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Eagles vs. Falcons: How the game will be decided

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Following a humbling in 2016 and two heart-wrenching defeats in 2018, the Falcons have plenty to prove against Philadelphia, especially after last week’s debacle in Minnesota.

Atlanta Falcons v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Unfortunately, not many teams are able to recover from 0-2. That’s something 16 teams are aware of heading into Week 2. Every win is obviously important, especially when playing in a competitive division like the NFC South, where the Buccaneers clung to life on Thursday night and the Panthers are on life support.

That’s one of the several reasons behind what makes the Falcons’ home-opener against the Eagles so crucial. The recent history between both teams is well-documented. It’s clear the Falcons are “pissed off” coming off their embarrassing performance in Minnesota. It’s clear no extra motivation is needed. Can they now do something they haven’t done since 2015?

Correcting personnel and schematic errors against the run

After dealing with numerous injuries and disappointing performances in 2018, the Falcons’ defense was finally at full strength going into 2019. They added talent across the defensive line in Adrian Clayborn, Allen Bailey, and Tyeler Davison. Combine the return of Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal with Dan Quinn taking over defensive play calling responsibilities, and there was plenty of reason to be excited about this unit. Allowing five runs of 17 yards or more in one half to the Vikings essentially destroyed every ounce of optimism.

They couldn’t have looked more unprepared and undisciplined as a defense. It got to the point where Quinn had to use a timeout following two big runs. Edge defenders weren’t setting the edge. Linebackers either failed to get off blocks or properly position themselves to make a stop. Defensive backs didn’t attack the ball with aggression. It was one of the worst displays you’ll ever see from a defense trying to stop the run. While Quinn did use a 3-4 alignment more than usual, his schematic decisions didn’t necessarily lead to those breakdowns. Players failing to execute on all three levels of the defense was the main reason behind their downfall.

Things will only get more difficult against Doug Pederson’s unpredictable system. If any offensive-minded coach knows how to target weaknesses, Pederson is one of the first play callers that must be mentioned. Philadelphia’s offensive line is arguably the best unit in the league. From Jason Kelce’s ability to cover acres of space to Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson bulldozing defensive linemen, they are a matchup nightmare for anyone. Key players such as Takkarist McKinley, Vic Beasley, and De’Vondre Campbell have to play with more discipline. They can’t afford to lose gap containment like they did last week. A more measured approach up front with better tackling on the back end from Isaiah Oliver and Neal will be vital for their progression.

Ideal rebound spot for Julio Jones

For the third consecutive game versus Minnesota, Jones was held under 60 receiving yards. Mike Zimmer simply knows how to contain the superstar wide receiver. With Xavier Rhodes shadowing him across the field, Jones was challenged by one of the most physical cornerbacks in the league. Add Zimmer’s initiative to use a mixture of safety help over the top and shadow disguises to give Jones all sorts of fits. It was another frustrating game for Jones, who also dropped a few catchable passes. Facing a team, he consistently puts up monster numbers against should create some enthusiasm.

Jones has produced some monster games against Jim Schwartz’s defense over the past few years. The Athletic’s Zack Berman posted about his previous stat lines in each matchup. While the Falcons lost all three of those games, it certainly wasn’t because Jones didn’t make enough plays. The losses fell directly on the offense’s inability to execute in the red zone, while being manhandled in the trenches. There is no telling if they will be able to improve in both areas. Both of those issues were evident in last week’s defeat against the Vikings. What can be improved upon is creating big play opportunities for Jones.

The Falcons’ offensive line looks to be in a better state than it was in 2018. If they can provide enough protection for Ryan, the former MVP should be able to find Jones without much resistance. Philadelphia’s secondary looked to be out of sorts against a subpar Washington offense. They were fortunate Case Keenum didn’t connect with his receivers more often downfield. Benjamin Solak’s video breakdown showcased some of their coverage issues, as Ronald Darby’s inability to diagnose deep route concepts has led to major coverage busts. It doesn’t take much for Ryan and Jones to exploit a coverage bust. They will need to in what could potentially be a shootout.

Finding stability on the right side of the offensive line

Following last year’s debacle, the Falcons had to revamp the entire right side of the offensive line. Using two first round picks on offensive linemen is one way to address a problematic area on the roster. Unfortunately for the Falcons, both linemen have endured major setbacks. Kaleb McGary underwent his third cardiac ablation procedure in August. He returned in time to start against Minnesota. Due to endurance concerns, he was unable to play the entire game. As McGary was showing some promise, Chris Lindstrom broke his foot and will be out for a minimum of eight weeks.

Based on these injuries and setbacks, the front office made a wise decision to heavily invest in the offensive line. Jamon Brown will slide into the right guard position. Although Brown has some issues in pass protection, he is capable of playing at a starter level. Re-signing Ty Sambrailo was viewed as a bizarre move at the time. His nightmare performance against the Jets in preseason raised even further questions. To his credit, the embattled right tackle managed to hold his own against Danielle Hunter. He wasn’t completely doomed facing one of the most explosive edge rushers in the league.

The coaching staff is expected to continue rotating between McGary and Sambrailo. Until McGary is in top condition, they will look to bring him along slowly. Asking him to play every snap against the Eagles’ tremendous defensive line would be dangerous. McGary can’t be fatigued against the likes of Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, and Josh Sweat. Philadelphia’s wide variety of speed and power rushers are going to be a handful. The same applies to their interior tackle rotation led by the phenomenal Fletcher Cox. Brown had his fair share of problems against Cox last season. He is one of numerous guards that were on the receiving end of the mammoth defensive tackle’s dominance. The entire offensive line will be watched closely following their previous horrendous showings against Philadelphia. How Brown, McGary, and Sambrailo hold up could make or break the Falcons in a early-season pivotal matchup.

Keanu Neal’s impact

One of the biggest disappointments coming out of Atlanta’s meltdown in Minnesota was how Keanu Neal performed. The dependable, hard-hitting strong safety was playing in his first game after tearing his ACL in last season’s opening night defeat in Philadelphia. It wasn’t surprising for Neal to look rusty in moments. What was most frustrating about his performance is the number of mistakes he made in run support.

Whether it was taking a poor angle in pursuit of Dalvin Cook or whiffing badly in the open field, Neal had one of the worst games of his career. The enforcer that many fans became accustomed to seeing wasn’t there last Sunday. Every star player has their off games, particularly when they are still getting back into the groove of live action. That is why Neal deserves a pass based on his capabilities and resume as a genuine enforcer. Given the circumstances and pressure surrounding Atlanta, Neal will need to get back to his best form as soon as possible.

Philadelphia is the type of team that will give safeties fits. From Pederson’s frequent RPO usage to forcing safeties in man coverage against Zach Ertz, they will heavily test them. Neal must be ready to make sideline to sideline plays. It’s what him and Deion Jones were drafted to do as the heart-and-soul of the Falcons’ defense. If the Falcons are going to limit the Eagles’ high-powered offense, they will need to be on point with their assignments and open-field tackling. Neal is going to be at the nucleus of it all. That’s why how he performs is so vital in how the defense fares as an overall unit.