Defense wins championships.
It also keeps Matt Ryan out of the end zone.
That was pretty much it last night, a steadfast and defiant performance from Fletcher Cox and company in front of a national audience.
Atlanta took five trips to the red zone and came away with just nine points. They started with a failed fourth-down conversion before banging in a field goal, then scored their only touchdown of the game after the second-half special teams error.
I went back through the film like Mike Mayock himself to pick out five of the biggest red zone plays from the Eagles defense last night:
1) Plugging the gap
You can take your pick from the first goal line stand, and I went with three clips from that first drive, three plays that show three different things.
On the first and goal sequence, Rodney McLeod saved a touchdown when he quickly stepped up, closed the gap, and took down Devonta Freeman in what was essentially an open-field tackle:
Good recognition, good form, just a really nice bit of awareness to see that play develop and get to the right spot on the field.
And McLeod had to help out there, because three of his teammates were taken out of the play on very nice blocks by the Falcons’ front. First, the tight end up comes down to seal off Derek Barnett. Second, Jake Matthews and Andy Levitre wall off Haloti Ngata and Jordan Hicks to create a seam for Freeman:
Good football on both sides here. Nice blocking scheme by the Falcons and a touchdown-saving tackle from McLeod.
2) Shedding “blocks”
On the very next play, the Atlanta blocking left a lot to be desired.
They went I-formation with Freeman and tried to just ram it into the end zone, but watch Fletcher Cox shrug off his block and come across the trench to meet the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage:
Hard to tell from this angle, but the right tackle, Ryan Schraeder, just sort of dives at Cox’s feet and whiffs.
He doesn’t really engage, or make him uncomfortable, or attempt to drive him backwards. He just rolls into him, and Cox keeps his footing and makes the proper movement towards the ball.
In this still frame, you can’t see Schraeder because he’s laying on the ground before the handoff is even completed:
Yep. Gotta come at Fletcher Cox with more than that. Double him or cheat or grab a jersey, because you can’t whiff and get away with it.
3) Setting the edge
The best defensive play of the night, by far, was Kamu Grugier-Hill’s wonderful solo effort on 4th and goal.
Not only does he set the edge here as the Falcons add two tight ends off the left tackle, but he sheds two blocks, holds position, and then squares up to take out Freeman at the line of scrimmage:
I was watching this in real time and thought, “Freeman is definitely bouncing this to the outside.”
It seemed pretty obvious to me. A couple of guys got sucked in and I didn’t think Jordan Hicks had enough of an angle to make a play even if he was able to get through the gap.
If I freeze the clip right here, you’d probably say the same, right? How could Grugier-Hill possibly make a play while locked up like this? –
But he did. He made a play.
He detached twice, re-positioned his body, and made the best individual tackle of the night. He had a nice game and looks like he’ll be just fine in a starting role next to Hicks and Nigel Bradham, who returns from suspension next week.
4) Ball hawking
The Eagles came up with a big red zone takeaway on Atlanta’s first drive of the 4th quarter.
It was actually Rasul Douglas who made the play, a guy who barely even sniffed the field last night but came up big with Ronald Darby out of the game:
I’ll let Matt Ryan explain what happened here:
“To me, that’s the toughest one. They went to a Cover 0 pressure. I tried to put it outside, but just threw it with too much touch. It was too soft and gave them an opportunity. I think if I could’ve thrown that on a line a little bit higher, it gives [Falcons WR Julio Jones] a chance to make a play on the ball. I take that one on me.”
Right, so cover zero pressure means that there’s no free safety covering for four defensive backs who are in man coverage. The Eagles blitz seven here and man-up on the four receivers, and Ryan actually does a nice job to release this ball early, but just totally misfires on the play:
For what it’s worth, here’s what intended target Julio Jones had to say about the play:
On whether there was a miscommunication on the play that resulted in the interception:
“No. No. No. No. There was no miscommunication on it. It got lost in the lights. I didn’t know he threw the ball. I was looking back for it and I didn’t see it.”
On whether Falcons QB Matt Ryan’s pass was short:
“No. No. No. No. Nothing on Matt. I think it was a good ball. I just couldn’t see it.
Just didn’t come off. Good job by Douglas to capitalize and good job by the blitzers to force the early release.
5) Timing the leap
On the final series, the Falcons wanted to go to Jones, who was double-teamed by the Eagles on three straight plays.
Here’s another look at the final sequence, which was actually one of their better looks of the night:
They had a shot there. They really did.
“That’s one of those situations where we were going to have four chances to get into the end zone. We couldn’t throw anything [to the middle of the field], because we were short on clock. You either have to throw the ball out of bounds, or take shots into the end zone. [The Eagles] doubled and picketed at the goal line, which is good defense. It’s not easy to do in that situation, but that’s the situation we were in and we didn’t make the plays. We had some good calls and good opportunities, but we just didn’t make them.”
Right. I mean, I really don’t fault Ryan for tossing a couple of those balls high and towards the back of the end zone. They were looking for their best shot and they finally did get Jones 1v1 on the final play.
This is how the Eagles defended that look, with man to man at the top of this image and one linebacker responsible for the tight end.
On the bottom, they again double Jones, who was able to sneak free with a little cross here with Mohamed Sanu. It’s not really a “pick play,” per se, but Sanu’s first task here is to tie up Sidney Jones and give Julio Jones a 1v1 matchup with Ronald Darby:
So the Falcons got a decent look, but I feel like Ryan kind of sailed this ball. Nice job by Darby to time that leap and ensure that Jones would not come down in bounds.
(For honorable mention, definitely the Jordan Hicks sack on 3rd and 8. I just didn’t include that here because Atlanta snapped the ball from the 26 yard line, so it wasn’t technically a red zone play, but whatever. It’s really just semantics. It was a great defensive play.)