
The real key will be third down. Atlanta was just six-for-24 on third down against the Eagles in the last two years. The Falcons just can't sustain drives. The Falcons only have 33 rushing attempts in the two games combined. I could see them trying to establish a ground game, even though the numbers tell you attacking through the air is the way to go.
I expect the Falcons to play a lot of two-tight end sets or two-running back sets. That puts the Eagles into a base look where both Grugier-Hill and Gerry are on the field. The Falcons can then attack them with play-action passes and other misdirection.
Special teams can often be critical in a game like this. The Eagles have a first-year punter so it would make sense for the Falcons to try to attack him. If they can't block a punt, they can always try to get him in a hurry so his kicks are less effective.
On the other hand, it will be great to see Sproles back on the field. Forget about his age. He remains a dangerous returner. Shelton Gibson will handle kickoffs.
There will be a lot of pomp and circumstance before the game. There will be major celebrations in the stands. Once the ball is kicked off, that's it for the Super Bowl talk. Life is all about 2018. The Eagles want to get to 1-0 and set a great tone for the season.