If the Eagles are going to have a highly successful season, they are going to have to dramatically improve in two areas: quarterback play, and stopping top wide receivers. To open the season, the Atlanta Falcons offer a great test for the latter. For everything else, they are a poor litmus test.
The Falcons have been one of the worst teams in the league over the past two seasons, winning a total of 10 games. They have struggled in nearly every aspect of the game, and while they should improve in some this season after replacing their coaching staff and turning over about half of their starting lineup, they won't make major strides overnight. They have struggled to run the ball since 2010, finishing no higher than 21st in rush DVOA. The addition of Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator could boost the run game, though with the Redskins pre-RGIII and the Browns last year being weak running units, the Shanahan running game magic may only be limited to the father. Even so, the Eagles run defense should once again be a top unit this season, and the Falcons have three new starters on the interior offensive line. Improvements may come, but it's highly unlikely they are immediately realized.
The same goes for the other side of the ball, where the Falcons run defense has been atrocious, and the pass rush has been weak. To address this, the Falcons drafted Vic Beasley and signed the inconsistent Adrian Clayborn. Their pass rush should be improved just on talent alone, but this will take time to be seen in Atlanta. Expectations for Beasley should be tempered due to his rookie status, and for all the new faces in the Falcons lineup, the middle of the front seven remains the same cast of overmatched players.
Seven players on this play will see playing time on Monday.
For the Eagles, who themselves have two new starters on the interior line, this is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you want to test yourself every week, it's tough to improve against inferior competition. On the other, a poor front is an ideal unit to start the season against. Good offensive line play is equal parts talent and cohesion, and Eagles linemen have had little playing time with the man next to them.
But the Falcons do present one very difficult challenge: Julio Jones and Matt Ryan. In this regard, the Eagles are getting a great matchup to test themselves. Despite playing behind an offensive line that has been an issue his entire career, Ryan is one of the least sacked QBs since he arrived in 2008. He gets the ball out quickly and decisively; and not only does he not take sacks but he doesn't throw many interceptions. His favorite target is of course Julio Jones, one of the best wide receivers in the league. In 2014 Jones had more 20+ yard receptions than any player, and it wasn't close. Jones led the league with 31, second best was Dez Bryant with 25; subtract six from Bryant's total and he falls to 10th. Jones achieved this by dominating every part of the field.
He can straight up burn anyone.
Looks a lot like Dez Bryant on Bradley Fletcher.
He's comfortable operating in the middle of the field.
With Walter Thurmond playing his first game as a safety, expect him to be tested.
And he's deadly down the sideline.
Patrick Peterson was called for holding. It didn't matter.
The Eagles paid Byron Maxwell $25 million guaranteed to stop players like him, and on the other side of the field they are starting someone they didn't deem good enough to replace Fletcher or Cary Williams last year when the secondary was engulfed in flames. Jones is likely to have a good game every week. The Eagles need Maxwell to stop it from being a great game. With Tony Romo and Dez Bryant on the docket for week 2, we should know right away if Maxwell is capable of it, or if this season will be another nightmare in the secondary.