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5 burning Falcons - Eagles questions with Bleeding Green Nation

We seek to better understand Philadelphia in this chat with Brandon Gowton at BGN.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This week, as is our custom, we turned to our sibling site Bleeding Green Nation for some insight on the week’s opponent. The excellent Brandon Gowton was kind enough to fill us in on what to expect from this lethal-looking Eagles passing attack, the shaky-looking Eagles pass defense, and more.

Dave Choate: That Carson Wentz-DeSean Jackson connection looks scary. How good is this passing offense right now, and besides Jackson who does Atlanta absolutely have to account for in order to slow this attack down?

Brandon Gowton: The Eagles’ offense as a whole got off to a slow start against Washington. They managed zero first quarter points and went into halftime down 20-7. Such a slow start was troubling to see for a team that scored the fewest amount of first quarter points in 2018. Didn’t they learn anything from last year?!

The frustration subsided when Carson Wentz aired it out to DeSean Jackson not once but twice for a pair of deep touchdowns. Beyond those splash plays, the Eagles were also able to string some coherent drives together. The running game started to come alive and, much more importantly, Carson Wentz found his groove. The Wentz we saw on Sunday really resembled the 2017 version of himself that nearly won NFL MVP back in 2017. He was sensational on third down by completing 11 of his 12 attempts for 197 yards and three passing touchdowns.

The Eagles still have to prove they can start fast but this offense clearly has explosive potential. And it’s not just all about Jackson. If teams are going to key in on him, which is advisable, that should open space underneath for intermediate targets like Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz, Dallas Goedert, and Nelson Agholor. Ertz and Jeffery were the most targeted players behind Jackson so I’d say the Falcons should be looking out for those reliable chain-movers.

Dave Choate: The Falcons were absolutely destroyed by Dalvin Cook and the Vikings on the ground, something I imagine the Eagles would like to replicate. What does this running back group look like in 2019, and how successful do you expect them to be against Atlanta?

Brandon Gowton: When the Eagles and Falcons played back in 2016, Doug Pederson aimed to keep Atlanta’s offense off the field by methodically driving down the field and controlling the clock. If explosive plays aren’t there to be had, I could see the Eagles revisiting that strategy.

The Eagles’ offensive identity isn’t about running the ball. The head coach is a former quarterback and the Eagles have a star quarterback in Wentz. I don’t think they’ll be passing the ball only 10 times in the game.

With that said, the Eagles should absolutely look to attack the Falcons on the ground. Philly has one of the best run blocking offensive lines in the league and some talented backs to boot. Darren Sproles, Jordan Howard, and Miles Sanders logged 26 carries for 116 yards (4.7 average) against Washington’s defense in Week 1.

The key thing for the Eagles is figuring out how to best split their running back touches. Last week’s rotation looked like this: 11 carries for Sanders, nine carries for Sproles, and six carries for Howard. That could probably use some tweaking. The Eagles should lighten Sproles’ workload a little and get Howard — who averaged 7.3 yards per carry — more involved. Sanders didn’t finish with good numbers against Washington (2.3 average) but that’s in part because he had a touchdown run wiped out by a tacky holding flag that had zero impact on the play. Sanders was better than the stats indicated; he showed a nice burst and real elusiveness.

The expectation here is that the Eagles should have success running the ball on Sunday night. The Falcons’ defense allowed the most opponent yards per rush attempt in 2018 and they didn’t show much improvement in Week 1 by allowing Minnesota running backs to average 5.25 yards per carry.

Dave Choate: The Eagles just let Case Keenum have a career game, and the Atlanta passing attack is obviously a lot more capable than Washington’s. What happened last week, and is there reason to believe it can mostly be cleaned up for Week 2?

Brandon Gowton: The Eagles’ pass rush just wasn’t good enough in Week 1. Case Keenum was only sacked once. Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, and Josh Sweat — three of the Eagles’ top four defensive ends — combined for zero sacks and zero quarterback hits. Not great!

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz blamed the Eagles’ lack of pressure on the secondary more than the defensive line, though. Schwartz claimed that Washington was using a lot of max protect and therefore better coverage was needed to buy time for the pass rush to get home.

I think there’s some reason to believe we’ll see an improved Eagles pass rush in Week 2. Matt Ryan has been sacked nine times and hit 31 times (!) in his last three starts against Schwartz’s defense. Now, the Eagles won’t have home field advantage working in their favor this time. But the Falcons’ offensive line doesn’t look so great right now, as I’ve read about on The Falcoholic. Brandon Graham is going to be licking his chops going up against rookie right tackle Kaleb McGary. Fletcher Cox has dominated his battles with fill-in starter Jamon Brown in the past.

I hardly expect the Eagles’ defense to completely lock down the Falcons’ offense like they have in the past. The Falcons are going to have some success taking some shots down the field against this suspect Eagles secondary.

But I do think the pass rush can do enough to disrupt Ryan and prevent him from being dialed in all night long.

Dave Choate: Atlanta’s already down their starting right guard and they’re rotating between two players at right tackle, which is not an ideal situation. How can the Eagles take advantage of that, and how good does this pass rush figure to be in 2019?

Brandon Gowton: I touched on this a little above but I think Cox and Graham going against Brown and McGary is a mismatch in the Eagles’ favor. Cox is seemingly still making his way back from injury so he might not be at 100% but he’s still a force on the interior. Graham is the kind of guy who talks trash all game long so I’m sure he’s going to really try to get in McGary’s head.

I’m also curious to see how the battle between Derek Barnett and Jake Matthews goes at left tackle. Matthews struggled with stopping Everson Griffen in Week 1. Barnett is hardly as proven as Griffen but the 2017 first-round pick showed some nice things last week while registering three quarterback hits on Case Keenum. The Eagles really need Barnett to emerge for their pass rush to excel in 2019.

I don’t think the Eagles have assembled a bad group of pass rushers by any means. They just need to execute better than they did in Week 1. They also need to have a better plan if they’re facing a lot of max protection. And, to Schwartz’s point, the pass rush won’t be as good if the secondary doesn’t give them some more opportunities to take down the quarterback.

On a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being the most concerned), I’d say my concern about the Eagles’ pass rush is about a 6 or 7 right now. But the worries could easily be assuaged if they dominate the Falcons. We’ll see how it goes.

Dave Choate: Who wins here and what do you think the Eagles will do this year? Are they playoff-bound, and if so, how far can they go?

Brandon Gowton: I feel much more comfortable betting against Matt Ryan, who has posted a combined 74.1 passer rating in his last three Eagles games, than Carson Wentz right now. Wentz just looked so good in Week 1. His connection with DeSean Jackson is lethal. And there are just so many weapons elsewhere on offense, in addition to the Eagles having one of the best offensive lines in the league.

Having said that, I do think the Falcons will be able to score some points. Ryan’s going to hit on some shots down the field. I need to actually see the Eagles’ pass rush be better to fully believe they’ll improve on last week’s performance. If the improvement doesn’t come, the Eagles’ secondary could be in for a long night.

I’ll take the Eagles to advance to 2-0 in a barn-burner. Final score: 27 to 24.

As far as the rest of the season goes, I definitely think the Eagles are playoff-bound. It goes back to Wentz looking really and having confidence in him. As long as he stays healthy, I think the Eagles are a legitimate Super Bowl contender.