The Atlanta Falcons are on a mission to change the perception that has plagued them over the past few seasons. The defense has been a facet of the team that has been weak, but they were strong on Monday night. Dan Quinn seems to have this team on the right track. Quinn has this team playing in his mold, fast and physical and the offensive and defensive performances reflected the sentiment he has strongly pushed since he arrived in Atlanta.
There were several strong and weak points throughout the game, let's take a closer look.
1. Stopping the Run in Nickel
Chip Kelly used a lot of three wide receiver sets against the Falcons, forcing Dan Quinn to employ more nickel sets to combat the extra receiving threats. While the Falcons had the ability to matchup against the Eagles in terms of athleticism on the outside, they still had to account for a potent rushing attack led by DeMarco Murray.
One of the staples of Philadelphia's offense is their ability to run inside zone out of three receiver sets. Spreading out the defense gives Chip Kelly a numbers advantage in the box, which he frequently exploited last season as the Eagles finished with a top ten rushing offense.
With nickel defenses there are typically six defenders (black numbers) in the box. The Eagles came in a formation that features six blockers (purple numbers) to make the blocker to defender ratio even in the box. Theoretically, Philadelphia should be able to match up each blocker to a defender and allow Murray to quickly attack the second and third levels of the defense.
Dan Quinn's Cover 3 scheme is prepared to counteract this, and a lot of it has to do with the alignment of Ricardo Allen (yellow number nine). With Allen manning the deep safety position playing overtop to prevent big plays through the air, William Moore (yellow number eight) and Phillip Adams (yellow number seven) can be a bit more aggressive in their run fits. Adding Moore and Adams in run support shifts the number advantages in favor Atlanta 8-6 to form an overwhelming presence at the line of scrimmage. Once Allen recognizes that it's a run play, he can come down into the box giving the Falcons a 9-6 advantage.
This turns Atlanta's 4-2-5 nickel set into a form of a 4-4-3 defense, which is much tougher to run against.
Of course, stopping the run is a lot easier when O'Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn dominate their blockers at the point of attack. When the defense is running this cohesively, its fairly easy to see how the Falcons were able to hold DeMarco Murray to nine yards on eight carries.
2. Play Action Setting Up Big Plays Through the Air
Play action is a key theme in Kyle Shanahan's offenses and he used it to create big plays through the air on Monday night. Philadelphia had to respect Tevin Coleman's explosive speed on outside zone plays and perimeter runs, which means the Falcons had the chance for explosive plays down the field after the linebackers bit on the run fake.
What's really impressive about this play design is how the route combinations in conjunction with the play action allow Roddy White to spring free for a big play. The run fake forces DeMeco Ryans and Kiko Alonso to compress towards the line of scrimmage instantly freeing up space in between the second and third levels of the defense.
The route combination between Julio Jones and Roddy White is what really allows this play to become so wide open. Julio is an elite receiving option, he's going to see his fair share of double and triple coverages throughout the season. The lone threat of him running a deep post towards the endzone forces three defensive backs to commit to his presence. This leaves Roddy White with one on one coverage against safety Malcolm Jenkins in the middle of the field.
Roddy initially commits hard towards the hash marks on what appears to be a crossing route (a staple in Shanahan's offense), but breaks back towards the sideline after he gets Jenkins momentum working against him. With the space created from the run fake and Julio's deep post, Roddy finds himself with a large amount of space to work with as Matt Ryan hits him in stride coming out of his break.
Atlanta finally has a competent rushing attack, which means that play action will have the potential to create many explosive plays this season. This play versus the Eagles is just a sample of good things to come in the near future.
3. Cohesiveness Among the Offensive Line
Coming into this game, it's fair to say that the offensive line appeared to be at a massive disadvantage against the Eagles stout front seven. However, the offensive line faired better than expected and put together a fairly positive performance. Their performance looks even better once you realize that this is a unit that hadn't had too many practice reps leading into the game. Andy Levitre was recently added to the roster and Mike Person is still settling into his role as the team's center; it would've been understandable if the offensive line completely crapped the bed.
