I like to wait for Doug Pederson and his coordinators to do their midweek press conferences before writing these video breakdowns, because you usually get at least a few quotes worth adding to the story.
This playoff week, I didn’t think we’d get much at all, and while Doug was fairly mum on Tuesday, Jim Schwartz and Frank Reich actually had some interesting things to say about the Falcons, who are favored to beat the Birds at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday afternoon.
I don’t know how much stock the average fan places in prior matchups, but I think last year’s November game between these squads is worth a quick look, considering the fact that Atlanta isn’t entirely different, at least personnel-wise, since the Eagles’ 24-15 win.
Philadelphia controlled the clock in that game by a margin of 38:10 to 21:50 on the strength of a 208-yard rushing effort. Ryan Mathews gashed the Falcons for 109 yards, Wendell Smallwood added 70, and the Birds finished with close to a 50/50 split in run/pass ratio. That didn’t happen often in 2016.
Defensively, Julio Jones got his yards, with 135 on 10 receptions, but didn’t find the end zone. The defense blitzed early and often, keeping Matt Ryan to a line of 18-33, 267 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Atlanta finished just 2 for 11 on third down with an average to-go distance of 9.9. They logged fewer than 20 points for the only time that season.
The only real blemish on an otherwise impressive win was a 76-yard touchdown reception by Taylor Gabriel, who torched Leodis McKelvin on the dreaded double-move:
The Eagles eventually triumphed in the same way that Atlanta beat Los Angeles last weekend – control the clock, run the ball, and win the auxiliary defensive battles that pile up to make a difference.
It’s an excellent unit that finished ninth in total D this season.
Here’s a snap-shot of their defensive rankings:
- points per game – 19.7 (8th)
- pass YPG – 214.3 (12th)
- rush YPG – 104.9 (9th)
- sacks – 24 (tied for 27th)
- interceptions – 12 (tied for 18th)
- forced fumbles – 14 (tied for 13th)
They are right on the edge of the top-ten in yardage categories, but they don’t have an elite pass rush and they are middle of the pack in takeaways.
That’s the product of a smaller and faster unit, which was highlighted by both Pederson and Reich this week:
Q. The Falcons defense over the last six games, only given up like 16 points a game. What are you seeing about how well they are playing and why they are playing so well? (John Clark)
DOUG PEDERSON: I’ll tell you, this defense, it’s much improved over the course of the season. They are fast. You saw it the other day against the Rams. They are fast. They are flying to the football. Secondary is aggressive. Guys know how to cover. A lot of single-high (safety). They are going to challenge our receivers and that’s what you’re seeing on tape. It’s a quality defense, but that’s what we expect this time of year.
Q. When you watch the Falcons’ tape, what stands out right away? (Jeff McLane)
FRANK REICH: I think what stands out with watching their tape is that their defense is playing very fast and very aggressive. I think obviously they had a tremendous year as a team last year. I think their defense has stepped it up a notch, even from last year, playing fast and playing aggressive.
Here’s a typical play from last week’s game, with the Falcons in cover three using the single-high safety that Pederson mentioned:
They drop three, Jared Goff checks down to Todd Gurley, and Brian Poole makes a really nice open-field tackle.
Gurley only caught four balls for 10 yards last Saturday, which was well, well below his season average.
The Falcons’ scheme most resembles what San Diego and Seattle do. The Eagles played both of those teams this year and likely went back to that game film in preparation for this week.
One of the concepts that makes this specific defense unique is the idea of the “60/40” safety, which Reich explained:
“I think there’s similarities in all those teams that have done that and played that. Definitely similarities there. Although it does express itself slightly different and that’s based on the personnel. And that’s why there’s, say, three or four factors that go into how it expresses itself and how they play their, what a lot of people refer to as their 60/40 safety, when normally in a three-deep zone the free safety is playing right in the middle of the field.
This defense, one of the trademarks of it, the free safety is usually outside the hash and he’s in the 60/40 range, you know what I’m saying? And then how they cover the weak hook and who is covering the weak hook and how they can insert different bodies there. Each coordinator handles that different. We look at that, we know, is it the linebacker, is it a nickel back, is it a safety, how do they do it, who is the zone drop defender, who is the carry defender?”
The play above is a perfect example of that, with safety Ricardo Allen lined up on the right hash, instead of the middle of the field. He’s the 60/40 safety. The “weak hook” that Reich mentions is circled below, which is basically a soft spot inside the zone that an outside linebacker, strong safety, or nickel corner is accountable for:
That’s basically their bread and butter right there. They have a fast secondary and lean on that as a strength. Not unlike the Eagles, they’re willing to allow short passes and rely on their tracking and tackling to limit YAC gains. They really don’t show much else defensively. They don’t disguise a ton of coverage. Instead, they challenge teams to beat them at their own game, rather than changing too much of what they do.
Here’s Doug Pederson on that concept:
“You know where they are going to be. That’s the thing with this defense. They are going to line up and show you exactly — I mean, that’s the way they play. They play with a lot of confidence. It’s an aggressive style. It’s fast flow and they are not going to pull any punches. They are not going to try to trick you or do anything to get in your head or anything like that. It’s just line up and try to beat us.
When the Seahawks are healthy it’s a very similar defensive scheme. So we feel like we’ve kind of played this defense a little bit already this season. But at the same time, [there is a] different set of challenges. These guys are healthy and they are playing good. But having played this scheme already guys are familiar with it, yes.”
