In the NHL, teams are not allowed to use fireworks for player introductions, goals, intermission or post game entertainment, for anything. Because of this, the Chicago Wolves, the minor league team that acts like a major league team has lots and lots of fireworks. Like, an obscene amount. The mascot shoots fireworks out of his hands. They do this, I was told, because the Blackhawks are prohibited from doing so, and so they take their advantages where ever they can get them. The reason the NHL bans them of course is that fireworks are not meant to be used inside.
On Sunday night in the Georgia Dome though, there looks to be lots of fireworks, because the Eagles and Falcons are built for explosive plays on both sides of the ball.
We all know what the Eagles bring to the table. Big plays in every facet of the game. I don’t need to tell you what DeSean Jackson, Mike Vick, LeSean McCoy, Asante Samuel, Nnamdi Asomugha, Trent Cole and Jason Babin are capable of. The Falcons have their own heavy hitters too…
When the Falcons have the ball
Prior to this season, I would have described the Falcons offense as “three yards and a cloud of rubber pellets.” But this season, I’m not sure what to think. The Falcons are definitely moving away from being a run based offense. In Matt Ryan’s rookie year, 2008, they were 2nd in the league in rushing attempts, behind only Baltimore, who also had a rookie QB, rookie head coach and very good running game. They were also 29th in attempts, right behind them was, you guessed it, Baltimore. In 2009, the Falcons rushed almost 100 fewer times, finishing 11th in the league in rushing attempts. Michael Turner was hurt that season, but it didn’t effect the Falcons’ rushing attempts, in fact they rushed slightly more. For the whole season they averaged 28.2, for the 5 games Turner didn’t play, they averaged 28.8. With Ryan establishing himself as a future elite QB, another year in the offense and the addition of Tony Gonzalez, the passing game soared. The Falcons attempted 136 more passes, skyrocketing them from 29th to 7th in the league in attempts. In 2010, they attempted only 7 more passes, making them 8th in the league. They added 46 rushing attempts, rising to 5th in the league. Part of that was because they were 13-3, they took a lot more kneel downs an called more clock killing runs than the year before when they were 9-7.
But this is a new year, and the expectations the team has put on themselves are sky high. The Falcons lacked big plays last year, particularly in the passing game. In 2010, they were 31st in the league in 20+ yard pass plays and 22nd in 40+ yard plays. The plodding running game was 12th and 18th, respectively. General Manager Thomas Dimitroff sought to fix that in the draft. In a big draft day trade, he landed Alabama WR Julio Jones, a physical freak who made more than his fair share of big plays in Tuscaloosa, but also made his fair share of nothing plays. They also added RB Jacquizz Rodgers, a tiny speed demon who made a name for himself at Oregon State with explosive plays. But it wasn’t just an influx of young talent, the Falcons offensive philosophy changed as well. In week 3 of the pre-season, the week that closest resembles a real game, Matt Ryan threw the ball 42 times, and he didn’t even play the whole game. Chris Redman threw it 18, giving the Falcons a college spread offense level of 60 attempts. That’s insane in the NFL. 60 attempts in one game would be the 24th most in post-merger history.
On Sunday against the Bears, Ryan threw 47 times, and the Falcons had only 14 rushing attempts, only Denver and Tennessee had fewer. When you take the pre-season and Week 1 into account, it’s easy to think the Falcons will be throwing quite a bit on Sunday night. But as Lee Corso likes to say, not so fast my friend. There were troubling signs: in both of those games, the offense only managed one touchdown, and it wasn’t against Chicago.
Despite their early struggles, the Falcons offense gives the Eagles the same problems the Rams did, but to a greater magnitude:
The run defense is a major issue. The Eagles caught a break last week when Steven Jackson went out early in the game. Cadillac Williams ran effectively in relief, but they were still down a back for the rest of the game. The chances that the Eagles have back to back games where a star RB goes down are slim. Like Williams, Jason Snelling is an effective backup, and Rodgers offers a major change in pace. They run behind an offensive line that is as good as the Rams line is, and is particularly effective at run blocking. The Falcons line is the classic better than the sum of its parts unit, a group of good linemen who love to play nasty and downhill. Jon Runyan would love to play for this team. The linebackers are once again going to have way more on their plate than they can handle in stopping the run. 11 of Atlanta’s 14 rushes were between the tackles, a percentage you can expect from them all season long. Turner and Snelling are head strong north/south runners. Look for the Falcons to give Juan Castillo a large dose of Michael Turner and an abnormal amount of play action. On Sunday “you run to set up the pass” will not be a stupid cliche.
