The Philadelphia Eagles are kicking their 2021 season off with a road game against the Atlanta Falcons. In order to preview this Week 1 matchup, I reached out to our enemies over at The Falcoholic. The dapper Dave Choate kindly took the time to answer my questions about this upcoming tilt. Let’s take a look at his answers. (Don’t forget to also check out my side of the exchange over at TF when it’s posted on Sunday morning.)
1 - What are the Falcons? From the outside looking in, their offseason was a little confusing. They hired a new head coach, which could’ve signaled the beginning of a whole new era. But then they restructured Matt Ryan instead of looking to move on from him, signaling a “win now” approach. But then they traded Julio Jones for a draft pick, which isn’t an “all in” type of move. So ... what’s the deal? What’s the vision here? Is this a team in transition? (Geez, what a long ‘question.’)
I think the answer to this depends on who you ask, which is kind of unsettling. The Falcons themselves have said, at least publicly, that they intend to compete and are rejecting the idea that they’re a rebuilding football team. As you said, though, they made a lot of small-time moves owing to limited cap space and then shipped Julio Jones out, which is not the kind of thing you’d expect to see from a team trying to push their way past the Buccaneers into an NFC South title.
To me, this is a team trying to thread the needle. Fans are tired of losing and last year was so discouraging because it was evident the team needed a fresh start and we didn’t get one, so it was essentially a wasted year. These Falcons are hoping adding Kyle Pitts and a savvy, low-budget offseason will be enough to get them in the neighborhood of 8-10 wins this season with coaching improvements, which they’re banking heavily on. At the same time, I don’t think anyone in that building could tell you with a straight face that they expect to be Super Bowl contenders or even push Tampa Bay particularly hard so long as the defending champions are healthy. They’re trying to see what they have, stay interesting and relevant in the here and now, and kick things up a notch in 2022 and 2023 once they hopefully carve out more cap space.
I would say there’s no worse place to be than the middle, but after the last three years of basement-level achievement, I’ll take improvement and a better direction. It’s just not clear how far they can take this thing in a year where they have so little cap space and so many questions to sort out.
2 - What’s the early read on new head coach Arthur Smith and his coaching staff? To what extent are they inspiring confidence coming out of training camp?
I think we’re all fans. In the early going, all coaches can really do is give you some semblance of a plan, some welcome plaudits and change the tone and tenor around the team. Arthur Smith has talked about (and largely followed through on) a promise to let players compete for spots, has built a quality and experienced coaching staff around him and got this team out of preseason more or less healthy. Given his track record in Tennessee, Dean Pees’ work in Tennessee and Baltimore in the past and his no-nonsense approach to press conferences, I think he’s won most fans over.
What he hasn’t done is given us much to work with on the field. Smith, like Sean McVay and others, has largely chosen to sit his starters throughout preseason, which means we have very little idea of what this offense or defense will look like when it takes the field against the Eagles. There are also big picture questions about whether rookie Jalen Mayfield will succeed at left guard, which he’s tended to shrug off with “everyone’s got to get baptized sometime” sound bits, and more generally about what the absence of Julio Jones will do to the offseason. The Falcons clearly have a ton of faith in him and his staff to get the job done and it’s hard not to like his approach so far, but the confidence he’s built is pretty tenuous because it’s all offseason fluff to this point.
3 - What is the Falcons’ biggest strength? How should they be attacking the Eagles?
It’s going to be the passing game, assuming the offensive line holds up. Subtracting Julio Jones from the offense is a brutal downgrade, but Calvin Ridley is still a very good top option, Russell Gage has proven to be a quality starter, and Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst look like they’ll be one of the deadliest tight end tandems in the NFL sooner than later. There are depth concerns there, but we know Matt Ryan is still very good because he played at a pretty high level a year ago with zero ground game and a coach whose playbook was drawn up in 2010.
Adding Arthur Smith is only going to help with that, given the way he was able to build a tremendously efficient passing offense out of equal-to-lesser parts in Tennessee. It’s probably too early to say this is going to be one of the league’s better aerial attacks, but it should be terrific and plenty capable of winning games for Atlanta in 2021.
4 - What is the Falcons’ biggest weakness? What should the Eagles be looking to exploit?
With so many unknowns it’s hard to pick any one thing, but let’s zero in on the interior of the offensive line for this matchup.
I know how good the Eagles defensive line is and can be, and the Falcons have a first year starter at center who only made a couple of starts in 2020. That’d be Matt Hennessy, who we haven’t seen at all in preseason as he ran away with the job. He might be great, but I’d expect some growing pains.
The even bigger concern is at left guard. Presumptive starter Josh Andrews was not exactly a thrilling option as a veteran journeyman, but now the team is already down to Plan B because he’s injured. Rookie Jalen Mayfield had an up-and-down summer and spent as much time at right tackle in training camp as he did at left guard, and he’ll now be thrown into the fire against the likes of Fletcher Cox.
As good as I think this offense can be, if Hennessy and Mayfield are not up the task in this one, it’s going to derail drives and potentially doom Atlanta. I’d try to find out early and often just how good the center and left guard positions hold up against an aggressive pass rush.
5 - Who wins this game and why? Score prediction? And what are your expectations for the rest of this Falcons season?
I have a bad feeling I’ll eat my numbers here later, but I’ve got the Falcons 27-20. The Eagles are not going to be an easy out, but I do think Dean Pees will have this defense ready to play and the offense will be able to push past growing pains along the line to put up a few scores. I think this will hinge on Atlanta’s ability to force Jalen Hurts in a couple of costly mistakes and to play pretty crisp football themselves, which is not a given but is something I feel better about than maybe I have a right to.
Right now, I have this team finishing around 8-9. They’ve only got 7 true home games this year (one of their home games is in London), there’s so many question marks with the roster and its upside and there are some really tough games on the slate, even if the schedule overall looks easier than it was a year ago. This thing is a work in progress, and while I’d love to be pleasantly surprised by a winning season or even a playoff berth, it feels like improvement is going to have to be enough for Falcons fans.