The Atlanta Falcons are set to kick off the 2015 regular season in prime fashion, hosting the Philadelphia Eagles in the Georgia Dome on Monday Night Football.
It will be a chance for new head coach Dan Quinn to start his tenure with the organization on a strong note, hoping to lead the Falcons to victory.
To accomplish this goal, there are several things that the Quinn-led Falcons must do. Let’s start by looking at what the offense will need to do in order to beat the Eagles on Monday.
Offensive Key to Success: Running the Ball
The Falcons’ new offensive identity will be one built around a balanced attack. The ability to run the ball will open up further opportunities to be exploited via play-action passing. This will be an important aspect of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s play-calling. The Falcons will hope to use the play action to generate big plays down the field. We saw glimpses of this on the Falcons’ opening drive in their preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans.
Then, quarterback Matt Ryan attempted six passes where half of them involved play action. In each of the past three seasons, Shanahan-led offenses have ranked in the top five among all NFL teams in terms of usage of play action.
But in order for play action to be effective, the Falcons must be able to run the ball effectively. This is one of the bigger question marks involving the offense given that the starting offensive line struggled to move the ball on the ground throughout the preseason. Through three exhibition games, the Falcons had a pathetic rushing success rate of 17.6 percent on 17 rush attempts when the starting unit was in the game.
Exasperating this situation even further is the fact that the unit that will be facing off against the Eagles is not that same group of blockers. After the final preseason game, the Falcons made several moves to solidify their offensive line, swapping in Andy Levitre at left guard and moving Mike Person from that spot to center. For the Falcons, the hope is the changes up front will lead to greater success moving forward.
The Falcons are optimistic that the reintroduction of running backs Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman into the lineup will lead to greater success on the ground after both players missed most of the summer with hamstring injuries. Coleman did return in the preseason finale against the Baltimore Ravens, where he was able to find some success on the ground. On eight carries, Coleman had a success rate of 50 percent, albeit that came against the Ravens’ backups.
On Monday, Coleman will be facing one of the stouter units in the league in the Eagles’ front seven. Based off Football Outsiders’ metrics, the Eagles run defense finished seventh in the NFL against the run in 2014. Plus they have seemingly upgraded since then by acquiring inside linebacker Kiko Alonso in an offseason trade with the Buffalo Bills.
If the Falcons new-look line can’t create seams and gaps for runners like Coleman and Freeman to run through, it’ll be tougher on the team to be able to generate big plays in the air via play action. Much of those plays will likely be directed toward the team’s No. 1 receiver in Julio Jones, who will also be a big key to success in this game.
Offensive Key to Success: Feeding Julio Jones
The name of the game will be for the Falcons to get the ball into Jones’ hands as much as possible. While the Eagles haven’t been forthcoming with their plans to deal with the Falcons’ dynamic receiver, it appears likely to involve using free-agent cornerback Byron Maxwell to shadow him for much of the game.
The Eagles’ secondary appears unsettled thanks to a summer trade of nickel cornerback Brandon Boykin and season-ending injury to JaCorey Shepherd. Cornerback Nolan Carroll is slated to start opposite Maxwell, but who is expected to man the slot is unknown at this time. It could be corner-turned-safeties Malcolm Jenkins or Walter Thurmond, Maxwell or Carroll. The Eagles will likely employ a different group week-to-week depending on the individual matchups. The fact that Shanahan plans on moving Jones all around the formation likely means that Maxwell will drop down into the slot during the instances where Jones is there since lining up a safety against the fifth-year wideout is probably a recipe for disaster.
Playing Jones in the slot will be an added wrinkle to the Falcons’ offense this year. According to Pro Football Focus, 40 percent of Jones’ limited reps during this past preseason came running routes out of the slot. That’s a stark change from years past where during the regular season, a total of just 10 percent of Jones’ routes came out of the slot over the past four seasons.
Despite limited reps there, Jones has been highly productive there over the past two seasons. On a combined 99 routes run there, Jones has generated 275 yards, which produces a metric of 2.78 yards per route run according to PFF. For the sake of comparison, Randall Cobb was one of the league’s best slot receivers a year ago and produced 2.13 yards per route run in 2014.
It all indicates that if Jones spends considerable time in the slot this year, he could become one of the league’s most dominant receivers. Jones should prove a difficult matchup for Maxwell or whoever the Eagles opt to cover him. And if the Falcons can’t run the ball effectively, their Plan B will be to get the ball into Jones’ hands as much as possible and allow him to create.
