Dave Choate: The loss of Carson Wentz was obviously crushing. How much faith do you have in Nick Foles, and how will the Eagles offense work around him against the Falcons?
Brandon Gowton: As I detailed in my “Three reasons why the Eagles will lose” post, I’ve never been a big believer in Foles. So I don’t really have much faith in him going into this game. Again, I won’t discount the possibility he could randomly have a good game. We’ve seen it happen before. But I’ll believe it when I see it.
If Foles continues to play like he has over his last two starts, you’re going to see an Eagles offense that can’t really move the ball because the quarterback can’t do anything well and is playing scared.
Therefore, the Eagles should really try to limit Foles’ pass attempts in this game. It’s time for the Eagles to run the ball. A lot. Doug Pederson’s offense is pretty balanced (55.92% passing plays), so he needs to deviate from that a little bit here. If the Eagles can get the running game going, that should make Foles’ life easier when it comes to drawing up play-action. The Eagles could also look to mix some tempo in there.
Pederson is a pretty creative offensive mind. I don’t expect scheme or play-calling to be a big issue on Saturday. Execution is the biggest concern.
Dave Choate: Jay Ajayi was kind of murder for the Falcons the last time they faced him, when he was still with the Dolphins. How much are the Eagles going to use him Saturday, and how heavily will they lean on the ground game in general?
Brandon Gowton: The most carries Ajayi had in a single Eagles game in 2017 was 15. That took place against the Rams in Week 14. He then went on to have double digit carries in his next two games. So it seems like the Eagles were getting ready to ramp him up.
Will Ajayi get to the 20-carry mark? It depends on how the game is going, obviously, but it’s possible. Pederson admitted it’s probably time to get Ajayi more involve than before. The Jay Train should be ready to handle the workload, too, after getting to rest in Week 17 and having the luxury of a first-round bye.
I’d expect the Eagles to run the ball a good amount. I mean, they basically have to. They can’t rely on Foles to carry the team. The Eagles aren’t super run heavy on a week-to-week basis but we’ve seen games where they really turn to it. Such an example is the Eagles-Falcons game from 2016. Philadelphia made a concerted effort to pound the rock and control the clock. It’d be ideal if they could do the same thing in this game.
Dave Choate: This offensive line looks pretty intimidating. What are the weakest links, and how good is Foles at avoiding pressure? Asking just because.
Brandon Gowton: Starting center Jason Kelce, starting right guard Brandon Brooks, and starting right tackle Lane Johnson is a really strong group. Brooks and Johnson were named to the Pro Bowl. Kelce and Johnson were named first-team All-Pro.
Kelce’s an exceptional run blocker. Brooks is great at run blocking and hasn’t given up a sack in pass protection. Johnson has faced a bevy of talented pass rushers through the season but he’s shut them all down.
The left side of the offensive line, meanwhile, is the weak point. Starting left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai (filling in for Jason Peters) allowed the most pressure in the NFL during one stretch late in the season. It’s not like Vaitai is regularly a disaster all game long. It’s just that sometimes he’ll get beat REALLY badly.
My immediate response to your Foles question was: hahahahahaahahahaahahaahahaaha.
Then I wanted to link you to this video I made years ago.
Foles doesn’t handle pressure well. He doesn’t step up in the pocket enough. Instead, he’ll fade back into oblivion or scramble out of the pocket too early. As evidenced by his 5.14 second 40-yard dash time (4th percentile), he’s not very mobile.
Dave Choate: What is the biggest Eagles strength on defense, and how do you expect them to try to neutralize Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman, arguably the team’s two biggest playmakers?
Brandon Gowton: The Eagles’ biggest strength is their defensive line. This is no accident. The Eagles poured a lot of resources into that unit. It’s talented and deep.
The Eagles’ d-line is a big reason why the team ranks No. 1 in run defense (79.2 opponent rush yards per game). That’s their primary objective. Jim Schwartz aims to get teams to abandon their running game so they become one-dimensional in the passing attack. From there, the Eagles’ pass rushers can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. Philadelphia finished the 2017 season with the most pressures in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. They were the only NFL team to generate pressure on over 40% of opponent passing plays.
Philadelphia’s corners won’t be able to shut down Julio Jones completely. But if they can just keep him in front of them and limit the big plays, they’ll take that. Forcing the Falcons to drive long fields opens up the opportunity for turnovers.
Dave Choate: How is this game going to go? Can the Eagles win, what does it look like if they do, and perhaps most importantly, will they emerge victorious?
Brandon Gowton: I wasn’t very optimistic about this team’s outlook after the Wentz injury. I don’t have faith in Foles. But I’m not ready to give up the defense, especially with the Eagles playing at home.
At various times this season, I’ve had a really strong feeling about certain games. And I’m getting that feeling once again this week. I feel pretty confident in picking the Eagles to win.
I think this team feels genuinely disrespected about being the first ever No. 1 seed home underdogs in NFL history. They’re going to go out there and play angry. They’re going to be motivated to prove their doubters wrong.
The feeling here is the defense will be able to carry the team for the most part. I think they’ll either get a defensive touchdown or set up the Eagles offense with some short field(s). I’m taking the Eagles to win this game, 21-20. It’s gonna be a nail-biter.