And Frank Reich with some elaboration:
“Everybody knows this defensive scheme is a middle-field, closed, zone defense. They are playing a little bit more man coverage. Sometimes you get to the playoffs and as things ramp up, you tend to tighten down your coverage a little bit, maybe play a little bit more man coverage. That’s common. That’s normal.
So you go in and if you look at their tape throughout the year, they may be 75 percent zone on first and second down in ‘these’ situations, and then maybe as it gets down into the playoffs, it just tightens up a little bit, a little bit more man coverage. I’ve just seen that over and over again through the years.”
Los Angeles started to find some rhythm in the second half, with better protection affording Goff some time to hit the soft spots on either side of the safety.
On this play, they were able to take advantage of the 60/40 concept by putting together a little bit of a wheel route (with an illegal pick), scooting Cooper Kupp towards that weak side and away from Keanu Neal:
When you freeze it, you see the weak side of the safety is open. Atlanta is playing up on the receivers here, which allows Robert Woods to sneak the pick in there and free up his teammate:
That’s what Nick Foles is up against this weekend.
I think it makes the most sense for the Eagles to establish the running game early instead of asking an out-of-form quarterback to do too much in the passing game. The Falcons allowed 7.2 average yards on 16 rushes, with Gurley cresting the 100 mark, so Los Angeles did do some damage on the ground. The problem was that they were playing from behind, lost the time of possession battle, and ended up throwing it 45 times for a ridiculous 75/25 pass/run split. That’s the kind of number that would make Andy Reid proud.
It’s critical that they keep the cart in front of the horse, get Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount going, and protect Nick Foles. The Falcons’ biggest success last week was asserting themselves early on the strength of a +2 turnover margin, and forcing Los Angeles to make the adjustments instead.
There really isn’t a ton to talk about here, but this is how the Falcons finished offensively in 2017:
- points per game – 22.1 (15th)
- yards per game – 364.8 (8th)
- passing YPG – 249.4 (8th)
- rushing YPG – 225.4 (13th)
- first downs – 330 (9th)
- third down percentage – 44.7 (1st)
They move the ball well enough and convert third downs at a league-high clip, but Matt Ryan’s numbers were down in 2017 and it just never felt like this offense was operating at full capacity. They were second in the NFL in yards per drive but 7th in points per drive, and their red zone scoring was bottom-15 overall. Julio Jones was 2nd in receiving yards but only had three touchdowns.
I mentioned that the Falcons killed LA in time of possession last weekend, but that wasn’t necessarily a theme in 2017. Even though they run the ball well with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, Atlanta finished 12th with an average of 30:17 TOP per game. The Eagles were first with 32:41 and the Vikings second at 32:26, which says a bit about their running games, but probably more about the ability of great defenses to get off the field.
The takeaway, then, is that Atlanta is a solid offense that probably was never going to replicate what it did during last year’s Super Bowl run. It doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous, with NFL fans and media knowing that what they were capable of doing it they ever did begin to fire on all cylinders. More than the defense, this unit is very similar to what the Eagles faced last season.
There weren’t a ton of quotes relative to the Falcon offense this week, but this one from Jim Schwartz stood out:
Q. Matt Ryan did a good job the last game of escaping the pass rush by stepping up. Will it be more important to have a push up the middle in the pass rush? (Nick Fierro)
JIM SCHWARTZ: Yeah, push up the middle is huge because it keeps your outside pass rushers alive. So it’s always important to us. I think Matt Ryan goes a little bit under the radar as far as having escape-ability.
People really don’t think of him the same way that you would think obviously of some of the more mobile quarterbacks but he’s good at feeling spots in the pocket and being able to step up and slide one way or slide another. He scrambled for a couple big first downs late this season.
It’s always something that we have to do, No. 1, putting pressure on the quarterback, but also putting pressure on that keeps everybody alive, so to speak. You can have the great pass rush outside, [but] if the quarterback can step up, you are not going to get him. You can have great inside pass rush; if you don’t have any edge pressure, he can escape outside. It’s a four-man group when it comes to four-man rush; it’s a five- or six-man group when it comes to blitz. Every man needs to do his job for it to be effective.
Calling Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan…
Calling Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan…
That’s your territory.
Not only is the Birds’ interior defense going to have to be stout against the duo of Freeman and Coleman, but they have to win against a decent, but ultimately inferior offensive line.
Back to the film room, for an example of Ryan stepping into the pocket:
Doesn’t look like much, but that’s great stuff on a third and 3 to shrug off the collapse, keep his footing, and dink that ball for a first down. He did that out of an empty set without an extra blocker beside him.
When Schwartz says Ryan is good at “feeling spots in the pocket,” that’s what he’s talking about. He’s never going to kill you on the ground, but he does a nice job of showing situational awareness, which is a big reason for Atlanta’s third-down success this season.
Ultimately, I think this game is more about how the Eagles’ offense attacks a smaller and faster defense. I don’t see the Birds having too many problems with the Falcons running game. It’s certainly a better matchup than dealing with Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, who are a bit more dynamic than the Falcon’s pair (think pass catching). And Julio Jones will get his yards against Ronald Darby or Jalen Mills, it’s just up to the other cornerback to keep Mohamed Sanu in check.
Nick Foles is the biggest question mark for Saturday afternoon, and if you establish the running game early and control the clock, that’s less time he’ll have to spend throwing against the Falcons’ tricky zonal scheme.