Turner ran well against a better defense, against the Eagles he should have a big day. Of those 14 attempts, Turner had 10 of them for 100 yards, 66 of them coming in the first half when the game was 13-3, and 98 of them when it was still 16-3. And Turner, an Earl Campbell clone in terms of size and shape, is going to be even harder to take down than any of the Rams were. This is a man who has literally dragged defenders on runs. Brian Rolle, who has been taking snaps in practice as the first team WIL, watch out. Jim Washburn’s Wide 9 let gaping holes in the run defense, and that isn’t going to change this week. Once Turner gets to the second level, he is a bulldozer. The Eagles don’t have an answer for Turner, he could go for 150+ yards on Sunday night.
The passing game gets a lot harder. Not breaking any news here, but Sam Bradford is good, Matt Ryan is even better. The increase in QB play the Eagles’ D will face is nothing compared to the increase in WR play though. The Rams didn’t have a single legitimate starting wideout on the field on Sunday, the Falcons will line up Roddy White, the 2010 leader in receptions, he was also 2nd in the league in yards. Opposite him will be Jones, who would instantly be the best WR on the Rams, he had 5 catches for 71 yards against Chicago. In the middle is Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez, who has lost a lot of speed the past couple of years, but he’s still got great hands. And even with his declining athleticism, he’s still very effective and has great size. In their Week 3 OT win against the Saints last year, Gonzalez looked slow and sluggish compared to the year before. And yet the Saints couldn’t cover him. He had 8 catches for 110 yards and a TD; he would have 70 catches for the season. On Sunday against the Bears, he had 5 for a team high 72 yards, he had a 30 yard catch where he simply out muscled the defender to the ball.
But while it gets harder for the Eagles defenders, it also gets harder for the Falcons receivers. Matt Ryan put up 319 yards, but on 47 attempts, giving him 6.8 yards per attempt, 18th in the league. As a frame of reference, Gus Frerotte and Charlie Batch’s career Y/A is 6.9. Ryan’s Adjusted Yards per Attempt, which includes penalties for interceptions, was 6.7, slotting him between Jake Delhomme’s career mark of 6.4 and Chad Pennington’s 6.9. That was against a pedestrian group of Bears DBs. What are they going to do against the best tandem of CBs in the league? It only gets worse for the Falcons as you go further down the depth chart. After the lockout they released WR Michael Jenkins to the surprise of no one except apparently, every player on the Falcons. Reading the writing on the wall appears to be another issue for the Falcons offense. Jenkins is a so-so receiver, but the guys who were below him on the depth chart don’t offer anything. The only other WR they had catch a pass against the Bears was Harry Douglas, who caught 2 for a total of 10 yards. Douglas, who is Matt Ryan’s BFF (all the Falcons rookies from 2008 are a tight bunch), has hands of stone. He’s the kind of player you want as a test subject for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to get some reps, experience and confidence in the slot, rotating in with the established Joselio Hanson. The bottom of the depth chart is pint-sized Eric Weems, a very good punt returner who survives as a WR with his speed and athleticism; and Kerry Meier, who spent 2010 on IR and prior to 2007 was not a WR, he was a QB. Combined they have 13 career receptions, and they’re all by Weems.
Against Chicago, Ryan struggled to hit his receivers on slant routes, and when he did they couldn’t get past the Bears defenders, who gave the Falcons a mix of man and zone defenses. Ryan hit two big passes, to Gonzalez and Jones, but they weren’t able to get any yards after the catch on them. The Falcons lacked the explosion they so desire.
A third of Matt Ryan’s completions and yards came from the backfield. This wasn’t by design, all of the catches by Turner, Snelling and Rodgers were on check downs or when Ryan was under pressure, and there an additional 4 easy passes that they dropped. One of the completions was a dump off down the middle of the field from the Falcons 30, with :23 left in the first half. That’s a huge clock wasting play. Turner and Snelling are not particularly good pass catchers, so they generally not involved in the passing game, against Chicago they combined for 8 catches and 72 yards out of necessity. But this type of performance is likely to repeat when Ryan can’t find any of his receivers open and the RBs get past the Eagles weak LBs. Look for Tony Gonzalez to move the chains frequently against those weak LBs though.
The Falcons gave up 5 sacks to Chicago, 2 of them to Julius Peppers. Peppers is a better pass rusher than anyone on the Eagles, but the rest of the Eagles’ d-line is better at getting to the QB. So Matt Ryan should be under even more pressure, and he struggled on the run against the Bears. Having Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs in space tends to do that to QBs, so Ryan will fair better against Eagles linebackers that aren’t Jamar Chaney. The Falcons will counter the Eagle’s heavy defensive line rotation by going to no huddle early and often, it’s something they will switch in and out of frequently and at Matt Ryan’s discretion. They usually go to it when they look sluggish on offense, but will also throw out a few plays in a row with no huddle just to see how the defense reacts.
When the Eagles have the ball
The Falcons’ defense is similar to the Rams, in that it relies on the defensive line to win the battles up front, a good middle linebacker (Curtis Lofton, who’s good but is no James Laurinaitis) to control the second level and it’s secondary is nothing to be afraid of.
