Gameday has arrived, and with it, a difficult divisional round contest against the top-seeded Philadelphia Eagles looms on the horizon. The Falcons are, curiously, favored against the Eagles despite their superior record and the fact that the game is being played in Philly. Most of that is due to the loss of starting QB Carson Wentz, with back-up QB Nick Foles not inspiring much confidence among analysts and fans.
Before you get too hyped up about the game, let’s take a look at some players and match-ups you should keep an eye on during the contest. They could very well make the difference between a triumphant victory and a devastating loss.
LG Ben Garland and RG Wes Schweitzer
Philadelphia may not have the best DT in the league in Aaron Donald, but Fletcher Cox is pretty darn close. The interior line of the Falcons will be tested heavily by the talented defender, and it will be up to the likes of Garland and Schweitzer to give Ryan time to find his receivers downfield. The Falcons’ best chance to move the ball against the Eagles defense will be through the air—but only if the protection can hold up consistently.
Luckily, both will have the assistance of All-Pro C Alex Mack, but they’ll need to do better than they did against the Rams. Ryan faced pressure almost instantly at times in Los Angeles, and things aren’t going to get any easier against a talented Eagles’ defensive line. Let’s hope Garland and Schweitzer bring their big boy pants for this one, as the Philadelphia defense will almost certainly bring pressure early and often.
The Falcons’ run defense
There’s been a huge improvement in Atlanta’s ability to stop the run since early in the season, but it’s still a point of concern against an Eagles’ offense that will likely try to run the ball as much as possible. Keeping the ball out of Foles’ hands—if feasible—will be the game plan, and Philadelphia has a whopping 5 RBs on their roster to handle that workload. The Eagles’ will pound the rock with the physical duo of Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount, and then hit you with screens and tosses to the more agile Kenjon Barner and Corey Clement.
It’ll be up to the defensive line and linebackers to limit the damage that the Philadelphia running game can do—particularly early in the game. Look for the Falcons to employ a similar game plan to the one they used against the Rams: play the run on early downs and force the QB to beat you on third and medium. By the time Los Angeles adjusted in the second half, the Falcons had already built up enough of a lead to make the point moot. Look for big games from Grady Jarrett and Deion Jones in this one.
WR Julio Jones
Julio has been a monster in the playoffs throughout his career, and I expect the Falcons to make him a central part of the game plan against Philadelphia. The best chance for the Falcons against this stout Eagles’ defense is to throw, and who better to throw it to than Julio? We’ve seen what he’s capable of—particularly in the postseason—and Atlanta might not have a more favorable match-up than this one.
The Eagles simply don’t possess any CBs that can match-up well with Julio. Ronald Darby is only 5’11 and has struggled at times during his brief tenure with Philly. Rookie Sidney Jones has potential but just played his first game in Week 17 against the Cowboys. Another rookie, Rasul Douglas, might have the most favorable measurables (6’2, 209) but has been phased out of the defense in exchange for better special teams players. This is the biggest weakness on the Eagles’ defense, and the Falcons would be wise to exploit it.
SS Keanu Neal
Neal will be handling a lot of responsibilities in this game, but none is more noteworthy than the coverage he will be asked to play against Eagles’ TE Zach Ertz. Ertz was having a stellar season with Carson Wentz at the helm, but has been just as effective playing as the safety valve for Foles. Neal may have the toughest job in coverage of any secondary player, but he’s played extremely well against TEs this season.
Neal will also be relied upon as the “enforcer” of the secondary and should help in run support as well. The young safety contributed some key open-field tackles against the Rams last week, and can hopefully do the same against Philadelphia. After a very good rookie season, Neal has emerged as arguably the best strong safety in the NFL in his second year—let’s see if he can continue that high level of play against a talented TE in Ertz.
The Falcons’ pass rush
Perhaps the most important match-up of the day will be the Falcons’ pass rush against a talented but depleted Eagles’ offensive line. C Jason Kelce and RT Lane Johnson are two of the best at their respective positions in the league and Brandon Brooks is a quality starter, but the rest of the line is exploitable. In particular, the Eagles’ replacement LT Vaitai has been a liability at times and would be the ideal man to target.
The Falcons are going to have to get it done with pressure from multiple places, but this could be the week that we see EDGE Takkarist McKinley get a full share of starting reps against the Eagles’ reserve LT. He notched his first postseason sack last week against the Rams, beating the talented Andrew Whitworth. Look for contributions from the other usual suspects as well: Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, and Adrian Clayborn.
Who are some players that you’ll be watching closely during Saturday’s game? Any match-ups that particularly interest you?