ATLANTA – Well, that didn't go according to plan.
The Falcons moved the ball well to start Sunday's game against Philadelphia but struggled mightily after that early momentum was stopped during a game that ultimately ended in a 32-6 loss at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It wasn't an ideal way to start the 2021 NFL season, without an offensive touchdown, at home, in a game that got out of hand in the fourth quarter.
It wasn't an ideal way to kick off the season under head coach Arthur Smith and general manager Terry Fontenot, who certainly wanted to usher in this new era with a win.
The game began well enough, with the Falcons moving the ball well in opening drives. They couldn't score touchdowns despite being deep in the red zone twice in the first quarter. They were the two best touchdown opportunities the Falcons would get in a game where they never crossed the goal line. That, some poor defense and penalty problems allowed the Eagles to take a commanding lead and expand upon it after the victory was essentially secured.
Let's take a look at three gut reactions from Sunday's loss, right as the fourth-quarter loss hit zero:
The Falcons drew a lot of yellow flags during Sunday's game, most of which hindered offensive efforts or extended Eagles drives.
One of them, however, actually cost a point. The Falcons were flagged for illegal formation on an extra point attempt near the first half's end, when Marlon Davidson lined up over the snapper. That's a no-no, and Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni chose to try a 2-point conversion from the 1-yard line instead of taking the easier kick. It worked out for Philadelphia when Mile Sanders easily cashed in and made it 15-6 just before the half.
That gave Philadelphia a two-score lead when one wasn't available on the previous play, setting the Falcons back to start the second half.
Penalty problems didn't stop there, remaining an issue throughout this game.
All told, the Falcons were penalized 12 times for 99 yards, including a run of false starts on rookie left guards Jalen Mayfield and Drew Dalman. There were two offensive pass interference calls on the same Falcons drive – one was highly questionable – but continued to slow any momentum built.
You can blame some of these infractions on Week 1, with hope that better discipline's on the way, especially before the snap. Smith would make those penalized pre-snap take a lap in practice. Too many folks would've been rounding Mercedes-Benz Stadium if it were allowed in a game.
Jalen's mobility Hurts Falcons defense
The Falcons defense so often seemed to have Jalen Hurts dead to rights, only to have the mobile Philly quarterback break containment and make a play. He often did so with his legs, evading a blitzer and then running right to the open space where the pass rusher should've been. He also bought just enough extra time to make a short completion to keep the Eagles on schedule or a drive alive. DeVonta Smith and Dallas Goedert were particularly impactful in those instances, allowing the Eagles to get in front and stay there.
The Eagles spread the Falcons defense out quite a bit, creating space required to do damage. The Falcons couldn't get home with their blitz package and were rarely winners trying to pressure the quarterback without extra bells and whistles.
We'll have to wait a few weeks to see if this is an ongoing issue or something specific to more mobile quarterbacks. The defense made two big stops on fourth down but struggled outside those moments. They gave up too many yards and too many points for comfort, especially with the offense struggling as it did over the final three quarters on Sunday afternoon.
Importance of Falcons run game crystal clear
The Falcons finished seven games last year with less than 86 yards. They had that amount in the first quarter of Sunday's game. Such efficiency didn't continue even into the second quarter, but it showed what influence Smith's scheme will have on the Falcons run game. There were holes available working inside and out, with seams Mike Davis and Cordarelle Patterson sprinted through for large gains.
That offered stark contrast to last season's work, when the run game was too often a non-factor.
It also didn't last. The Falcons couldn't run at all in the second half when they were working from a two-score deficit. Proof is in the numbers: The Falcons had 110 rushing yards in the first half, 14 in the second.
The Falcons lost serious juice when the running game wasn't a driving force as the game wore on, though it's hard to say it ever really increased golden opportunities in the passing game. It's clear that Smith can draw up some creative ways to run the ball, and that should be the bedrock of an improved run game moving forward.
The difference between the first half and second showed how vital the run game will be to this offense in the future and how it could struggle when things get tough on the ground.
Get an inside look at the matchup between the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles during Week 1 of 2021.