Falcons vs. Eagles final score, takeaways: Jay Ajayi, defense lead champs to victory in nail-biter
Ajayi's two second-half touchdowns proved the difference for the Eagles
It wasn't pretty, but it counts all the same. The Philadelphia Eagles began their title defense with an 18-12 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, in a game that was eerily reminiscent of the 15-10 win they had over the Falcons during last year's playoff run -- right down to the Falcons having one last chance to win at the end but ultimately coming up short on a last-ditch pass to Julio Jones.
Philadelphia's offense got off to a slow start in this one, but the defense -- particularly the crew up front that did an excellent job of containing Atlanta's running game and putting pressure on Matt Ryan -- kept them in the game and did just enough so that two second-half touchdown runs from Jay Ajayi ended up being the difference.
It was a sloppy game all night long, with a total of 26 penalties being called against the two sides. Doug Pederson's team was not immune to those errors, getting called for a variety of infractions including multiple offsides calls that resulted in the Falcons getting second and even third chances to score.
But the defense tightened things up when it matter, yielding only a touchdown and a field goal on five red zone possessions, while also sacking Ryan four times, intercepting him once, and holding every Falcons pass-catcher save for Julio Jones under 30 receiving yards apiece.
Chris Long was in the backfield all night. Michael Bennett made a few nice plays. Haloti Ngata sliced through the offensive front. Jordan Hicks was seemingly everywhere. Ronald Darby, Rodney McLeod, Malcolm Jenkins, and the rest of the secondary lost track of Jones at times -- which seems impossible but still happened -- but continually made plays to get off the field on third down. The Falcons, the league's No. 1 team at converting third downs last season, went just 4 of 15 on third down in the opener.
Rookie punter Cameron Johnston chipped in with booming kicks to keep the Eagles out of terrible field position while the offense struggled, and when it came time to capitalize on Atlanta's mistakes, Nick Foles made a few key throws, Falcons defenders missed a few key tackles, and Ajayi snuck into the end zone twice.
In the end, the Eagles began the 2018 season in just the same way they began their playoff run to Super Bowl LII just about eight months ago: with a narrow win over a Falcons team that seemed like it had a ton of chances to come away with a victory but instead repeatedly shot itself in the foot and couldn't convert from in close when it mattered.
Here are a few more things to know about Philly's season-opening victory.
Philly Special Redux
Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard about the Philly Special. It basically won the Eagles the Super Bowl last year. But even that play was not the first time in that game that a skill-position player threw a pass to the quarterback. Earlier in the game, the Patriots ran a similar play where Danny Amendola attempted a pass to Tom Brady.
Doug Pederson obviously liked what he saw, because in his team's very next game, he basically, unveiling this look in the third quarter.
Does that look familiar? It should.
As our Sean Wagner-McGough shows, the two plays are essentially carbon copies of each other.
Never say that Pederson is afraid to innovate through imitation.
Falcons' red zone struggles continue
When the Falcons watch the tape of this game, they might want to begin with their offensive possessions inside the red zone. On the first drive of the game, the Falcons marched right down the field and got inside the 5-yard line. and then completely stalled. On three consecutive plays from the Eagles' 1-yard line, the Falcons trotted out a jumbo set without their best offensive player -- Julio Jones -- on the field.
Those players were unsuccessful. Devonta Freeman was stuffed for no gain on the first play. Freeman motioned out to the slot and failed to haul in a poor throw from Ryan on the second play. And Freeman was stuffed again on fourth and goal.
The Falcons got inside the 10-yard line on their next drive, but again failed to get into the end zone. Matt Ryan tried to connect with tight end Austin Hooper on a stick route on third-and-goal, but Hooper was run into by a linebacker who was attempting to get outside to handle Devonta Freeman in coverage, and the pass fell incomplete so the Falcons had to settle for a field goal.
In the second half the Falcons got back inside the red zone, only for Ryan to loft a pass to the middle of nowhere instead of to wherever Julio was running his route. Rasul Douglas ended up with an interception and the Falcons got zero points on the drive.
On the final drive of the game, the Falcons once again got the ball inside the red zone, but Ryan was sacked on the first play and they had to gain that yardage back. They ended up with first down at the 10-yard line with just 24 seconds to go. An illegal contact penalty gave them one last shot with just a second left on the clock, but Julio Jones could not stay in bounds as he hauled in a fade from Ryan.
In the end, the Falcons got nine points out of five red zone trips. Were it not for a Tevin Coleman touchdown run, it would have been even worse, but as it is their average of 1.8 points per red zone trip would have been worst in the NFL last season by 2.03 points. The Falcons themselves ranked 23rd in points per red zone trip a year ago, and it's obviously an issue they still need to work out.
Eagles offense starts slow
By the time the first quarter was over, the defending champions had zero total yards. The Eagles had run two drives consisting of eight total plays, and they went nowhere at all. As the NFL's internal research department noted, it was the first time since 2014 they failed to gain a yard in the first quarter.
The Eagles lost that game though, and they managed to come back and win this one. I'm not sure if that says more about the Eagles or the 2018 Falcons.
Foles comes back to earth
In, we noted the possibility that the Eagles' passing game would take a step backward. Foles was so spectacular in the NFC title game and Super Bowl that it almost had to happen no matter what, but this game proved the theory true nonetheless.
Whiling finishing out the game against the Rams and starting against the Giants, Raiders, and Cowboys, Foles completed 54.6 percent of his passes and averaged just 4.96 yards per attempt. During his most recent season as a starter, back in 2015, he was not much better: 56.4 percent completions at 6.1 yards per attempt. With the exception of his utterly spectacular 2013 season (during which he threw 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions) and the NFC title game and Super Bowl last year, Foles has been a perfectly average quarterback. He does, of course, have one of the NFL's great offensive coaches scheming him into position for success, but it's important to remember the bigger picture when debating what to expect from Foles on a game-to-game basis.
