Eagles vs. Falcons 2021: 5 matchups to watch

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5 matchups to watch as Eagles face Falcons on road in Week 1 originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

The Eagles will kick off the Nick Sirianni Era on Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m. against the Falcons at Mercedes Benz Stadium.

Here are five matchups to watch:

Calvin Ridley vs. Darius Slay

Slay this summer said again that he would like to follow top receivers this season and this might be a logical place to start. Because even with Julio Jones gone, the Falcons still have one of the best receivers in the league in Ridley. Ridley is coming off a tremendous third season in the NFL; he had 90/1,374/9 last year in 15 games and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another big year in 2021. (If you’re wondering, Jonathan Gannon wouldn’t spill the beans this week about how they’ll cover Ridley.)

This will be the first career matchup between Ridley and Slay.

Slay is 30 now but he showed during this summer that he still has his sticky coverage skills. Last year ended his streak of three straight Pro Bowl seasons but he was still very good. Sure, he lost some 1-on-1 battles against D.K. Metcalf and Davante Adams, but those are two of the top receivers in the league. Slay would admit he could have played better in those games but don’t let those two matchup take away from the fact that Slay had a good season in 2020.

And the Eagles will need him to stop (or at least slow down) some very good receivers in 2021. That starts this week.

Kyle Pitts vs. Eagles’ linebackers/safeties

The Falcons used the No. 4 overall pick on tight end Kyle Pitts, making him the highest-picked tight end in NFL Draft history. And it was easy to see why. Pitts was a monster at Florida and figures to be a mismatch nightmare in the NFL.

Facing Pitts in Week 1 is tricky because there’s no NFL tape on him yet. The Falcons haven’t yet had to show how they’ll use him in 2021.

“It's going to be a challenge for us to figure out, especially in Week 1, how they are going to deploy them, what they are going to do with them and what it's going to look like,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said last week. “We haven't really started game planning for them right now, but just starting to watch some tape and having gone against Arthur (Smith) a couple years there when I was in Indy and he was in Tennessee, we'll have a good plan.”

Last year, the Eagles gave up 80 catches, 835 yards and 9 touchdowns to opposing tight ends. That ranked them almost perfectly in the middle of the league. Meanwhile, the Colts (where Sirianni and Gannon came from) were one of the better teams defending tight ends. They gave up just 74/720/3.

Jaylen Mayfield vs. Javon Hargrave

I’ve been talking up Hargrave since the offseason and this first game could be a nice start to his 2021 season. Former Eagle Josh Andrews signed a one-year deal to join the Falcons this offseason and was expected to be their starting left guard until he broke his hand in practice. That means that rookie third-round pick Mayfield is going to make his first-career start in his place.

The Falcons have a pretty good right guard in former first-round pick Chris Lindstrom facing Fletcher Cox so they’ll have a decision to make about where to send some help. Either way, the Eagles have a chance to win in the middle of the line with Cox and Hargrave. If Hargrave gets some 1-on-1 matchups against Mayfield, the rookie could be in for a long day.

Isaac Seumalo vs. Grady Jarrett

The last time the Eagles and Falcons faced off was Week 2 of the 2019 season and it was the worst game of Seumalo’s career. After that week, Seumalo bounced back and had a solid season and was solid again when healthy last year. But Week 2 of 2019 was a disaster against Jarrett.

In that game, Seumalo gave up 2 sacks, 6 QB hurries and 8 total pressures. ProFootballFocus gave him a pass blocking grade of 19.5.

“It wasn’t my best game,” Seumalo said the week after his performance. “I take ownership of that. I didn’t play well and the Falcons played well. I wasn’t happy about it at all.”

Seumalo explained that he was oversetting and playing too high against Jarrett. Seumalo was confident he would fix those problems had he did. He’s not a Pro Bowler but Seuamlo is a solid player and an important piece of the Eagles’ offensive line. He’ll finally have a chance to show that against Jarrett on Sunday.

Jalen Hurts vs. Deion Jones

This entire season is about Hurts getting an opportunity to prove to the Eagles that he can be their long-term franchise quarterback. While we saw Hurts play in some games as a rookie, he was playing in a different offense that wasn’t built around his strengths. This year, Sirianni has had all offseason and summer to come up with an offense that will work for Hurts. That will likely mean using his legs and the threat of his legs often.

It’ll be interesting to see how opposing defenses deal with Hurts this year. One possible solution is to use a spy. For this Falcons team, Jones (6-1, 227) might be the guy. Jones has been at the forefront of the hybrid linebacker movement in the NFL and last year had over 100 tackles with 4.5 sacks and 2 interceptions. He can do it all.

So even if Jones isn’t asked to spy Hurts on every down, it would make sense to use him on some blitzes to see if he can’t rattle Hurts. This could be a fun chess match because Jones can rush but he’s also excellent when he drops into coverage. Atlanta will likely try to keep the Eagles off balance but the Eagles can neutralize Jones by getting the ball out of Hurts’ hand quickly.

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