Tevin Coleman's ability to stretch the defense thin on outside zone plays combined with solid blocking allowed the Falcons to consistently chip away at the Eagles defense. The ability to even avoid negative runs is something that Atlanta hasn't had the past few seasons with Steven Jackson taking a hefty amount of carries.
Quick five yard runs like the one above have eluded the Falcons in recent seasons. Having the simple ability to take advantage of Coleman's burst and speed to the edge opens up the offense tremendously.
The second half is where things got a little tricky for Atlanta, luckily they were able to hold on. Where exactly did it begin to fall apart?
1. Chip Kelly's Tempo and Buck Sweeps
In the second half, Chip Kelly's warp speed pace eventually started to wear the defense down. When the defense started to get tired, the Eagles started to run to edges more using their deadly Buck Sweep play.
This play design allows Philadelphia to get their excellent athletes on the offensive line out in space to attack linebackers on the second level. It also creates a numbers mismatch on the "playside" of the formation by pulling the center and right tackle and allowing the backside guard to immediately go after linebackers and seal off pursuing defenders.
Combine the fatigue created from facing an up-tempo offense and forcing the defense to run sideline to sideline, and you create the potential for big plays on the ground.
2. Darren Sproles versus Kroy Biermann
While Darren Sproles was a member of the New Orleans Saints, he consistently made life hell for Atlanta. He was able to make a few big plays in the second half as Philadelphia exploited a major mismatch with Kroy Biermann attempting to cover him. Biermann is going to be filling in with O'Brien Schofield at strongside linebacker while Brooks Reed heals from his groin injury. Needless to say, Biermann can't match up with Darren Sproles in the open field.
One of the most difficult routes for linebackers and slower defenders to cover is the Wheel route. This was a brilliant play call by Chip Kelly to exploit the Sproles on Biermann matchup. Atlanta was playing Cover 3 here, and the Wheel route is a great route to run versus Cover 3.
The diagram above shows the typical responsibilities of a Cover 3 defense. Biermann is the "Curl Flat" defender and Sproles' route ran right through his coverage. With Worrilow sinking into his middle hook zone to seal off the tight end, Biermann should've executed what's known as a pattern match. Pattern matching is simply the conversion point in which zone coverage turns to man coverage. With no other immediate threats, Biermann should've taken Sproles in man coverage down the sideline. However, he got lost in coverage and was too slow to react to the pass that Bradford beautifully dropped in over his head.
It's going to take a little bit of time for the defense to gel together to defend against these type of routes, but having Biermann running down the sideline against athletes like Darren Sproles is a mismatch that hopefully doesn't get abused too often with Brooks Reed out.
3. Too Many Completions Underneath
In the second half, Sam Bradford and the Eagles passing game started to get into a groove by attacking one of the main weaknesses of Cover 3 defenses: underneath routes. In the diagram above, notice that the middle of the field within 5-7 yards of the line of scrimmage is susceptible to receivers running into that area. Philadelphia feasted off that cushion in the second half as they dinked and dunked their way up the field with tempo and timing routes.
The game on Monday night was truly a tale of two halves. Atlanta came out hot and dominated the first half, but they got gassed by Philadelphia's tempo and speed in the second half and almost blew the game. Going forward, I would expect for performances like the first half of the game as most teams on the schedule don't push pace and speed like the Eagles routinely do.
Overall, there's a lot of good to take away from the win against Philadelphia. Chip Kelly is a mastermind when it comes to offensive scheme and playcalling; it was great for the Falcons to show resilience and grit against a tough week one opponent. If the defense can put forth dominant efforts like they did in the first half through most of the season, this Falcons team is going to win double digit games and secure the NFC South title.
Good times are among us, I can't wait to see the team go out against the Giants on Sunday afternoon.