We waited months for it. Week 1 of the NFL season opening up Thursday night with the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles taking on the Atlanta Falcons. Unfortunately, we had to wait a bit longer as the start of the game was delayed to a summer storm in Philly.
Once the game itself got going, one had to wonder if both teams were better off staying in the locker room. The first half was a complete and utter mess with a total of nine points, 16 accepted penalties and 134 penalty yards.
Despite the ugly overall outing, Philadelphia came out on top by the score of 18-12 in what ended up being a thrilling ending.
Here are the biggest winners and losers from Thursday Night Football.
Winner: Jay Ajayi
With Nick Foles struggling to do anything of substance in this game, Ajayi stepped up in an absolutely huge way. He scored the first touchdown of the NFL season, a one-yard scamper in the third quarter. Then, with Philadelphia trailing 12-10 late in the fourth quarter, Ajayi displayed the vision and sound fundamentals that’s needed for a running back in today’s NFL by scoring his second touchdown of the game. It came in the form of a 11-yard run.
Philadelphia may be limited with Foles on the field. But if the team can get anywhere near this type of production from Ajayi until Carson Wentz returns, it will be just fine. All said, the back gained 62 yards on 15 attempts with those two scores.
Unless you were inside Lincoln Financial in Philadelphia on Thursday evening, the weather delay ahead of this game didn’t do you any favors. At the very least, Eagles fans were able to partake in some adult beverage consumption while enjoying their extended time as defending champs.
For those of us at home, it was a vastly different story. With the game starting around 9 pm back east, it made for an early Friday morning for fans in that region. Out west, it wasn’t a whole heck of a lot better. But that’s Mother Nature for you. She finds a way to rain on even the most promising of parades.
If that weren’t enough the entire first half was a clown show. It resulted in a total of nine points (three field goals) and 16 accepted penalties before bombing out with three penalties in the final two minutes. Here’s to a double shot espresso for us all this morning.
Winner: Julio Jones
Jones was in a class of his own out of the gate Thursday evening. From the outset, he made otherwise talented Eagles cornerbacks look absolutely silly on the field. That included burning both Sidney Jones and Ronald Darby en route to putting up four receptions for 78 yards in the first half alone.
Struggles from Matt Ryan (more on that later) led to Jones being somewhat of a non-factor in the third quarter before he once again came up strong in the final stanza. Atlanta’s decision to sideline him on consecutive goal-to-go situations also played a role in what was otherwise a tremendous performance from one of the game’s top receivers.
All said, Jones recorded 10 catches for 169 yards on 19 targets. But to focus solely on that would be box score scouting in its clearest form. It’s now up to the Falcons to actually utilize the all-world pass catcher to the best of its ability. We didn’t see that Thursday evening.
Loser: Steve Sarkisian
If the Atlanta Falcons’ offensive coordinator thought his second season in that role would come with less criticism, he was sorely mistaken. Sark’s struggles calling plays in the red zone continued over from last year.
With Atlanta setting up shop at Philadelphia’s one-yard line on its opening drive, the team failed to get the ball in the end zone on three attempts. The last two of which, on third and fourth downs, saw star receiver Julio Jones on the bench. In and of itself, that’s a major blunder.
But its the play calling that should (and did) come into question. Sarkisian passed out of the shotgun on third-and-goal from the one before somehow deciding to go with a Devonta Freeman sweep against a swarming Eagles defense. The end result was a grand total of zero points.
Then, on Atlanta’s next drive, the team settled for three points while once again crossing into red-zone territory. That’s two drives and a total of three points to show for 115 yards of offense. Ouch.
In the game’s final possession, Sark didn’t give Matt Ryan much of an opportunity to make a play in the red zone. He went with plays that called for Ryan to be in the pocket far too long against what was a dominating Eagles pass rush.
It’s rather simple here. If Sarkisian is unable to up his game from a play-calling perspective, the Falcons themselves are not going to come close to meeting relatively lofty expectations.