Consider also who Foles will be throwing to in Week 1. The Eagles will be without Alshon Jeffery due to injury, but they also lost Trey Burton and Torrey Smith in free agency, plus Brent Celek to retirement. Of the Eagles' 555 targets last season, Jeffery, Burton, Smith, and Celek accounted for 242 of them, or 43.6 percent. Of the 207 targeted passes Foles threw during the regular season and postseason combined, that foursome was the on the receiving end of the throw on 79 of them, or 38.2 percent. That's a whole lot of missing-in-action pass-catchers. And that's not even accounting for Mack Hollins, who played a small role last year but will have to be more of a contributor this season, and is also out for Thursday's game. Foles still has plenty of returning targets such as Ertz, Nelson Agholor, and running backs Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement, plus new arrival Mike Wallace; but things are going to be a bit different for the Philadelphia passing game than they were a year ago, to say the least.
With many of his top targets either no longer with the team or out due to injury, Foles was left almost exclusively targeting Agholor and Ertz. They did what they could with their opportunities (Agholor: 8-33; Ertz: 5-48), but the Eagles had little success pushing the ball downfield, and Foles flirted with danger several times before finally getting intercepted on a tipped pass in the fourth quarter. In the end, he finished the game just 19 of 34 (55.9 percent) for 117 yards (3.4 per attempt) and an interception, a far cry from his Super Bowl MVP performance. The Eagles will need better from him over the next several weeks, because it looks like Carson Wentz .
You get a penalty! And you get a penalty! We all get penalties!
There were approximately four zillion penalties called in this game. It got to the point where any play that went by without a piece of yellow laundry being thrown onto the field had to be considered a miracle. I would not be surprised if I was somehow called for a penalty while writing this sentence.
In the first half alone, the teams combined for 16 flags and 134 yards' worth of infractions. By the end of the night, they racked up 26 penalties for 236 yards, which no, in case you are wondering, is not actually more than both teams' offenses gained in the game. The Falcons, mercifully, gained 296 yards. (The Eagles gained 232.)
Everybody's favorite incomprehensible rule strikes again
The catch rule is back, everybody! Someday, after we are all long gone, the NFL will finally figure out what actually constitutes a catch. It will not happen this year, though. Despite tweaking the catch rule this offseason in an attempt to make it more understandable for, well, everyone, we already had a catch controversy in the first game of the season.
Check outin the third quarter. Look at the route. Look at the body control. Look at the hands. And then look at the full control of the ball with his whole body inbounds and all that jazz.
The fine people of Twitter.com (plus both Al Michael and Cris Collinsworth, and rules analyst Terry McAulay) were unanimous in their agreement that this was, indeed, a catch.
Alas, the play was initially ruled a non-catch, and that ruling was upheld on review. Get ready for yet another season of complaints about how nobody knows what a catch is, and ridiculous rulings that everyone thinks are incorrect.
Injuries strike Atlanta's defense
Remember that bit earlier about how the Eagles' offense got off to an incredibly slow start? Well, their moderate step forward might have been helped along by numerous Falcons sustaining injuries throughout the game.
Safety Keanu Neal briefly left the game with some sort of leg injury early on, but returned to the field. The injury looked pretty bad at first (it was a non-contact leg injury) so it was surprising to see him come back; but it was less surprising to see him leave the game once again later on, with another non-contact injury to the same leg. He was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the night.
He wasn't the only Falcons defender who left the field. Takkarist McKinley missed some snaps. Vic Beasley was evaluated for a head injury before eventually returning. Deion Jones had to leave the field before eventually coming back in. And Desmond Trufant was cramping on and off throughout the night. All the shuffling in and out left the Falcons playing groups who were not necessarily their preferred defenders, and the Eagles were able to take advantage at opportune moments.
Freeman's night cut short by injury
Fantasy owners headed into the season expecting big things from running back Devonta Freeman, who was a consensus second-round pick in drafts all preseason. However, he managed just six carries for 36 yards and was eventually announced to be dealing with a knee injury.
Anyone who hitched their wagon to the star running back will obviously be glued to CBSSports.com and CBS Sports HQ for the latest updates.
Philly's RB trio shows its skills
The Eagles got off to a strange offensive start, as mentioned, but maybe nothing was stranger than the snap distribution among their running backs. We'd been hearing for a while that Jay Ajayi would be a workhorse-type lead back, but instead Darren Sproles took the large majority of the snaps in the first half. He did alright with his opportunities but the offense sputtered.
The Eagles finally got Ajayi going in the second half, with a 20-yard run and then the first touchdown of the season. He ended up carrying 15 times for 62 yards and two scores, including the game-winner late in the fourth quarter.
Sproles only gained 10 yards on his five carries, but he gained 22 yards on four catches and picked up a key third-down conversion. Corey Clement made the most of his opportunities, including a 21-yard run in the fourth that set up Ajayi's game-winning score. Add in a nice run on a pitch by Nelson Agholor, and the Eagles' backfield did its job in grinding out the yards they needed to come away with a close win.
Weather delays the start of the season
Before the game even got started, we had some issues. Extreme weatherfor nearly 45 minutes, as fans were encouraged to take shelter during a period of heavy rain and lightning.
While we were waiting for the actual game to begin, the Falcons got off some jokes.
The season didn't end up officially getting underway until 9:05 p.m. ET, which meant the game didn't end until well after midnight. Classic Thursday Night Football shenanigans, folks.
Relive all the action from the Thursday night opener in our live blog below.
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