Looking at the tape from the Bears game, expect Reid and Mornhinweg to call a lot of screen passes. The Bears killed the Falcons with a 56 yard TD on a screen pass to Matt Forte. LB Sean Witherspoon did an awful, awful job of tackling, but even if he makes the tackle it’s a 21 yard gain. A 3rd quarter screen pass to Hester resulted in 53 yards and a near TD. That’s 109 receiving yards on 2 screen passes. Andy Reid probably peed himself. Even Roy Williams got in on the action with a screen pass that went for 13 yards.
Forte is a poor man’s Shady McCoy, and on Sunday he ripped up the Falcons’ defense. He caught a check down over the middle just past the line of scrimmage, then burned through the 15 yard cushion the Falcons gave the middle of the field for a 23 yard gain. Forte also gashed the Falcons for 27 yards on a cut back. These, along with the 56 yard screen, are the kind of plays that McCoy excels at. Unless the Falcons defense makes drastic changes in their game plan, McCoy should have a big game.
Against an offensive line that is in as bad a shape as the Eagles’ is, the Falcons got Jay Cutler to the ground four times, twice from the excellent John Abraham, once from
Mr. Kim Zolciak Kroy Biermann, who is one of those guys who is an average starter or very good rotational guy (think Juqua Parker) and one from Lawrence Sidbury, who turned a few heads at the 2009 combine as a project player. He hasn’t panned out though, on Sunday he doubled his career sack total. On the fast turf of the Georgia Dome, the Falcons pass rush, predicated on speed and not power, gains even more speed. So the offensive line will have its hands full once again, although hopefully with a week’s work of practice (which will double the number of days Kyle DeVan has been on the team), the o-line will come out a little stronger than last week. Even then, the Falcons pass rush will have the edge, yet another reason for screen passes.
But the fast turf works both ways, and the Eagles’ speedsters should do well. Like, explosively well. The Bears had 5 pass plays of 20+ yards and 2 of 40+. We can argue the merits of Jay Cutler vs Mike Vick, but there is no argument over who has the better supporting cast, and it’s Vick. Culter put up 312 yards, spreading the ball around with ease. Devin Hester and Jonny Knox each had 3 catches for 50 yards, Roy Williams had 5 for 55, and Matt Forte had 5 for 90. Now give the Falcons DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and Shady McCoy to worry about, all while keeping an eye on the back door for a Mike Vick scramble. You know what I’m thinking?
In their divisional round playoff loss to the Packers, the Falcons were embarrassed by Green Bay’s passing attack. Atlanta’s DBs couldn’t run with the Packers WRs and so Aaron Rodgers tore them to pieces. To combat this they improved their secondary not on iota, they have no new starters. Instead they improved their lackluster pass rush by adding DE Ray Edwards, but that’s not going to be enough in the long run. It didn’t help them one bit against the Bears. So how did Jay Cutler shred the Falcons defense? Two ways.
First, he picked apart the Falcons zone defense, spreading the ball around to each of his receivers. This bodes well for the Eagles, as Maclin and Avant are, unlike DeSean Jackson, smart receivers who can find the holes in a zone and sit in them. Hopefully with another week under his belt we see a few more plays involving Steve Smith. The WRs will find the open areas, Vick needs patience and the line needs to give him the time to have it.
Cutler also took advantage of the size of WR Roy Williams (6’4″) and TE Kellen Davis (6’6″) against smaller defenders. But that’s not going to happen for the Eagles unless Riley Cooper gets some playing time, which wouldn’t be out of the question. At some point the coaching staff needs to use Cooper. The Falcons start 3 CBs no taller than 5-10, this is the kind of game that the 6’3″ Cooper needs to be utilized in. 6’4″ Brent Celek, a non-factor in St. Louis, should be another target.
Advantage Eagles in the pass and the run.
The Bottom Line
For all the advantages the Eagles have in players and tactics, this game makes me nervous. The Falcons do very well at home, Matt Ryan is 20-3 all time in the Georgia Dome, and has only lost back to back games anywhere twice. The Falcons are too good a team and too well coached to lose two in a row.
However it’s not like the Eagles are coming off some world class performance where you can expect a drop. Vick did not play well, the secondary (and the play calling) got bailed out a few times by bad drops by the Rams, and they caught a break with the Jackson injury. And Vick is going to be out of his mind pumped to start against the Falcons in the Georgia Dome. This could be a huge game for him, or he could try to do way too much and be a hindrance. I have faith that if he starts off with the latter, Andy Reid will get him in line. The Falcons pose a bigger challenge, but this team is too talented and too well coached to have back to back mediocre games.
Something’s got to give. Shady McCoy is the key to this game. If they can get him going in screens and in the run game, he could have another 200+ yard performance. He does that and the Eagles win.
Eagles 34, Falcons 23