Winner: Eagles front seven
While the rest of the team struggled to do anything of substance in this one, the team’s defensive front absolutely dominated a pretty darn good Falcons offensive line. Led by the likes of Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett, Jordan Hicks and Chris Long, this unit put consistent pressure on Matt Ryan throughout the evening.
It’s what led to Ryan struggling doing anything down the field against Atlanta’s secondary. The stat line will read that the former MVP was hit eight times and sacked a total of four times. But he was pressured on darn near 60 percent of his drop backs throughout the game.
It’s this type of dominating defensive line performance that has some thinking that Philadelphia might have an historical unit in 2018. Should Barnett continue to progress in his second season and Michael Bennett fit in well moving forward, Philadelphia will win a lot of games simply due to its deep and talented defensive line. That came out in a big way Thursday night.
Loser: Nick Foles
Now that Carson Wentz is expected to miss a few more weeks with the torn ACL he suffered late last season, reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles will be under center for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for the Eagles, his disastrous preseason performance carried over to Week 1 Thursday night.
Philadelphia struggled out of the gate once again. It racked up a total of 10 yards on the first two drives with Foles failing to read a blitz from Falcons defensive back Brian Poole. This came after right tackle Lane Johnson even called out the blitz beforehand. That’s just not acceptable in today’s NFL. For the first time since 2014, Philadelphia actually put up zero net yards in the first quarter.
When all was said and done, Foles completed 19-of-34 passes for 117 yards en route to leading Philadelphia to a total of 18 points. He also averaged a whopping 3.4 yards per attempt in the game. That’s just not going to cut it moving forward.
Winner: Deion Jones
Prior to exiting with a cramp late in the third quarter, Jones was showing out in a big way. Already considered one of the best linebackers in the game, the former LSU standout’s third season in the NFL got off to a rip-roaring start.
We can talk about the nine tackles he recorded. That’s fine. It will look good on the stat sheet. However, it was Jones’ coverage ability that quieted Nick Foles and Co. pretty much throughout the entire evening. The likes of tight ends Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz recorded a combined one catch with Jones in coverage. He also picked off a Foles pass attended for the above-mentioned Goedert. That led to a go-ahead touchdown from Tevin Coleman in the fourth quarter.
It’s a true testament to what this kid brings to the table and could very well have him in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation when all is said and done this season.
The game was sloppy. We absolutely get that. But the officials didn’t do those watching or playing the game any favors. They called ticky-tack penalties on a consistent basis throughout the evening, many of them leaving us wondering whether playing actual defense. To make matters more interesting, they called what seemed to be a perfectly good Julio Jones catch incomplete in the second half. If that were called correctly, it might have changed the entire dynamic of the game.
All said, Atlanta and Philadelphia accounted for 26 accepted penalties and 236 penalty yards in the game. That’s as much on the officials as it is on those who struggled on the field.
Winner: Doug Pederson
Philadelphia’s head coach knows full well that he’s playing with a limited Nick Foles under center. That’s why Pederson went back into his back of tricks Thursday evening against the Falcons. It included a replay of the Philly Special from February’s Super Bowl, leading directly to the Eagles’ initial touchdown of the game.
The play calling itself was fine. Pederson helped receivers run open throughout the game, only to see Foles struggle to deliver the ball on anything beyond short-to-intermediate routes. It might have impacted Philadelphia in a big way on Thursday. But at the very least, Pederson knows the limitations are there with Foles. It will put the team in a position to win every game until Wentz returns from injury.
Loser: Matt Ryan
We’re actually worried a bit about Ryan’s health. His ball had absolutely zero zip on it throughout Thursday’s game, leading some to wonder if the former NFL MVP is injured. This laughable interception was a prime example of that.
Overall, Ryan completed just 21-of-43 passes for 251 yards with zero touchdowns and an interception in the losing effort. But it’s the tame of a strong-armed quarterback with what appeared to be a noodle as a gunslinger that should concern fans and coaches alike in Atlanta.