Jalen Hurts, DeVonta Smith shine as Eagles rout Falcons; and what Nick Sirianni said to spark them

by 24USATVSept. 13, 2021, 12:40 a.m. 16
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ATLANTA – So now we know.

For months, new Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni has kept his offensive schemes under wraps, determined to take what he called "a competitive advantage" into his first game as a head coach.

Then he unleashed it.

Quarterback Jalen Hurts, in his second season but first as the full-time starter, mixed in some timely runs – something the Eagles made sure they didn't show over the summer – with pinpoint passing.

Rookie DeVonta Smith's first reception went for a touchdown as the first-round pick from Alabama led the Eagles with 6 receptions for 71 yards. Miles Sanders benefited from Hurts' running ability by leading the Eagles with 74 yards on 15 carries.

In all, the Eagles' offense was too much for the Atlanta Falcons as the Eagles rolled to a 32-6 win on Sunday.

It was as easy as it looked.

Smith said he knew the play was going to be a touchdown because he saw the Falcons were aligned in man coverage, and he knew Hurts would feather that pass right to him, which he did.

"Well, I appreciate the confidence he has to say that," Hurts said. "It’s a testament to the hard work we put in. All the effort we put into it. It was something we worked on. We got the look we wanted, and happy we hit it."

But really, the great unveiling of the Eagles' offense stemmed from Sirianni's message to his team all week. Sirianni didn't want to relay the story he told the players, saying that it was "a little embarrassing for me."

But defensive end Brandon Graham said it was the story of Sirianni's first press conference upon getting hired last January, when he appeared nervous and awkward in answering questions, raising questions about his ability to coach.

"It’s just you want to fight for him because he’s been the same guy since he got here," Graham said. "He even joked the other day about his first time doing the media, and everyone ripped him, and how mad he was.

"But at the same time, he was like he had to shake it off and come back and do it again. You gotta make sure you had that next play, that dog mentality and know that you’re here for a reason."

That applied to the entire team.

Hurts, the second-round pick from 2020 who wasn't officially named the starting quarterback until two weeks before the season started, all the while hearing rumors about how the Eagles might trade for a quarterback.

Yet Hurts was masterful, completing 27 of 35 passes for 264 yards and 3 touchdowns. His passer rating was 126.4. Hurts also ran for 62 yards on 7 carries.

It was so easy that midway through the fourth quarter, Falcons fans were streaming up to stairs to the exits. At the same time, throngs of Eagles fans raced down to take their seats.

It began rather ominously for the Eagles, however. The Falcons drove the ball down the field on the opening possession, reaching the Eagles' 3 yard line before settling with a field goal.

The Eagles didn't need nearly as much time or plays as Smith's first career reception went for an 18-yard touchdown catch with 6:17 left in the first quarter. The TD was set up by Hurts showing something that he didn't all summer – a designed run.

He faked a handoff to Miles Sanders, then took off to the left, gaining 13 yards down to the Falcons' 24. A few plays later, Hurts lofted a touch pass over Smith's left shoulder for the touchdown.

Just like that, the Eagles led 7-3.

"It just come down to seeing the coverage that we wanted, and just rolling with it and executing the play," Smith said. "We repped it a lot, so when I’d seen that it was man, I just knew because of all the repetition that we did that it was going to be that play."

The Falcons responded with another long drive, this time getting as far as the Eagles' 2 before once again settling for a field goal.

Then the Eagles' defense stiffened. The Falcons, after racking up 146 yards on their first two drives through the first quarter, had just 114 yards over the final three quarters.

The offense took over from there.

Hurts capped the first half with a 9-yard TD pass to Dallas Goedert with 2 seconds left, giving the Eagles a 15-6 lead at the break after the two-point conversion that followed a Falcons' penalty on the extra-point try.

The Eagles kept it going in the second half. Hurts got another rookie his first career TD on an 8-yard pass to running back Kenny Gainwell. The Eagles added another touchdown on Hurts' 23-yard TD pass to Jalen Reagor with 4:20 remaining.

The defense, meanwhile, didn't allow the Falcons a single point after their second possession.

Before long, the Eagles were partying in the locker room.

"It’s still a party in there," Sanders said. "This is just the beginning. We have 17 games now, just taking it one week at a time."

It didn't take Sirianni long to show his aggressive nature, going for it on fourth down twice in Falcons' territory and coming up empty each time.

The second attempt was the most questionable. The Eagles faced a 4th-and-2 from the Falcons' 20 in the third quarter, with a 15-6 lead. Instead of trying a 37-yard field goal for a 12-point lead, Hurts handed the ball off to Gainwell, who picked up only one yard.

The other decision came early in the second quarter, facing a 4th-and-4 from the Falcons' 36. The Eagles were up 7-6 at the time, but that would've been a 53-yard attempt.

Hurts rolled to his right, jumped to avoid stepping out of bounds for a 15-yard loss and threw incomplete.

The Eagles opened the Nick Sirianni era with only two quarterbacks on the game-day roster in starter Jalen Hurts and backup Joe Flacco.

Gardner Minshew, whom the Eagles traded for two weeks ago, is not active for the game. Eagles coach Nick Sirianni said recently that Minshew is the third-string quarterback for now.

Typically, teams only have two quarterbacks on the active roster.

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LOOK TO THE FUTURE:Falcons might have the blueprint for Eagles' rebuild with their quarterback decision; and 2021 NFL predictions

The touchdowns scored by Smith and Gainwell marked the first time two Eagles rookies scored a TD in the same game since Hurts and Quez Watkins did it last Dec. 20 against Arizona.

But it's the first time that two Eagles rookies scored in a season opener since at least 1950, according to pro-football-reference.com.

Caesar Rodney and Rutgers graduate Duron Harmon, a safety, is on his third team in three seasons, but he brings to the Falcons a wealth of experience, especially in the postseason.

Harmon spent his first seven seasons with the New England Patriots and was on three Super Bowl winners. He spent last season with the Detroit Lions before signing with the Falcons last spring.

"Duron is the ultimate pro," Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. "He’s been through some really big games. He’s a very smart player. He’s a natural leader. There’s nothing fake about Duron Harmon."

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