After soundly defeating the NFC darlings in Los Angeles, the Atlanta Falcons will be taking on the NFC’s most doubted team in Philadelphia. It’s the best matchup they could ask for in a ridiculously talented playoff field. Dan Quinn is transitioning from preparing for the most dynamic offense in the league to a severely limited one. As clever as Doug Pederson can be, he knows his offense is handicapped without Carson Wentz. That bodes well for the Falcons’ rapidly ascending defense.
Although this is a favorable matchup on paper, easy playoff games don’t exist in the NFC. Philadelphia’s success isn’t solely based on Wentz’s brilliance. They have built an incredible roster over the past two years. That starts within the trenches on both sides of the ball. A plethora of productive pass rushers and road graders on the offensive line allows them to brutalize opponents. The defensive line creates takeaways for their opportunistic secondary, while the offensive line opens up lanes for their running back trio. This is going to be an all-out battle, where the Eagles will test the Falcons in the trenches like no other team has done this season.
Surviving the Eagles’ front four assault
Steve Sarkisian did a brilliant job in the second half of last week’s victory. After Matt Ryan was pressured on nearly every snap in the first half, he made the necessary adjustments to counter Wade Phillips’ aggressive defense. A combination of outside zone run concepts and quick passes helped them produce three consecutive quality drives. It proved to be the difference maker in not only putting the Rams away, but also limiting Aaron Donald. Facing Los Angeles’ violent front four was a good barometer of what to expect from Philadelphia. Ryan looked as composed as ever handling the pressure. The Ringer’s Kevin Clark highlighted on The Ringer NFL Show that Ryan’s passer rating was 108.9 under duress.
Everyone knows what to expect from the reigning MVP. It’s a fragile offensive line that raises serious questions. While the Eagles don’t have a dominant force quite like Donald, they possess the deepest defensive line in the league. Four players recorded five sacks or more this season. Brandon Graham leads the charge with his blistering speed off the edge. His first step is known for wrecking right tackles, as Ryan Schraeder can attest to from last season’s grueling defeat. Fletcher Cox is one of the most physically imposing interior tackles in the league. To pair him with the lively Timmy Jernigan is practically unfair. Things only get more terrifying, when you realize the perennially underrated Chris Long and promising rookie Derek Barnett are used as rotational pieces. Long gave Jake Matthews fits in the Super Bowl, which included a game-changing holding penalty.
A strong commitment to the running game should help cope with a ferocious pass rush. For all the game planning and schematic changes that Sarkisian will do, the offensive line must simply play better. Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer didn’t look like NFL caliber players at times last week. No professional football team should be allowing pressure on nearly every snap, regardless of the opposition. Both players will need to show major improvement in pass protection. That will include handling Jim Schwartz’s heavy dosage of twists.
Avoiding a repeat implosion on the ground
The Falcons’ historic offense only scored under 20 points once last season. It transpired on a frustrating afternoon in Philadelphia. They had the ball for less than 22 minutes in a 24-15 defeat. It’s hard to find a rhythm, when your defense can’t get off the field. They got absolutely annihilated in the trenches. The Eagles gained 208 yards on 38 carries in a dominant showing. It proved to be a positive learning experience for Atlanta, as they won seven of their next eight games before the Super Bowl debacle. Both teams have undergone several changes over the past year. What hasn’t changed is the Eagles’ approach going into this matchup.
Pederson will look to establish the run with their uber-talented rotation. Jay Ajayi hasn’t necessarily exploded yet. Whether it’s punishing front sevens with LeGarrette Blount or getting Corey Clement involved in a pass-catching capacity, they kept his usage down following the blockbuster trade. Since Wentz’s season ending injury, we’ve seen an uptick in carries. Ajayi has received 12 or more carries in the last three games. Expect him to be a focal point in Philadelphia’s run-oriented attack, as they look to win the time of possession battle. Unlike last season, it won’t be about keeping a preposterous offense off the field. The game plan will be circulated around limiting Nick Foles’ influence on the game. That would be an ideal strategy, considering what has recently occurred. Foles’ passer rating and completion percentage was under 50 in the final five quarters of the regular season. Establishing a running game is the only realistic way Philadelphia can reach the 20-point mark.
