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Falcons vs. Eagles: How the game will be won or lost

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Can the Falcons start their season on a high note in the place where their season ended eight months ago?

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NFL: NFC Divisional Playoff-Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The long-anticipated rematch is finally here. After eight months, the Falcons are back in the spotlight against the Super Bowl champions that ended their dreams of 2016 redemption.

If you remember, everything was aligning for the Falcons to make it back to the promised land. A matchup against Nick Foles created a real optimistic feeling around Atlanta. Those bright visions were shattered in a disappointing 15-10 defeat. Not scoring any points in the second half led to another playoff exit. The habit of failing to score in the red zone caught up to Steve Sarkisian’s disjointed offense. For all their incredible talent, the Falcons continue to find ways to fall short at the worst possible time.

Not much has changed since then. The main objective of winning a Super Bowl remains the same. Dan Quinn’s coaching staff methods and management style remain as popular as ever, and have been used to tweak the team. Working closely alongside the front office, the charismatic head coach keeps building a roster capable of beating any team. Their capabilities haven’t necessarily been shown in recent meetings against Philadelphia. From getting overpowered in the trenches to not finding a rhythm offensively, the Falcons have struggled against Doug Pederson’s squad. Playing better up front will go a long way in starting off the season with a bang.

Surviving in the trenches

When evaluating the Eagles’ stacked roster, the first thing that stands out is their ferocious defensive line. No defensive line goes deeper in terms of talent and versatility. Although they lost quality rotational pieces in Vinny Curry and Beau Allen, Philadelphia remains as loaded as ever. Swooping in and trading for Michael Bennett left every NFC contender outraged. Haloti Ngata can still be effective in a limited role. By acquiring both veterans, it eliminated any doubts about depth across their defensive line.

Trying to contain the likes of Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and Bennett will always be difficult. The Falcons are fortunate that Timmy Jernigan is still recovering from a herniated disk. It leaves them with one fewer concern, especially when running the ball. Ngata isn’t the same run-stuffer that he once was. That should bode well for Sarkisian in utilizing their signature zone-blocking scheme.

It will be essential for the offense to be productive on first and second down. Third and long situations are usually a nightmare against Philadelphia’s ultra-aggressive defense, especially when defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz breaks out the NASCAR package. Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco should be major upgrades over Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer, who were the starters in last season’s playoff game. How they fare against Bennett and Cox will determine how aggressive Matt Ryan can be in the pocket.

Causing havoc in the trenches

While Sarkisian’s questionable play calling stole all the headlines, there was another significant reason behind the Falcons’ playoff exit. The Eagles controlled the line of scrimmage in the second half. They managed to put together drives of 12 and 14 plays for more than 13 minutes combined. Although both drives ended in field goals, it still represented a huge win for an offense adjusting to life without Carson Wentz. They were able to pick up timely first downs and keep Foles clean in the pocket. It was a disappointing end for what was arguably the Falcons’ best defensive line since 2004.

The pass rush only produced one sack and four hits on 31 drop backs. Pederson deserves credit for using RPOs and other innovative play designs to get the ball out of Foles’ hands quickly. There were still far too many moments that showed Foles standing tall in the pocket without feeling rushed. Without Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe, Atlanta’s defensive line clearly doesn’t look as impressive on paper. Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley will be expected to carry the pass rushing load.

How Quinn rotates on the interior alongside Grady Jarrett should be fascinating as the game wears on. It’s no secret that Foles is coming off a dreadful preseason. Generating pressure and making him play on the move are two effective ways towards rattling him. That is easier said than done against Philadelphia’s tremendous offensive line.

Tevin Coleman’s usage

One of the most fascinating aspects of last season’s divisional round matchup was Coleman’s productivity. It felt like he was accelerating into the open field on nearly every other carry. With Devonta Freeman ailing from a MCL-PCL sprain, Coleman was given more touches than usual. It led to both running backs receiving ten carries. As Freeman failed to average a yard per carry, Coleman exploded for 79 yards. They used a variety of stretch runs (particularly from shotgun) to exploit Philadelphia on the outside. The dynamic back also ran effectively between the tackles as well.

There are some games where Coleman can overwhelm an opposing defense. His speed gives them fits at all three levels. Unfortunately for the Falcons, linebackers and safeties aren’t being tested all that often in the passing game. Coleman’s shockingly low usage as a receiver in the regular season transferred over into the playoffs against Philadelphia. He received a mere one target off a check down, which led to him running through Malcolm Jenkins for an impressive 14-yard gain.

There is no valid reason why such an electrifying multidimensional weapon caught only three or more passes in six out of 17 games last season. Coleman needs to be properly utilized, especially against top-tier defenses that don’t have any clear weaknesses. A player of his caliber can break a game open whenever he touches the ball. Designing ways to get him the ball in space will be vital in what should be a low-scoring affair.

Red zone challenge

Similar to how NBC repeatedly referenced the Falcons’ Super Bowl collapse during last year’s rematch against the Patriots, they will likely bring up what transpired in the red zone against the Eagles during every red zone appearance. It was the biggest talking point following Atlanta’s loss last January. Not being able to gain nine yards in four plays with the season on the line was a cruel way for Sarkisian’s chaotic first season to end. As good as the last drive was, you have to say it wasn’t surprising to see another unsuccessful red zone trip.

In the last four games of the season (including playoffs), the Falcons went five for 16 in the red zone. That includes pitiful showings against New Orleans and Carolina, where they went a combined two for nine. Not figuring out the right balance between designing plays for Julio Jones and using Jones as a decoy cost them dearly in the red zone. The hope is that Calvin Ridley brings another dimension to the offense, while Austin Hooper makes himself a bigger presence. Both players alongside Mohamed Sanu should provide more than enough support for Jones.

Although the superstar receiver will command plenty of double teams, there is going to be ample pressure on him and Ryan to connect for a touchdown. They can only improve on their preposterous conversion rate of connecting on one of 18 passes in the end zone last season per ESPN Stats and Information.