Eagles vs. Falcons observations: The edge the Birds must take advantage of Sunday

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The edge the Birds must take advantage of Sunday originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Can the Eagles make life miserable for Matt Ryan? How big is the Andy Reid influence on the Eagles a decade later? What was the greatest opening-day play in franchise history?

All that and a whole lot more in a Week 1 edition of Roob’s Random Eagles Observations! 

1. Matt Ryan has been sacked 131 times over the last three years, or once every 15 dropbacks, and that’s the 7th-highest percentage in the league. You can get to the 36-year-old Ryan, and the Eagles have to pressure him and sack him and hit him and make him move his feet Sunday afternoon in Atlanta. The Eagles will try to generate pressure with their edge rushers, but the biggest mismatch in this game is d-tackles Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave vs. the interior of the Falcons’ offensive line – guards Colby Gossett and Chris Lindstrom and center Matt Hennessy. Gossett has started four games in his career and hasn’t played since 2018 with Arizona, and Hennessy, a one-time Temple Owl, is a second-year pro who started two games as a rookie. Lindstrom is solid, but overall the Eagles have a huge advantage with the interior of their line against the Falcons’ front. They’re going to need to take advantage of it if they’re going to get out of Atlanta with a win.

2. Jalen Hurts already has the 5th-most career games in NFL history with 300 passing yards and 50 rushing yards with two – 338 and 63 at Arizona and 342 and 69 at Dallas. And he’s started four games in his life.

3. Only four Eagles have ever had 50 receiving yards in their first career game. DeSean Jackson was 6-for-106 against the Rams on opening day 2008, Bryce Treggs of all people was 2-for-69 (including a 58-yard catch) against the Giants in his first game midway through 2016 (and had only 90 more yards the rest of his career), Jalen Reagor caught a 55-yard pass in last year’s opener vs. Washington and tight end Jason Dunn caught a 54-yarder in the 1996 opener, also vs. Washington. If DeVonta Smith doesn’t move onto that list Sunday I’ll be shocked.

4. The Eagles are not a young team. They have plenty of young players in key roles, but according to figures on Spotrac, their average age – 26 years, 3 months – puts the Eagles squarely in the middle in the pack, 16th oldest roster in the NFL. What’s really interesting is that among players signed for 2022, they average 27 years, 4 months, which makes them 5th-oldest. That’s because so many of their younger players are on one-year deals or the last year of their deal, while their older veterans are on long-term contracts. That’s not a problem now, but the Eagles really need a high percentage of their 2020 and 2021 draft picks to blossom this year both for financial reasons – rookie contracts are cheap – and for competitive reasons, so the roster doesn’t get too old next year.

5. The one stat that translates the most to winning is turnover margin. The Eagles have been minus-6 or worse 24 times in franchise history and had a winning record in just two of those seasons. They’ve been plus-6 or better 24 times and had a winning record in 18 of those seasons. It's huge. Over the last three years, the Eagles are minus-19 (6th-worst) and last year they were minus-10 (4th-worst). Protect the ball and take away the ball and you’re going to win games. Will be interesting to see if the Eagles can improve in those two areas under a new staff. 

6. It’s remarkable that nine years after Andy Reid last coached a game for the Eagles, half of the team’s six captains – Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Jason Kelce – are Andy Reid draft picks. The biggest thing Big Red brought to this franchise was an emphasis on both lines, and a decade after they were drafted, Cox, Graham and Kelce remain the heart of this football team three coaches later. 

7. Can Miles Sanders rush for 800 yards with at least a 4.5 yards per carry average and 25 receptions? I don’t see why not. If he does, he’ll become the first running back in 60 years to begin his career with three straight seasons of 800 rushing yards, a 4.5 average and at least 25 catches. The only back who’s ever done that is Abner Hayes of the Dallas Texans from 1960 through 1962. 

8. Was wild watching safety Andrew Adams in a Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform Thursday night just 10 days after he was on the practice field at the NovaCare Complex wearing an Eagles uniform. The Eagles made a curious decision to release Adams last week after a decent training camp, especially with Rodney McLeod out to start the season. The Bucs signed Adams to their practice squad, but he was a game-day elevation and when the Bucs got a double d-backs banged up, he was forced into action and wound up making three tackles, including a huge solo stop for a one-yard loss on Ezekiel Elliott on a 3rd-and-goal from the Bucs’ 2-yard-line in the third quarter, maybe the defensive play of the night for the Bucs. That stuff forced the Cowboys to kick a field goal and was a huge moment in a game the Bucs eventually won. We’ll see how Marcus Epps does starting in place of McLeod Sunday in Atlanta, but I didn't understand the Eagles releasing Adams at the time, and he didn’t do anything Thursday night to change my mind.

9. Adams’ performance when he wasn’t even expected to play is exactly the sort of thing Sirianni had in mind when he emphasized to his players that everybody in uniform Sunday – starter, sub, 53, practice squad elevation – has to be ready to go from the opening kickoff on. Because it’s easy for backups to just assume they’re not going to have a role, but you never know how a game is going to play out, especially early in the season when you see guys cramping up as they play more reps than they have since last season. “You’ve always got to be ready in Game 1,” Sirianni said. “Even if it's five plays, you’ve got a role. If it's five plays, go play those five plays like you need to and be a star in your role.”

10. The greatest opening-day play in Eagles history was the onside kick to open the game in Dallas in 2000. It was 109 degrees at kickoff, and Andy Reid was banking on the Cowboys being so distracted by the extreme heat they wouldn’t be quite ready. He was right. Akers hit a perfect kick, Dameane Douglas recovered, and the Eagles went on to rout the 6-point favored Cowboys 41-14, their worst home loss in 11 years and their 2nd-worst opening-day loss ever. But that onside kick was about more than one game or one season. It was a message from a young, unheralded Eagles team that they had arrived and they were ready to take on the best teams in the league. The Cowboys over the previous eight seasons had won six NFC East titles and three Super Bowls and reached the playoffs all but once, while the Eagles had won just 14 games over the three previous seasons, hadn’t won a playoff game in five years (and just two in the last 20 years) and hadn’t won an NFC East title in 12 years. That game was really a symbolic changing of the guard. The Cowboys didn’t win another playoff game for nine years – and have won just three in the last 20 years. But the Eagles took off from there, going 11-5 that year, reaching the playoffs five straight years (and nine of 11), reaching five NFC Championship Games in eight years and winning the NFC East five of the next six years. And it all began with an improbable onside kick on the hottest day in NFL history.

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