Didinger's Eagles-Falcons scouting report
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Sizing up Sunday’s game between the Eagles (3-3) and Atlanta Falcons (6-0) at Lincoln Financial Field.
When the Eagles have the ball
Turnovers. I know you are sick of it but any discussion about the Eagles has to begin there. Their 17 turnovers are second most in the NFL. The only team with more turnovers is Kansas City (21) and this week the Chiefs benched quarterback Matt Cassel. You have to wonder how much longer the Eagles will stay with Mike Vick if he continues to self-destruct.
Vick turned the ball over three times in the loss to Detroit. What makes it particularly alarming is the Lions forced just three turnovers in their first five games. They doubled that total in one trip to the Linc. The two interceptions of Vick were Detroit’s first two picks of the season.
So what will happen on Sunday when the Eagles face a defense that actually thrives on turnovers? The Falcons have 17 takeaways in their six victories. Safety Thomas DeCoud is tied for the league lead in interceptions (four). And of course they have Asante Samuel lurking on the corner just waiting to pick off a Vick pass and take it to the house. Samuel had a 76-yard interception return for a touchdown in their last game.
Andy Reid had two weeks to reassess his offense after the Detroit debacle. Some thought he would make dramatic changes, possibly benching Vick or taking the play-calling away from Marty Mornhinweg. Reid didn’t do either but if things go badly again this week, the move to Nick Foles may not be far away.
The defense took the biggest hit over the bye week with coordinator Juan Castillo getting fired but, in truth, the offense has been a bigger problem. Beyond the turnovers, which are all too obvious, the offense ranks 30th in scoring, 26th in the red zone and 22nd in sacks per pass attempt.
The offensive line is a huge concern and it is not an easy fix. King Dunlap will replace Demetress Bell at left tackle this week and that will help a little. Dunlap is better at pass protection and that’s important with John Abraham (six sacks) coming hard off the edge. Dunlap has a better chance of blocking Abraham than Bell, who moves around like he is wearing snowshoes.
The Falcons are a fast, aggressive defense under new coordinator Mike Nolan. They win with big plays -- they have 16 sacks in addition to the 17 takeaways -- but their weakness is stopping the run. Opponents are averaging 5.2 yards per carry against the Falcons. The Oakland Raiders, one of the worst rushing attacks in the league, gained 149 yards on the ground against the Falcons two weeks ago.
Which raises an interesting question: Will Reid, after two weeks of reflection, come out with a different approach on Sunday? I believe he will.
I actually think this week Reid will tell Mornhinweg to dial up more runs. Here’s why:
1.) We already noted that run defense is the Falcons’ biggest weakness, so it makes sense to attack it; 2.) LeSean McCoy is the best weapon in the Eagles’ arsenal; it’s time to build the game plan around him; 3.) the O-line will be better if its assignments are simpler and players like Dallas Reynolds and Danny Watkins can just maul people and 4.) a strong running game will take some of the pressure off Vick.
If you look at the Eagles’ best wins -- over Baltimore and the Giants -- they were the only games in which they had more rushing attempts than passes. Using the same formula is their best chance to knock off the Falcons.
When the Falcons have the ball
The Falcons have a different approach under new coordinator Dirk Koetter. When Mike Mullarkey (now head coach in Jacksonville) was calling plays, the Falcons were a run-first offense. They used the runs of Michael Turner to set up the passing game. It worked well enough to get the Falcons to the postseason, but they were 0-3 in the playoffs with three blowout losses.
This season, the Falcons are more dynamic. They take as many deep shots down the field as any team in the league. Quarterback Matt Ryan, the Exton, Pa. native who starred at Penn Charter, is thriving in Koetter’s offense. He is the fourth-ranked passer in the league, completing 67.8 percent of his attempts for 1,756 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Now in his fifth season, Ryan is stronger after an offseason in the weight room. He is also more decisive with his throws. He led fourth-quarter comebacks in each of the last three games to defeat Carolina (30-28), Washington (24-17) and Oakland (23-20). He threw three interceptions against the Raiders, but down the stretch he made the clutch throws to set up the game-winning field goal by Matt Bryant.
Ryan has a dazzling array of weapons with wide receivers Roddy White (37 catches) and Julio Jones (30) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (43). Koetter uses the deep speed of White and Jones to stretch the field, which opens up the middle for the 6-6, 250-pound Gonzalez, who is still a mismatch for most linebackers and safeties even at the advanced age of 36.
