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What to know about the Falcons - Eagles matchup in Week 2

It’s not going to be easy for Atlanta at all, but there’s a faint glimmer of hope in the Eagles’ shaky defense.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

When I wrote my Falcons - Vikings version of this article a week ago, it ended up being probably the most accurate piece I mustered about what was to come. It was before my optimism took over, and I noted that the Vikings were maybe the toughest matchup Atlanta would face, that their ground game was going to be tough to stop, and that some skepticism of the offensive line in the face of that ferocious Minnesota pass rush was probably warranted. Unfortunately, all of that came true and then some.

In the spirit of that—and because I can’t in good conscience pick the Falcons to win this week, regardless—this will be a pretty stark look at how the Falcons and Eagles stack up. I’ve had this one down as a loss for a long time now, and despite the Falcons heading home and despite Philadelphia’s shaky start against Washington, it’s sort of difficult to imagine the Falcons easily or even narrowly triumphing here. I’ll be hoping for a hell of a bounceback performance against a team they’ve struggled mightily against in recent years.

The biggest argument against throwing in the towel before the game even begins is that the Eagles, as has been the case many times in recent years, look a hell of a lot stronger on paper than they have over their past 17 games or so. Philadelphia was a shaky team a year ago, largely thanks to injuries and some major weak spots on the roster, and they let Case Keenum and Washington give them a real scare in the first week of the season. If that defense is really as shaky as it seemed against their division rival, Atlanta certainly has a shot.

Here’s a closer look at the Eagles, their 2018 performance, and what key additions they’ve made.

2018 Ranks & Records

One week would not tell us much of a tale, so let’s take a fuller look at the 2018 ranks side-by-side, as we did with the Vikings. Through one game, after all, the Falcons defense looks surprisingly good, especially against the pass, and the Eagles defense looks kinda crummy. That’s not likely to be a realistic picture, and even if it was, it’s an incomplete one.

Falcons - Colts 2019 Side-by-Side

Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Point Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Allowed
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Point Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Allowed
Falcons 1-1 23 16 9 28 21 3 1 14 10 30
Colts 1-1 14 22 32 2 20 13 9 19 16 11

What you’ll immediately notice is that the Eagles were not great in 2018. The defending Super Bowl champions managed a winning record and were still a good football team, but they did not come close to repeating their 2017 excellent in any way, shape or form. A largely woeful secondary, a disaster of a ground game, and the injury parade that is Carson Wentz all contributed, with Nick Foles having very little of his magic dust left over for last season.

The Eagles were bizarrely average when Wentz was around, though. He tossed 21 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions in 11 games, but Philadelphia went just 5-6 in those games, winning four of their five with a much less inspiring Foles at the helm. That wasn’t helped by a ground game where just one guy got over 100 carries—a solid Josh Adams, who is no longer even with this team—and a passing attack that often struggled to find downfield success with Alshon Jeffery banged up and Zach Ertz dominating target share. The truth is that they’re deeply unlikely to be that mediocre on offense again, barring Wentz getting injured.

Defensively it’s a little more of an open question. The team’s red zone defense was still very good, but between the 20s they were often lit up and unable to come up with the kind of timely turnovers that turn struggling defenses into thriving ones, managing just 10 interceptions and 12 forced fumbles all season. Their secondary, which has hovered between solid and active liability for a number of years, tended to lean toward the latter in 2018. The end result was a lot like a lesser version of Atlanta’s 2017 season: Winning, but still vaguely disappointing.

Naturally, the Eagles tried to address those weaknesses.

How the Eagles have changed

The Eagles lost Nick Foles, Golden Tate, some key guard depth, and potent run stopper Haloti Ngata, who retired. Their task in the offseason was not just to replace the losses of note, but improve a roster that was, again, a little disappointing in 2018.

They snagged Malik Jackson early as a beefy, solid presence on their defensive line. Jackson wasn’t the world-beating force in Jacksonville he was at times in Denver, but that’s still a good pickup for a good line. They added depth at linebacker (L.J. Fort), safety (Andrew Sendejo), and defensive end (familiar face Vinny Curry), snapping up speedy linbacker Zach Brown and defensive back Jonathan Cyprien later on. With those additions and some key re-signings—Tim Jernigan at defensive tackle probably tops the list—they mostly focused on the offense in the draft and its immediate aftermath, with only defensive end Shareef Miller (in the fourth round) joining the team’s defense out of this year’s draft class.

On offense, though, the Eagles re-added Darren Sproles and DeSean Jackson, two legendary members of Philly teams past. They drafted tackle Andre Dillard, the heir apparent to Jason Peters, brought in receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside to join a talented corps, and tried to beef up their crummy group of backs with gifted rookie Miles Sanders.

The net result of those moves is that the defense, while beefed up by the addition of Jackson, was mostly addressed with part-time starters, rotational guys, and depth pieces. The offense, meanwhile, got some shiny toys both new and old, priming an already talented group for a stellar season.

Those offseason decisions were on full display in the first game of the 2019 season, as the Eagles rallied furiously after going down big to Washington early and ultimately winning the game. Washington barely even tried to run against that ultra-stout front seven and instead attacked what still looks like a pretty shaky Philadelphia pass defense, and Case Keenum of all people rang up 380 yards and three touchdowns on 44 passes, one of the best performances of his career to this point. It just wasn’t enough to hang a loss on the Eagles, who got 300 passing yards and three touchdowns out of Carson Wentz, over 100 yards rushing out of their new-look running back group, and 32 points overall. If that’s a sign of how attackable this defense can be, that’s a good thing for Matt Ryan and company.

What should you know about this game?

The Eagles, despite having to travel on the road and despite that Week 1 scare, are still a tough team to beat. Miles Sanders and Darren Sproles are well-suited to the kinds of outside runs that killed the Falcons versus the Vikings, and Jordan Howard is a capable back in his own right. Wentz is also not going to settle for 10 throws in this one, meaning the Falcons pass defense will face a more significant test than they did against Minnesota. It’s not going to be an easy game. and the Falcons have to keep DeSean Jackson in check with some new starters at cornerback and two safeties returning from major injuries.

Unlike last week’s ugly, one-sided affair, though, there’s hope the Falcons will put up some points and turn this one into a legitimate shootout. Malik Jackson was supposed to be a space eater and useful chess piece next to Fletcher Cox, but he reportedly suffered a significant injury in Week 1 and almost certainly is out against Atlanta. That further slows down a defense that, as I just mentioned, allowed nearly 400 yards passing to Chase Keenum.

The Falcons will likely struggle to run against Philly even with Jackson out of the picture, because this remains a stout front with linebackers who do good work against the run. But this is an attackable matchup for Matt Ryan and his many weapons coming off a miserable week in Minnesota, given that the pass rush was iffy in Week 1 and the secondary got roasted by Washington’s group of pass catchers. Even a banged-up Julio Jones is going to command enough attention to free things up for others, and a week after Austin Hooper started getting open at will, he should have ample opportunity to do so again here.

Atlanta’s probably going to need a turnover or two and a quality day from the pass rush to put the Eagles down, and that’s always a big question mark. But this matchup looks, on paper, like it’ll turn out being less dispiriting than Week 1, if for no other reason than that the Falcons should be able to score. I just wouldn’t expect the W.