The Eagles take on an angry Falcons team this week in Atlanta on Sunday night. The Falcons are coming off a bad loss to the Bears, who many experts (including myself) expect to regress this season. The thing many people overlooked last week when they picked Atlanta to win was that the Falcons are also primed for regression. Last year’s Falcons were the 32nd team since 1983 to go 13-3 (they lost to the Steelers, Eagles, Saints and in the playoffs to the Packers). Of the 31 teams before them, only three (the 1990-91 Bills, 1996-97 Packers and the 1999-00 Titans) were able to repeat their 13-win season the following year. A lot of things have to go right for a team to win 13 games, and those breaks just don't come every single season. The Falcons are a good team that can win between 9 and 11 games this year but they’re not some juggernaut primed for a Super Bowl run. When you combine their above average talent with their home field advantage, the Falcons can certainly beat the Eagles this week. Here’s stuff to watch for Sunday night in Atlanta. As always, thanks to the guys at Football Outsiders for the statistics.
When it comes to new wave NFL passing offenses, the Falcons are relative dinosaurs, only using 3-Wide Receiver sets 42% of the time last year, 5th least in the NFL. The Falcons have preferred to run the ball. I expect that to change this year and for the Falcons to throw the ball much more. First, the Falcons were running so much last year in part because they were milking the clock at the end of wins. I’ve already stated that I expect them to do less winning this year. Secondly, Michael Turner is washed up. He’s now an undersized plodder whose recent heavy workload has finally taken its toll on his body. Finally, the Falcons will play more 3WR sets and throw more because they finally have 3 good receivers (Roddy White, Julio Jones, a healthy Harry Douglas). So note that the Falcons like to run the ball, but have the tools to do otherwise this weekend against the Eagles.
Quarterback: The relationship the Atlanta community has with QB Matt Ryan will be in flux for his entire career. He isn’t Mike Vick, you see, and that’s apparently a negative to these folks. To the reality-based community, however, Ryan is just fine. One of the best quarterbacks in the league, actually. He makes lots of throws from outside the pocket (4th most in football last year) and he’d do well to roll to his right this week, away from Trent Cole.
Running back: I’ve already condemned Michael Turner to ClintonPortisdom, but I will tell you to watch out for backups Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers. I like both of those players. The less the Eagles see of Snelling, the better. He’s a bad matchup for them.
Receivers: The Atlanta WRs taking on the Eagles corners is the matchup to watch in this one. Both groups are very talented. I think the Eagle secondary will win out. Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie match up well with Julio Jones and Harry Douglas, respectively. Asanta Samuel is a good bet to cover Roddy White, though Asante sometimes takes risks that an elite WR like White will take advantage of. Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez will be a problem. Gonzalez is older and slower but the Eagles don’t exactly have elite safeties or linebackers to cover Gonzalez. He’ll be Matt Ryan’s security blanket this week. I expect 5-7 receptions and a TD from Gonzalez this week, especially if the Falcons make it a point to keep Gonzo away from Jamar Chaney, who is the only Eagle defender who can do a reasonable job on him. Look for the Eagles to stick Nnamdi Asomugha on Gonzalez when the Falcons show a 2-TE set, something they did quite often last year, with DRC and Asante on the outside.
O-Line: The Falcon offensive line is very good as a whole, but the weak link is left tackle Sam Baker. Baker is a good run blocker but struggles in pass protection. He had 9 blown blocks last year, 3rd most in football. The rest of the Falcon line had 5 blown blocks combined. Trent Cole is going to have a big game.
No team in football called more zone blitzes than Atlanta did last year (13%). Often times those zone blitzes are built around confusion instead of volume. The Falcons only rushed 3 players 13% of the time, 6th most in football. The challenge for offenses is determining where those players are coming from, something that will be made more difficult for Michael Vick and Center Jason Kelce to do in such a deafening environment.
D-Line: The Falcons defensive line is excellent. Ends John Abraham, Ray Edwards and Kroy Biermann are all likely to cause problems at some point Sunday night, while Defensive tackle John Babineaux is a disruptive force in the middle. Expect Brent Celek to stay home often and help Winston Justice with Edwards/Biermann instead of running routes. Also look for plenty of screen passes and dump offs to Shady McCoy, especially since the Falcons were burned by Bears’ RB Matt Forte on similar plays last week. Forte led all Bears receivers in catches last week and I expect McCoy to do the same for Philly in Week 2.
Linebackers: Curtis Lofton and Mike Peterson are both great run defenders but struggle in coverage. Sean Weatherspoon can run but had knee issues in last year’s rookie campaign and is a relatively unknown commodity. If he is as good as the Falcons thought he was when they drafted him in the first round last year, then he will be the guy assigned to stop LeSean McCoy most often (but then who spies Mike Vick?).
Secondary: Atlanta’s secondary is above average across the board. The diminutive Brent Grimes plays much better than his 5’9” frame suggests, though the Eagles would be smart to match the 6’4” Riley Cooper with Grimes once or twice and throw a jump ball his way. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud are also two good young players. Moore has the skill set to either contain either McCoy or Vick, which will mean DeCoud will be alone in the Deep Middle of the field. Free agent signee, Dunta Robinson, should be picked on. Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson are both much faster than Robinson, who belongs on a team that plays lots of Cover-2. DeCoud will likely float over the top of Robinson to protect from him being beaten deep.
Prediction: On paper the Eagles have the formula to win this game. Unless Mike Vick reacts adversely to playing in Atlanta again and Tony Gonzalez recaptures his youth with a monster 10 catch, 130yd+ day, I expect the Eagles to start 2-0. Trent Cole has 2 sacks and forces a fumble, Riley Cooper has a TD, LeSean McCoy runs for and catches a TD and wins NFC offensive player of the week. Eagles 27 Falcons 20.