Gonzalez is second only to Jerry Rice in career receptions and his next touchdown catch will be No. 100. Last year, Gonzalez had a big game against the Eagles (seven catches, two touchdowns). He ran circles around Jamar Chaney and Jarrad Page. On Sunday, the Eagles will have Mychal Kendricks and Nate Allen covering him. It is a tall order for a rookie -- especially a 5-11 rookie -- but they hope Kendricks’ speed will allow him to stay with Gonzalez.
Tackling will be critical. The Falcons get a lot of yards after contact. Turner, a 5-10, 240-pounder, broke more tackles than any back in the league last year. Jones, as a rookie, had the highest yards after the catch average (7.8) in the league. And it still takes two or three tacklers to bring down Gonzalez.
Todd Bowles will be making his debut as defensive coordinator. He will give the defense a different look, which poses problems for the Falcons, who don’t know what to expect. Ryan is sure to see some fronts and coverages that he didn’t see in his film study. If the Eagles can catch him with a new blitz or trick him into a bad throw at a key time, it could be the difference in what figures to be a close game.
But here is the problem that faces all teams that play the Falcons: Ryan has great trust in all his receivers. In a tough spot, he can go anywhere with the ball. He is not forcing it to one stud receiver; he will take the best matchup.
Here are the telling stats through six games:
Touchdown receptions: Gonzalez, White and Jones each have four.
Third-down receptions: Gonzalez, White and Jones each have nine.
You can’t be much more balanced than that.
For Bowles, the key is getting pressure on Ryan. Carolina did it, sacking Ryan seven times and knocking him down a dozen times. The Eagles’ sack total is way down (seven in six games), but Atlanta’s right tackle Tyson Clabo is vulnerable. He was beaten for three sacks by Carolina end Charles Johnson. A quick edge rusher like Jason Babin can have a lot of success working against Clabo.
For the Eagles, the last three games came down to field goals. If this game follows the same script, it will be bad news for the Eagles because Atlanta kicker Bryant is one of the best. He is 13 for 14 on field goals this year. He hit a 55-yarder at the gun to beat the Raiders, 23-20, two weeks ago.
Bryant also has the record for the longest field goal ever kicked against the Eagles. He hit a 62-yarder on the final play to give Tampa Bay a 23-21 win over the Eagles in 2006. Matt Bosher does the Falcons’ punting (42.4 yard net) and also kicks off (22 touchbacks).
For the Eagles, kicker Alex Henery has been solid (11 for 12 on field goals) but punter Mat McBriar has been mediocre (37.9 net). The Eagles still rank near the bottom in both punt and kickoff returns. They finally used DeSean Jackson as a punt returner against the Lions with less than spectacular results (one return, minus three yards).
The lucky number is 13, as in 13 consecutive wins for the Eagles coming off a bye under Reid. But this is the first time they will face an undefeated team in that spot -- and that team, the Falcons, is also coming off a bye.
This is the fifth straight year these teams have met and the Eagles generally fared well against the Falcons. The Eagles have won four of the last five meetings and eight of the last 10. The Falcons are 0-4 at the Linc and they have not won in Philadelphia since 1988.
If it is a close game -- and it seems like that’s all the Eagles play -- recent history favors the Falcons. Since 2008, the Falcons have the best record in the NFL in games that are decided by eight points or fewer. They are 26-10 in those games and 4-0 this season.
Hardly anyone brings up the angle of Vick facing his former team. He has moved on and so has the Atlanta franchise. For the record, Vick has faced the Falcons twice but has yet to play a full game. In 2009, he was the backup to Donovan McNabb and made a cameo appearance in a 34-7 Eagles’ rout. Last year, he started the game but didn’t finish due to a concussion. He missed the 2010 game with a rib injury.
The Falcons get testy when people suggest they built up their 6-0 record by beating a lot of lightweights but it is the truth. None of those teams currently has a winning record and the Falcons had to rally in the final minute to defeat Carolina and Oakland at home.
If the Eagles can make this a physical game, a backs-to-the-wall, old-school street fight, they can blunt Atlanta’s big-play weapons. The Falcons are good and they are playoff-bound, but they aren’t going undefeated. They will lose a few games along the way and this looks like one of them.
Bowles will throw some new stuff at Ryan, get a few sacks and force a few turnovers and that will be enough to get a win. Also, Timmy Kelly, who has been a good luck charm for the Eagles, will sing the National Anthem. The last time Timmy sang the Anthem before an Eagles-Falcons game it was the NFC Championship and we all know how that turned out. (Hint: The next stop was Super Bowl XXXIX).
Eagles 27, Falcons 23