While Philadelphia has an entirely different running back group (Ryan Matthews was their lead back last season), the Falcons made numerous upgrades in the front seven. Dontari Poe has proven to be a colossal figure inside. Signing him allowed Grady Jarrett to move back into a more preferred three-tech spot. It resulted in a breakout season for the rising star. Deion Jones hasn’t stopped playing at a high level following his memorable Thursday night showing against New Orleans. What makes the front seven more equipped to hold their own against Philadelphia’s terrific offensive line consists of their improvement on the edge within the base package. They went to Philadelphia with Ra’Shede Hageman and Tyson Jackson as their defensive ends. It proved to be an enormous disaster, especially for Hageman who looked hopeless against Jason Peters. Derrick Shelby and Brooks Reed have found their niche as quality edge setting defenders. They will likely receive more snaps than usual, due to Philadelphia’s non-existent passing game. Look for both players to play their part in forcing the Eagles to put the ball in Foles’ hands.
Limiting Zach Ertz
The productive tight end has unsurprisingly been Foles’ favorite target. Ertz is the only skill player left from 2014, which was the embattled quarterback’s last season in Philadelphia before Sam Bradford replaced him. They immediately rekindled their strong rapport in Foles’ first start against the Giants. It continued against the Raiders, which ended up being the Eagles’ final meaningful game of the regular season. On 38 pass attempts, Foles targeted Ertz 14 times in what proved to be an eye-opening performance. He looked uncomfortable throwing the ball to other players. That forced Pederson into implementing an ultra-conservative game plan to secure home-field advantage.
Based on what has transpired since Christmas Eve, it’s difficult to see any drastic changes when Foles takes on the Falcons’ sturdy defense. He doesn’t throw the ball accurately on the move. There appears to be no chemistry between him and Alshon Jeffrey. Let’s not forget how well Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are currently playing. That leaves Ertz as the lone secure option. His smooth route running ability and knack for making contested catches creates mismatches.
It will be interesting to see how the Falcons structure their coverages. Will they play more zone to confuse Foles or rely on Keanu Neal to shadow Ertz? It could be a mixture of both, as Marquand Manuel prefers to switch things up. The popular defensive coordinator deserves credit for his intelligent game plans. How they defend Ertz, particularly in the red zone, will be pivotal in this matchup. Foles looked for him down the seam at will against Oakland. The Falcons’ defense has made tremendous strides in the red zone going from dead last to fifth in one season. They must account for the Pro Bowl tight end at all times.
Big play opportunities for the wide receivers
If there is a noticeable weakness in the Eagles’ defense, the secondary is prone to committing major coverage busts. Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills are known for taking chances. That leads to them biting on double moves. It was exposed in a bizarre game against the Giants’ backup receivers. Their problems lingered into the following game, as Amari Cooper roasted Mills on a 63-yard touchdown. Targeting Mills has translated into big plays for most quarterbacks. The underwhelming cornerback allowed a league-high nine touchdowns this season.
The Falcons’ wide receivers must be salivating over this matchup. After being nullified by Donald’s dominance, they should have more chances to make plays downfield. It won’t be a dramatic increase due to Philadelphia’s lethal pass rush. There are still going to be moments of potential glory. Julio Jones is starting to add another accomplishment to his legacy. When assessing his productivity in the playoffs, the superstar wide receiver has managed to deliver in every single game. It was remarkable to see him remain productive in a wild, defensive battle against the Rams. Look for him to be heavily targeted once again. Jones may decide to break out his signature pinch route against Philadelphia’s shaky cornerbacks.
As previously mentioned, the protection needs to hold up for them to attack downfield. That will allow Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel time to operate across the field. Sanu’s crafty routes in the slot could create problems. Although Patrick Robinson is enjoying a resurgent season, this isn’t a daunting matchup for the versatile wide receiver. The same applies to Gabriel, who could see Mills more than any other receiver. Who could forget his beautiful double move that left Leodis McKelvin frozen on a 76-yard touchdown? It’s been a forgettable season for Gabriel, yet his big-play ability still commands league-wide respect.