The Eagles’ 2018 season is going to get off to a challenging start when they host the Falcons at the Linc on Thursday night.
Of course, this is a rematch of the divisional round game when the Eagles took down the Falcons ,15-10, and went on to win the next two games and hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
But it was close against Atlanta. And the Falcons are a really good team still.
Here are five matchups to watch:
Nick Foles vs. Cover 3
Dan Quinn comes from the Pete Carroll school of defense, which means we’re about to see a ton of Cover 3 on Thursday night. And Nick Foles has notably had a lot of success against these defenses. Our Andrew Kulp took at look at that before the divisional round in last year’s playoffs (see story).
After beating the Falcons in January, Foles is now 4-0 against Cover 3 defenses, which — in layman terms — is a zone concept with three defensive backs. The Falcons don’t hide what they do. They just play and Pederson said it’s a tough defense to scheme against.
Foles wasn’t great in that divisional round game, but he was efficient and didn’t make major mistakes. Foles completed 23 of 30 passes for 246 yards and didn’t throw a TD or an INT. (He also got helped when Keanu Neal let a pass bounce off his knee and into Torrey Smith’s hands.) Foles was the only QB to complete at least 76 percent of his passes in a playoff game last year — he did it twice.
Julio Jones vs. Jalen Mills
Mills had a really good game in that divisional round and didn’t let Jones beat him for a jump ball at the end of the game. If Jones comes down with that ball, the Falcons win and the Eagles’ season is viewed much differently.
Jones still got his in that game, though. He caught nine passes for 101 yards, but Mills and the Eagles’ corners were still able to minimize his impact on the game.
Mills, in his third season, is coming off a great summer and preseason. He was a seventh-round pick a few years ago, but he deserves to be starting and will face a big test early.
Falcons run game vs. Eagles LBs
This one is especially interesting because the Eagles don’t have Nigel Bradham for this game. That means the Eagles are likely going to start Jordan Hicks, Kamu Grugier-Hill and Nate Gerry. Normally, the Eagles spend most of their games in nickel, but the Falcons use a fullback and use two-running back sets, so it’ll probably force the Eagles to stay in their base defense more than they’d like. For perspective, Dannell Ellerbe played 23 snaps in the playoff game against the Falcons last year.
The good news for the Eagles is that they shut down Devonta Freeman in that game (7 yards on 10 carries), but Tevin Coleman had 79 yards on 10 carries.
The Falcons also throw to their backs out of the backfield, but with two former safeties playing linebacker — KGH and Gerry — the Eagles might be uniquely positioned to stop the passing game to running backs. But can they stop the run?
Jason Peters vs. Vic Beasley
The future Hall of Famer hasn’t played a game since he tore his ACL against Washington last season. The Eagles say they didn’t need to see him in the preseason and that practice was enough. Obviously, Peters is a veteran and his teammates have no doubt he’ll be great as long as he’s on the field.
He’ll be welcomed back by quite a challenge in Beasley. The former first-round pick, in his fourth season, played linebacker last season but will be back at defensive end this year. After just 5.0 sacks in 2017, he’s hoping to put up numbers like he did in 2017, when he had 15.5 sacks to lead the NFL.
Jay Ajayi vs. Falcons run D
The Eagles weren’t able to run over the Falcons in the playoff game, but they clearly wanted to use Ajayi a ton. He got 15 carries, while LeGarrette Blount got just nine. Ajayi (foot) returned to practice this week and will play Thursday; if he’s healthy, expect him to play a lot.
A big game for Ajayi starts with the offensive line, but it could really help take some of the pressure off Foles.