Losing Alshon Jeffery is a crushing blow to the Eagles receiving core. Fortunately, Jeffery is only supposed to miss a couple of weeks. But in his absence, Philadelphia is going to need Zach Ertz to look more like Rob Gronkowski. He has taken steps forward each year, including last season, which saw him double his career high in touchdown catches on the way to his first Pro-Bowl.
The Falcons have multiple quality options they can throw at Ertz. Both linebackers, Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, are athletic enough to handle the responsibility. While safety, Keanu Neal, is strong enough to go step for step with the 6’5″, 250 pound Ertz. The ability to through a combination of players at the Pro-Bowl tight end was key to Atlanta holding him to 3 catches for 33 yards in their last matchup. If Philadelphia wants to come out victorious, they need a much better effort from Ertz come Thursday night.
This could be the season the Falcons defense elevates into elite status. In order for that to happen, the Falcons need to be better against the run. The question marks after the Dontari Poe and Adrian Clayborn departed in free agency are aplenty across the defensive line. The one constant: Grady Jarrett.
Jarrett is the closest thing to a Pro-Bowler without actually being one. And come Sunday, the Falcons are going to need him to be at his best. Who knows what Dan Quinn is going to be able to squeeze out of the likes of Terrell McClain, Deadrin Senat, and Jack Crawford, but Grady Jarrett is the one player Philadelphia will have to key on in the middle.
Ajayi has the opportunity to take control of the running back situation in week one against Atlanta. The Eagles did not trade for him to be used as a backup. LeGarrette Blount left for Detroit, and Ajayi has been in the system for a year now. This is a chance for him to assert himself as the lead-back against a defense that has had trouble stopping the run.
With Foles at quarterback, Philadelphia will want to establish the run even more than usual. They have the best offensive line in the league and ran the ball over 50% of their plays in the Divisional round. Ajayi will get plenty of opportunities to leave his mark on a week one victory.
It may be cliche because quarterbacks usually always have the most impact on a game, but the Nick Foles storyline has to be the most intriguing heading into week one. Last year’s playoff run was not the first we saw Foles look like a Pro-Bowler. Remember 2013, when he threw 27 TDs compared to just 2 interceptions in 10 starts. We have also seen a version of Foles that does not even belong in the NFL. Like 2014 and 2015 Nick Foles, that threw 20 touchdowns and 20 interceptions in 19 starts with two separate teams.
With no Alshon Jeffery and new receivers like Mike Wallace making their first appearance, it is going to be a different challenge for Foles this time around. The Atlanta secondary is as tough as they come, making this a reliable test on how flukey his playoff run really was.
The Falcons offense struggled mightily in the Divisional round on this exact field. A lot of that was due to an Eagles defense full of incredible athletes, especially in the front seven, which made mincemeat of the Falcons offensive line. However, with two new upgrades at the guard position this time around, they should have much more success.
Atlanta was able to run the ball, totaling 86 yards on just 20 carries. It would not surprise me one bit if the Falcons turned the tables on the Eagles and pounded the rock early and often. Philadelphia will be without one of their best run stoppers in Tim Jernigan. That usually does not bode well when you are up against one of the best offensive lines, but the Eagles have an embarrassment of riches across their defensive line. The brains of the operation, Alex Mack, will lead a group looking for revenge. It is power versus power, and it might be the best part of this game to watch.