PHILADELPHIA - While legal gambling is all the rage around the NFL these days, good luck handicapping the Eagles vs. Falcons in Atlanta over the weekend.
The Battle of the Birds features two rookie head coaches who purposefully kept things under wrap this summer in an attempt to have the advantage in Week 1.
"I think it's to both of our advantages," Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said of the dueling obfuscation. "I'm imagining they thought the same thing that we did. That's pretty common on new staffs.
"So, they haven't shown some things either. We just got to go back and look at tape of any of our time in the past. But, again, not a lot of film on either of us, but [Atlanta defensive coordinator] Dean [Pees] has called some plays and Coach Pees is a really good defensive coordinator and he’s been a good defensive coordinator for a lot of years."
The Eagles had serious interest in hiring Falcons head coach Arthur Smith after Doug Pederson was fired and Smith granted Jeffrey Lurie's interview request even though the former Tennessee offensive coordinator was one of the hottest candidates of the cycle and was already deep down the road of negotiating with the Falcons.
"I was just honored," Smith said of the Eagles' interest. "I was fortunate to go through the hiring process last year. Really thankful for the opportunity the Eagles gave me to come down there and interview with Jeffrey Lurie and that staff, and [GM] Howie [Roseman]. I was fortunate.
"I talked to other teams. I’m real fortunate Atlanta offered me the job. So it never got that far down the road. But I got the interview."
RELATIONSHIP WITH THE ENEMY
Smith and new Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon are close from spending time on the same coaching staff in Tennessee. Smith was an offensive quality control coach for the Titans in 2012 when Gannon was hired as a defensive QC coach. By 2013 Smith was promoted to an offensive line and tight ends assistant while Gannon stayed as defensive QC.
By 2014 was continuing to climb the ladder with the Titans as the assistant TE coach and Gannon was off to Minnesota to be the assistant defensive backs coach.
Meanwhile, new Falcons OC Dave Ragone was also on that Titans staff as a WR and QB coach and also went to college at Louisville with Gannon.
"Arthur Smith and I, we go back. We were on the same staff for a couple years in Tennessee and their offensive coordinator as well, Dave Ragone was on that staff," Gannon said. "I actually went to high school and college with Dave Ragone, who is their offensive coordinator. But they are smart. They are smart.
"They do a lot of good things and they play to their players' strengths and Arthur does a good job of keeping the quarterback out of trouble and he's not going to ask his players to do something that is putting them in bad spots. That presents a challenge because it makes you hard to defend when you do that."
THE VETERAN QB
Gannon is big on pressuring the QB and often notes there are two ways to do so: the conventional pass rush and the more contextual process of pre-snap disguise. The rookie DC acknowledged, however, that the latter might be a little bit more difficult this week against the 36-year-old Matt Ryan, the Exton native who is a former NFL MVP and a five-time Pro Bowl selection.
"Going against Matt Ryan, that's a big-time challenge because there's not a lot of looks that this guy hasn't seen," Gannon admitted. "There's not a lot of coverage -- not any coverage that this guy hasn't seen. And he's got a very fast processor, so that's why he's a top ten guy. And he has weapons.
"So we just have to do a really good job of [saying], ‘Here’s how,’ -- we talked to the guys today like, ‘Here's what we're doing, this is how we are starting the game, and here are the adjustments coming down the road.'"
Former Archbishop Wood star turned No. 4 overall pick in the NFL Draft, Kyle Pitts, is on the Eagles' mind.
Pitts is one of the more unique athletes to come into the league at tight end at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds with 4.4 speed. He's too big strong for cornerbacks and too quick and fast for safeties or linebackers.
Eagles starting safety Anthony Harris noted that it's going to take a team effort to deal with a playmaker like that.
"I think any time you go into a game and there is a dynamic player, it's always going to be a team challenge, through scheme,” Harris said. “Obviously, there is gonna be a time where a guy is going be matched up with him where you gotta do what you gotta do, but I think collectively, you know pass rush, coverage, hand to hand, everybody, being able to stop the run and keying on that as well."
Gannon has clearly earmarked Pitts in his game-planning.
"There's a reason that guy went as high as he went," said Gannon. "There's a reason all the defensive coaches when they're talking before the draft, say this is the best guy they've seen in the last 10 years.
"So, you know, we're going to have to be smart about how we defend him. And we're going to know -- people that end up on him, they're going to need to know what he brings to the table. And hopefully that we have help around us when we're defending him."
STRENGTH VS. WEAKNESS
The Eagles defensive line figures to be one of the best in the NFL and Atlanta is hoping for competency on the offensive line.
Falcons rookie third-round pick Jaylen Mayfield has been tabbed to start at left guard against an Eagles' interior that features two studs: perenially Pro Bowl selection Fletcher Cox and maybe the most improved player of the summer Javon Hargrave.
If the Eagles plan to speed Ryan up or get him off his spots, that might be the place to start.
"Jalen is coming along as a rookie," Smith said. "We’ve played him quite a bit in the preseason. We started camp and we were a little short at tackle. He got some reps there. We worked him back inside. He had a freak injury last week, unfortunately, that’s life in the NFL. But he’ll be ready to go.
"He’s a rookie. There are going to be things that are new for him. There are challenges every week. We’ll have our work cut out for us with the Eagles defensive line."
PREDICTION (Eagles +3.5):
John McMullen - Falcons 24, Eagles 19. The Eagles have the more talented team but the spot here is difficult. An opening week on the road against a team that is probably going to struggle but doesn't know it yet in an environment where fans will be jacked up after the pandemic year.
Ed Kracz - Eagles 23, Falcons 20. The Eagles have the better roster and their veterans are battle-tested, having won a lot of games in plenty of hostile environments. The Nick Sirianni era dawns at `1-0.
-John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John, alongside legendary sports-talk host Jody McDonald every morning from 8-10 on ‘Birds 365,” streaming live on both PhillyVoice.com and YouTube. John is also the host of his own show "Extending the Play" on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.