Last week, I previewed all of the NFC South opponents that the Eagles could face, ranking them from the team I least wanted to see to the team I truly thought Gang Green could beat. Looks like I got my wish as the Atlanta Falcons head to Philadelphia for a date with the Eagles on Saturday afternoon. The Falcons looked the part of a team that went to the Super Bowl last year in their Wildcard victory. However, last year’s run came from games played in the comfort of their dome. While the conditions in Philadelphia have changed since the “Bomb Cyclone”, it still will be a road, outdoor game for Matty Ice.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons’ high-powered offense took control to beat the #1 scoring offense in the Los Angeles Rams last weekend, Ryan’s first career road playoff victory. Matty Ice’s play this season is one of the main reasons why I preferred the Falcons over any other NFC South team. It seems like he is regressing to his average statistics this year, and his career record outdoors is 31-29 compared to 62-31 when playing in a dome. Today, we’ll take a closer look at specific players (other than Ryan and Foles) that could be impactful in the Birds’ Divisional Round matchup.
Run the ball, and stop the run
Watching Wildcard Weekend, one could not help but notice that the teams who wound up winning controlled the tempo of their game with a solid rushing attack (see Andy Reid not running the ball and losing all momentum vs. the Titans), and teams that could not stop the run (see the Rams’ inability to stop the run at crucial moments vs. the Falcons). Focusing on the Rams and Falcons game, everyone had a great chance to see why people call Aaron Donald the best player in football. Donald created HAVOC in the backfield almost every other play against Atlanta from his inside defensive tackle position. Whether it was pressuring Matt Ryan and forcing him to check the ball down, or making a huge tackle for loss, Donald was instrumental in the stops Los Angeles made.
Fletcher Cox immediately comes to mind as being an impact player. He plays a similar game to Donald and must have a monstrous day when he’s one-on-one with a blocker. Alex Mack anchors down the Falcons’ o-line at center and remains one of the best centers in football even at 32-years of age. Most people witnessed Aaron Donald bully Falcons’ left guard Ben Garland on many plays, and I expect Cox to do much of the same. If Atlanta decides to double team Fletch, watch out for Timmy Jernigan to get into the backfield and disrupt Atlanta’s rushing attack. Either way, the defensive line and linebackers need to be on their ‘A game’ when facing the electric duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
How to help Foles
Continuing with the theme of rushing attacks, the Eagles have to get physical running the ball with backs LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi. Every winning team last weekend (minus the Saints) managed to out-rush their opponent. It goes without saying that getting the backs involved early and often will alleviate pressure from Nick Foles. A lot of eyes will be on Dougie P in this one, who will be in charge of drawing up a game plan that hopefully will spark the offense after two pedestrian weeks. Foles can air it out, but those who watched the Falcons/Rams game saw the Atlanta cornerback tandem of Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant play one of their best games with a combined 5 pass deflections.
The game-breaker on offense for the Birds could be Nelson Agholor. The third-year receiver has stepped up in a big way for the Eagles this season, with more yards and touchdowns in 2017 than his first two seasons combined. Atlanta was absolutely terrific in their open-field tackling against the Rams. The Eagles have to test those linebackers and the secondary to see if they’re up for the challenge two weeks in a row. Agholor’s speed in the open field could cause problems for the Falcons, especially if he has blockers ahead of him. I expect Dougie P to test their secondary deep a few times, but overall make the game plan more manageable for Nick Foles to maintain a lead and not turn the ball over.
The Julio threat
Anytime you play the Falcons, Julio Jones is always on your radar. He quietly had 9 catches for 94 yards and a touchdown in the Wildcard game against a very solid Rams’ secondary. I expect Jim Schwartz to play put the Green Goblin on Julio with safety help over the top. Jalen Mills is very physical at the line of scrimmage and will not be scared away by the prospect of Julio Jones coming to town. Stories have been coming out since Mills was a rookie that he does not back down from a challenge, always wanting to shadow the opposing team’s top receiver. Mills should get his wish in this contest, with Ronald Darby most likely assigned to Mohammed Sanu on the other side.
I know that Julio can single-handedly beat teams, but I am honestly more worried about Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman killing us in the run game or with underneath receptions where they can get YAC from. The Eagles have to tackle just as well, if not better, than the Falcons did against Todd Gurley last week. Allowing Freeman and Coleman to gain extra yardage after initial contact will be the downfall of this defense. It’s very apparent that this team is not the same without our MVP, Carson Wentz. But if Foles can build on the momentum the defense is sure to give him, I believe Gang Green has a victory in them.