The Falcons’ only potential hurdle in achieving that could be if the new stating offensive line struggles to gel.
Offensive Key to Success: Winning in the Trenches
Given that the Falcons have only had a week of practice with their new starting five, it will be a tall order to ask of them to hold up against a formidable Eagles pass rush that is to be helmed by Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry. That quartet combined for 33 sacks last year, 11 more than the entire Falcons roster did.
Cox will likely find himself matched up against Levitre for much of the game, with left tackle Jake Matthews taking on Graham beside him. Barwin typically lines up on the left side of the formation, but is known to be moved around to create mismatches. Both he and Curry, who is predominantly a sub-package player that will often face off against right guard Chris Chester and right tackle Ryan Schraeder. While each one of the Falcons’ blockers have the chance to fare well against the Eagles’ pass rushers in their individual matchups, all are unproven as things sit today.
Those question marks look even more troubling particularly if the Falcons are stuck playing from behind. The last thing they want is their new offensive line to be tested by having the Eagles’ pass-rushers able to pin their ears back and get after Ryan if/when the Falcons become one-dimensional offensively due to trying to pass to get back into the game.
That’s why it’s important that the Quinn-led defense shows up big this week to prevent that from happening.
Defensive Key to Success: Generating a Pass Rush
Expectations are high that the arrival of Quinn will cause tremendous growth for a Falcons defense that was the ninth-worst in NFL history a year ago. It starts up front where Quinn hopes to revamp what has been one of the league’s paltriest pass rushes over the majority of the past decade.
The addition of top draft pick Vic Beasley along with free agents O’Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn will play a significant part in upgrading a pass rush. They will team with veteran Jonathan Babineaux to give the Falcons what is expected to be a formidable group of pass-rushers in the team’s nickel sub-package.
How formidable has yet to be determined, but the early returns from the preseason appear very promising. According to PFF’s metrics, that quartet combined to create four sacks, two quarterback hits and 10 hurries through the exhibition season.
The goal becoming that the Falcons will be able to effectively create pressure with just four players, something that hasn’t been the case in Atlanta for a long time. Last year’s defense wanted to manufacture pressure with complicated and elaborate blitzing that proved far too ineffective.
Against the Eagles, Clayborn and Babineaux will likely be under the spotlight since they have the easier matchups against their opposing guards Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner than Beasley and Schofield, who will face one of the league’s premier pair of tackles in Jason Peters and Lane Johnson.
Interior pressure is often much more disruptive than edge pressure since quarterbacks lack the room to step up in the pocket. Early in his career with the St. Louis Rams, quarterback Sam Bradford had a tendency to take a few too many sacks. Now with the Eagles, they will try to get him to get the ball out quicker to avoid any interior pressure that Clayborn and Babineaux provide. If or when Bradford gets rid of the ball, he’ll have a bevy of options to throw to.
Defensive Key to Success: Matching Up in Space
On the outside, the Eagles have wide receivers Jordan Matthews, Nelson Agholor and Riley Cooper. Tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz patrol the middle of the field, and running backs DeMarco Murray, Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews are three effective options catching the ball out of the backfield.
Handling this group of playmakers will fall on the Falcons linebackers and secondary. Quinn’s scheme calls for a lot of zone coverage among the back-seven defenders, forcing those players to have to fly to the ball and tackle in space. Just like the pass rush, the results during the preseason were promising that this is another area of improvement for the Falcons defensively. But they will certainly be tested against players like Agholor, Murray and Sproles, who are shifty when they get into the open field.
Defensive Key to Success: Handling Substitutions
Another key to watch will be how the Falcons deploy their defense to deal with the Eagles’ spread attack. Will the Falcons utilize more nickel sub-packages, or rely on their base defense to match up?
The Eagles’ offense uses “11” and “12” personnel as their primary formations of attack. Against the “11” grouping which uses three wide receivers and a tight end, nickel probably makes the most sense for the Falcons. Against the “12” where a second tight end replaces one of the receivers, the base unit is probably the Falcons’ best bet. This was mostly how Quinn deployed his Seattle Seahawks defense last season when they squared off against the Eagles in Week 14.
However the difference between those two isn’t insignificant for the Falcons. They’ve used the aforementioned four-man defensive line of Beasley, Schofield, Clayborn and Babineaux exclusively for their nickel subset and kicked right cornerback Robert Alford down in the slot to make room for Phillip Adams as the nickel cornerback outside.
