The Falcons open the 2021 NFL season at home against the Eagles in Week 1. We take a closer look at how these two teams match up on offense and defense by examining their statistics.
Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season is finally here, and we’ve got real NFL football awaiting us tonight. The Falcons open things up against the Eagles on Sunday in what, on paper, looks to be one of the easier games on the schedule. Both teams have gone through a significant amount of change over the past offseason, and will be hoping their respective coaching and personnel adjustments will pay off.
The Falcons haven’t won a season opener since 2017, when they defeated the Chicago Bears 23-17 on the back of some 4th down heroics from edge rusher Brooks Reed. Can Atlanta break their losing streak and start 2021 out on the right foot with a victory against Philadelphia? Let’s take a closer look at the offensive and defensive statistics for both teams—which, since we’ve seen nothing of either team in 2021 thus far, will be based on 2020—to determine who has the advantage.
The Falcons clearly look like the better overall team on offense, with superior numbers across the board in the three major statistical categories. Atlanta leads in scoring (16th vs T-25th), total yardage (18th vs 25th), and yards per play (T-18th vs T-28th). While the Falcons’ overall numbers are right around league-average, the Eagles are below average in most categories. Keep in mind that these numbers began to improve after Jalen Hurts took over the team, so Philadelphia could be a more formidable offensive team in 2021.
In the passing game, the Falcons are—unsurprisingly—the far superior team, with Atlanta leading in both statistical categories. The Falcons were 5th in passing yardage and T-15th in yards per attempt, while the Eagles were 28th in passing yardage and tied for the lowest yards per attempt in the NFL with just 6.2. Atlanta is likely to have a decisive advantage when throwing the football.
It’s a different story on the ground, however, as the Eagles boasted one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks in 2021—in large part due to Jalen Hurts’ ability as a dual-threat quarterback. Philadelphia was 9th in rushing yardage and 3rd in yards per carry, with a very impressive 5.0 mark. Meanwhile, the Falcons languished with one of the most uninspiring ground games in the league, managing just 95.8 rushing yards per game (27th) and the second-worst yards per carry average (3.7). Atlanta’s ground game is expected to improve under new head coach Arthur Smith, but Philadelphia will probably still have the advantage here.
You might remember from last season that the Falcons offense was frequently maddening from an advanced statistics standpoint. This is due to the fact that their overall scoring efficiency (how many offensive drives ended in a score) was high, but their red zone efficiency (how many red zone drives ended in a TD) was very low. That resulted in an offense which scored at a pretty average level despite an above-average number of red zone trips.
Even taking this into account, the advanced statistics do heavily favor the Falcons. Atlanta was top-10 in scoring efficiency (9th) and third down efficiency (10th), were above-average in turnover percentage (12th), and were right around average in sack rate (T-17th). The Eagles have only one advantage: red-zone efficiency, which was Atlanta’s Achilles heel in 2020 under Dirk Koetter. Philadelphia had a fairly league-average 60.9% efficiency (15th), while the Falcons finished with just 53.4% (26th). In the other advanced stats, the Eagles were among the worst in the NFL: 31st is scoring efficiency, 31st in turnover percentage, 28th in third down efficiency, and dead last in sack rate allowed.
Offensive Advantage: Falcons
Things were different on the defensive side of the ball. While the Eagles weren’t the defensive powerhouse they had been in years past, they were average at worst in 2020—which means they were quite a bit better than the Falcons. Atlanta does hold a very narrow lead in scoring defense (25.9 PPG to 26.1 PPG, 19th and 20th respectively), but Philadelphia was drastically better in both total yardage allowed (363.1 to 398.4, 19th vs 29th) and yards per play allowed (5.5 to 6.2, T-12th vs T-29th).
The Falcons finished the season as the NFL’s worst pass defense, and it was a key reason for their 4-12 record. Atlanta surrendered 293.6 passing yards per game (32nd) and 7.9 yards per attempt (T-27th), by far their biggest weakness. The Eagles, on the other hand, were fairly average against the pass. Philadelphia allowed 237.4 passing yards per game (15th) and 7.8 yards per attempt (26th). This was due to a lethal pass rush that was among the best in the league, as the Eagles finished with a 27.9% pressure rate (2nd) compared with a 23.6% rate (15th) for the Falcons.
The one part of the Falcons defense that was consistently good was the run defense. Atlanta finished 6th in rushing yardage allowed (104.8 YPG), and T-14th in yards per carry allowed (4.4). Philadelphia, meanwhile, was a below average run defense. The Eagles finished T-23rd in rushing yardage allowed (125.8 YPG) and T-10th in yards per carry allowed (4.2).
The advanced statistics once again paint a puzzling picture of the Falcons. Atlanta was actually a solid defense on third down (41.0% conversion rate, T-17th) and in scoring efficiency (42.0% scoring rate, 19th). They were also about league-average in terms of creating turnovers, with a 12.1% turnover rate (16th). However, they completely fell apart in the red zone, allowing an abysmal 70.0% red zone efficiency to opposing offenses (30th). In short, the defense probably shouldn’t have been as bad as it was.
The Eagles defense was above-average in most advanced statistical categories. They were very good on third down (37.9% conversion rate allowed, 7th) and were stingy in allowing points (37.8% scoring efficiency, 11th). Unlike Atlanta, Philadelphia was solid in the red zone, allowing just a 61.0% efficiency (14th). However, the Eagles did struggle to create turnovers, finishing with just a 9.2% turnover rate (T-26th).
Defensive Advantage: Eagles
The stats tell us that both teams have their advantages. Offensively, the Falcons have the overall advantage and are the vastly superior passing offense. The Eagles were much more effective when running the ball, however. Atlanta also has the advantage in terms of pass blocking, scoring efficiency, third down play, and in turnovers. Philadelphia was among the worst in the NFL in pass protection, turning the ball over, and in overall scoring efficiency.
On defense, it’s the opposite story. The Eagles were among the NFL’s most fearsome pass rushes last year and were much better than the Falcons in that respect. Philadelphia was also a superior team on third down and in the red zone. Atlanta was a better run defense and created turnovers more consistently, but that’s about it.
Overall, going off 2020’s stats, this looks like a close game on paper. The Falcons have all the offensive advantages, while the Eagles are the superior defense. What we don’t know is how all the offseason changes for each team will affect things. Will the coaching changes in Atlanta and Philadelphia bring meaningful results for either team? Can the Falcons actually run the ball and take advantage of the Eagles defensive weakness? Will a Philadelphia offense that is now firmly under the control of Jalen Hurts play more consistently?
Overall Projection: Close game
What are your thoughts on the Falcons’ Week 1 matchup with the Eagles? Do you think Atlanta can pull off the season-opening win?