Following a well-deserved break, the Atlanta Falcons are back on the road. A stiff challenge in Philadelphia should prove to be another test for them. In their previous matchup, Philadelphia was labeled as the NFC darling following several high-profile signings, while Atlanta was considered the best out of a porous division. Circumstances have changed between both teams. They've exceeded expectations so far. It wouldn't be surprising to see a rematch in the playoffs. That's how well both teams have played, albeit the Eagles are coming off two narrow defeats.
The Falcons are currently dealing with injuries on both sides of the ball. On the same week Thomas Dimitroff's contract was extended, it seems fitting that several young players are being called upon. The recent personnel decisions have been widely praised. Can the new additions keep playing well? How will role (and untested) players respond to playing more prominent roles? Here are five things to watch for on Sunday.
Containing a fearsome front four
Not many teams have invested up front like Philadelphia has done over the past four seasons. They signed Connor Barwin to a six-year 36 million dollar deal in 2013. Brandon Graham was re-signed in 2015, despite the coaching staff underutilizing him. To keep their defensive line among the best, they made Fletcher Cox the second highest paid defensive player in the league. Their dynamic trio has combined for 11 of Philadelphia's 23 sacks, which is tied for fifth best in the league.
The Falcons did a fairly good job against them in their previous matchup. Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder kept both edge rushers from causing any havoc. Cox and Bennie Logan provided all of the issues. With Alex Mack replacing Mike Person, who was making his regular season debut at center, there should be significant improvement in this matchup. It can't be ignored that Philadelphia has greatly improved as well.
Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner wrote an excellent piece about their pass rush and overall defensive scheme. Graham is being utilized as an edge rusher in a 4-3 scheme. It has benefited him towards reaching his full potential as one of the top pass rushers in the league. He was outstanding against Dallas by producing eight pressures. With Cox always causing mismatches, the offensive line faces a tall order. The pressure falls on them to allow Matt Ryan enough time to pick apart a below average Eagles' secondary.
The matchup nightmare known as Darren Sproles
After failing to stop Jimmy Graham last month, Dan Quinn's defense will look to do better against an old foe. Doug Pederson admitted Darren Sproles is their number one running back on Monday. One of the worst-kept secrets was finally revealed, which should only boost the coaching staff's preparations for this matchup. In an offense lacking playmakers, Sproles is easily their most dangerous weapon. His pass-catching ability forces linebackers into problematic one-on-one situations. By receiving more carries, the dynamic running back isn't the role player that he was last season.
Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell have played well over the past few weeks. They've matched up against pass-heavy teams without any threat of a running game. How they respond against a balanced offense will be crucial. Pederson won't allow Carson Wentz to throw 47 times again like he did against the Giants. Although they will integrate Ryan Matthews and Kenjon Barner, Philadelphia is at their best with Sproles on the field. His ability to make something out of nothing and handle blitz pickups allows Wentz to feel more comfortable. The Falcons didn't have much speed at linebacker or safety to prevent Sproles from making big plays in previous matchups. This current unit is inexperienced, but they offer more upside, especially against an offense that isn't anywhere near those New Orleans' offenses from 2010 to 2013.
Jalen Collins tries to fill big shoes
All indications are pointing towards Desmond Trufant missing this contest. It could be much worse for the Falcons. This isn't a very imposing matchup for the second-year cornerback. Besides San Francisco and Los Angeles, there isn't a worse receiving corps in the NFL than Philadelphia's current rotation. They don't have anyone that can separate or make plays on a consistent basis. That doesn't rule out Collins from being tested. He is replacing the best player on their defense. Wentz will likely target him at some point. Losing Desmond Trufant is a blow, but Collins needs to prove himself against subpar competition.
With Robert Alford's looming exit in 2017, Collins has a golden opportunity to establish himself as a potential suitable replacement. His size and closing speed are two valuable traits for Quinn's Cover Three scheme. Everyone will be watching his technique closely following an underwhelming rookie season. Issues such as footwork and lack of fluidity covering excellent route-runners were evident. There will be mistakes, given his lack of experience. He was still drafted in the second round for a reason. If Collins is going to be a player in this league, he can't allow Dorial Green-Beckham and Nelson Agholor to repeatedly beat him.
Pass rush continuing their recent success
Although Dwight Freeney's status is unclear, there are favorable matchups for the defensive line. Lane Johnson's suspension has altered Wentz's progression. Rookie right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai is proving to be a considerable drop off. Edge rushers are blowing right past him. Jason Kelce's steady decline is continuing following a Pro Bowl season in 2014. Starting left guard Allen Barbre could possibly miss another game. A once stout Eagles offensive line has been decimated over the past month. They are facing a Falcons defensive line, which is playing much better over the past five games.
How Quinn uses different twists and stunts will be fascinating. Swapping edge rushers and different tackles on third down wasn't very effective against Tampa Bay. Allowing Vic Beasley and Adrian Clayborn to rush off the edge proved to be effective. Unless Freeney is active, they don't have the personnel to place their defensive tackles on the edge. Courtney Upshaw and Grady Jarrett simply don't belong there. The spotlight is on Beasley heading into an extremely favorable matchup. With Jason Peters shutting down the other side, it will be essential for Beasley to have a lasting impact. His bull rush looked significantly better last Thursday. Look for him to use his explosive first step more to overwhelm Vaitai. The rookie right tackle hasn't faced an edge rusher as explosive as Beasley.
Taylor Gabriel's rise
After a disappointing loss to San Diego, there were countless questions about the Falcons' collapse. The offense only scored three points in the second half. Tevin Coleman was clearly missed, but did the passing game actually suffer without Taylor Gabriel? The explosive wide receiver suffered a concussion against Seattle, which left him sidelined versus San Diego. Gabriel's recent performances indicate that the Falcons were greatly affected by his absence. In the last two games, he caught eight passes for 120 yards and one touchdown. That productive stat line includes two carries for 24 yards and another touchdown.
The former Cleveland castoff has developed into a valuable playmaker for this offense. With his blazing speed and excellent route running ability, Gabriel has ascended as their third wide receiver. Kyle Shanahan tends to rotate his wide receivers around. When it comes to third down situations, Gabriel is usually lined up on the outside or alongside Mohamed Sanu. They've recognized his playmaking ability. It allows the coaching staff to place Sanu in the slot. That has caused matchup problems across the board.
Shanahan has another dangerous asset on his hands. With Philadelphia's secondary suffering from multiple coverage breakdowns last week, there should be opportunities downfield for this high-flying offense. Julio Jones and Gabriel should be at the forefront of these explosive plays.