In the Falcons’ base personnel, they feature a big group of defensive linemen in Ra’Shede Hageman, Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai swapping in for Schofield, Clayborn and Babineaux. A strong-side linebacker is on the field instead of an extra cornerback, which will likely be Kroy Biermann and/or O’Brien Schofield this week against the Eagles with Brooks Reed sidelined with injury.
This dichotomy in defensive personnel is something the Eagles offense might seek to exploit. The Falcons’ nickel subset isn’t designed to defend the run particularly well, while their base doesn’t feature many capable pass-rushers. The Eagles may opt to run out of their “11” personnel while throwing out of their “12” personnel to exploit these mismatches.
It’s going to be critical for the Falcons to make sure the right defense is on the field in the right situation. Exasperating that problem is the Eagles’ up-tempo offense, which makes it more difficult to get the right personnel on the field at any given moment.
Defensive Key to Success: Slowing Down Tempo
While league rules somewhat prevent NFL teams from playing at the blinding pace one often sees at the college level, the Eagles still are considerably faster than your typical NFL team. Last year they led the league in offensive plays per game, with a pace that was roughly 10 percent faster than the average team.
The Eagles’ tempo wasn’t a huge issue for Quinn’s Seahawks a year ago, but it is something worth monitoring. Home-field advantage probably won’t help the Falcons too much negate the tempo, as the Eagles averaged 74.7 offensive plays per game on the road a year ago, while averaging just 66.5 plays in home games.
The Eagles are also one of the fastest-starting teams in the league, ranking second behind only the Green Bay Packers a year ago with 130 first-quarter points. Even on the road, the Eagles still are in the vanguard at scoring points, leading the league with 59 first-quarter points in road games a year ago.
The Falcons defense might be forced to weather an early storm, and in-game adjustments will be critical come Monday night.
Stat Worth Monitoring: Big Play Differential
Both the Falcons and Eagles are teams that likely to get yardage in chunks. Since Chip Kelly took over the Eagles in 2013, no team has generated more big plays of 20 or more yards offensively in the league. Their combined 174 big plays far outpaces the league average of 122.7 over that span.
Much of that has come in the air (143 plays), thanks to play-action passing. Like the Falcons hope to be under Shanahan, the Eagles are a run-first team that like to use that foundation to open up the passing game.
While most know the importance turnover differential, against the Eagles “big play differential” might become an equally important stat.
Stats show that a team’s chances of scoring dramatically increase on drives in which they are successfully able to generate plays of 20 or more yards. The team that generates more big plays should basically have more opportunities to score points.
This will be particularly more important for the Falcons since their new-look offensive line and their unproven running backs are far less likely to be able to sustain longer drives than the Eagles offense. Getting chunk yardage is going to be critical for the Falcons to score points and maximize their offense. The explosive running ability of Coleman on the ground a well as Jones in the air will be important for that.
Coleman needs to have an impressive debut, given that he’s expected to get the start, as the Falcons probably shouldn’t be forced to put it all on Jones’ shoulders.
Essentially the Falcons winning this game might boil down to “out-Eagling” the Eagles. Both offenses will want to run the ball effectively and generate big plays off that via play action. Defensively both teams will be focused on stopping the run, limiting the opportunities for the other to use play action. The Falcons will have to play disciplined on their back end, prevent big plays and make tackles in the open field to deal with the plethora of Eagles weapons.
It’ll be a testament to Quinn’s coaching if he has this team ready to pull this off in the first game of the season. This is a new style and approach for the Falcons, while Kelly and Eagles have been doing this for a number of years.
Playing at home should give the Falcons a boost, but probably not enough to negate the advantages the Eagles have with a superior defensive front seven and a more proven rushing attack on offense. It’s hard to be overly optimistic about the Falcons’ chances given the recent shake-up of their offensive line. It’ll be a tall order to get that unit to gel with only a week’s worth of practices against one of the leagues’ better defensive fronts.
In the end, I believe that the play in the trenches will hold back the Falcons’ offense and make them too one-dimensional. I’m a firm believer in things that I see and until the Falcons show they can run the ball effectively, it’s hard to go on purely on faith against a good Eagles run defense.
Jones should have a huge impact in this game, but alone won’t be able to carry the Falcons without more support from the ground game. The Falcons defense will be very competitive, but unless they can create multiple turnovers, it might not be enough to support the offense.
In the end, it just might be too tall an order to ask the Falcons to pull out the win with all the question marks and moving parts surrounding their offense this week.
Predicted Final Score: Eagles 24, Falcons 21.