Football is back ... finally! The defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles kick off the 2018 season Thursday night when the Atlanta Falcons roll into The Linc. Will Julio Jones and Co. be able to avenge their divisional round loss, or will Philly continue its charmed life without Carson Wentz under center? Jeremy Bergman breaks down five things to watch.
1. Which Nick Foles are we getting Thursday night?
The Eagles declined to trade their Super Bowl MVP for anything less than a first-round pick this offseason for exactly a scenario like this. After months of recovery from last year's season-ending knee injury, Carson Wentz still isn't ready for contact, in practice or in a game, and will not start the season opener. Doctors are recommending Philly play it safe with its franchise quarterback. A roster built to not only defend its Super Bowl title this season, but for years to come is without its most important piece, for who knows how long.
Enter Foles -- though he never really left in the first place.
Foles started slow in that game, his first playoff start since 2014, but caught fire in the second half. All told, the QB completed 77 percent of his passes on the night and secured the victory by playing smart and safe. Of his 23 completions, only three traveled over 10 air yards (13 percent). Foles' play in the win over the Falcons was far less aggressive than that in the Super Bowl. Against the Patriots, Foles attempted five passes of 25-plus air yards, completing two for touchdowns, and six of his 28 completions traveled over 10 air yards (21 percent).
Given Foles' nationally televised struggles in the preseason and the injuries to his skill position players (more on that soon), it's fair to wonder which Foles we will see on Thursday night -- and going forward. The aggressive field-pusher who seized a Lombardi or the turnover-prone journeyman who took a safety against Cleveland in August?
2. Can the Falcons backs bounce back against the Eagles' front seven?
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are arguably the league's most feared tailback tandem; folks in New Orleans would care to disagree. But the last time we saw them, Freeman was wholly ineffective against the Eagles' league-leading rushing defense (10 rushes for seven yards). Nearly eight months to the day since their last meeting, will Atlanta suffer similar struggles on the ground against a Philly front that improved over the offseason? Perhaps not. The Falcons have caught a break by playing the Eagles so early in the season. Tim Jernigan is on NFI; Michael Bennett is dealing with a knee injury; and Nigel Bradham is banned for the first game of the season. That doesn't mean Derek Barnett, Fletcher Cox, Haloti Ngata, Brandon Graham and Chris Long won't be any less effective. But the potential absences on Philly's front line could open up holes for an Atlanta two-headed ground attack and lessen the load on Matt Ryan. Speaking of...
3. What does Year 2 of the Steve Sarkisian experience look like?
Matt Ryan got paid this summer, but will the investment pay off for Atlanta? Ryan inked a five-year, $150 million deal in the offseason to stay with the Falcons for the long haul, two years removed from his MVP (and almost Super Bowl MVP) campaign. But ever since Super Bowl LI, Atlanta's offense and Ryan's production have not been the same. In order: Kyle Shanahan left for the 49ers head coaching gig after the 28-3 debacle; former USC head coach Steve Sarkisian replaced him as Falcons OC; Atlanta's once-league-leading offense took notable statistical dips in 2017, especially in red-zone efficiency. Ryan's passer rating dropped over 25 points. The QB threw 18 fewer touchdowns and averaged 1.6 fewer yards per attempt. Most importantly, Ryan's connection to All-Pro receiver Julio Jones suffered; the usually hyperproductive Jones averaged one TD per every 49.3 targets in 2017. No play was more emblematic of the offense's struggles in 2017 than its final play of the season, a failed fourth-down fade to Jones in, yep, the divisional round loss in Philadelphia. Back at the scene of the crime, we'll learn Thursday evening for the first time what has changed in Year 2 of Sark in Atlanta. Will Calvin Ridley's addition open up opportunities for Jones and Mohamed Sanu? Will Sark play Freeman and Coleman at the same time more often? Was last year's regression to the mean a fluke or a sign of things to come?
4. Can the Eagles overcome skill-position injuries?
The Eagles will be short-handed (-winged?) on Thursday night, especially on the offensive side of the ball. As mentioned before, Wentz is out, but so are two of Philly's top targets from last season. Alshon Jeffery is set to miss at least Philly's season opener with a shoulder ailment that has bothered him all preseason and landed him on PUP for a month, and Mack Hollins is out with a groin injury. Then there are the Eagles with question marks. Workhorse-to-be Jay Ajayi is likely good to go, but was limited this week with a foot issue; Nelson Agholor hasn't played all preseason; and Markus Wheaton (!) was just signed to the active roster. All this points to big nights for Zach Ertz and rookie tight end Dallas Goedert, both of whom are off the injury report, and the former was Foles' most targeted receiver down the stretch last year (47 targets, 35 receptions since Week 15, 2017).
5. Can Atlanta's young front seven breach Philadelphia's offensive line?
Over the last few seasons, Atlanta has undergone a youth movement in the front seven. Out went Dontari Poe, Adrian Clayborn and Courtney Upshaw on the defensive line this offseason, replaced in their starting roles by Vic Beasley, Takk McKinley and Grady Jarrett, their average age hovering just over 24 years old. The Falcons' oldest starting linebacker is 25-year-old De'Vondre Cambell. The oldest man on the front seven is the newest -- Terrell McClain, a geezer at 30. In Atlanta's divisional round loss to Philly, Foles was sacked just once and it was in the first quarter. The Falcons' young edge rushers will need to hit Foles quicker and more often, but will be tested against arguably the league's most complementary and fundamentally sound offensive line.