Eagles (4-4) vs. Falcons (6-3)
Sunday, 1 p.m. at the Linc
Falcons favored by 2; over/under 50
This opened as a pretty surprising line, with the Eagles favored by a point. The Eagles are at home, and the Falcons historically have not traveled well with Matt Ryan and that offense, but it's a different year and a different Atlanta team. The public must be pounding Atlanta, because the line has shifted three points in the Falcons' favor.
The Falcons filled a few necessary holes this offseason, notably at center and WR2. Let's take a look at Sunday's matchup.
When the Falcons have the ball
Atlanta has been an offensive juggernaut in 2016, Ryan's second year in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's play-action heavy system.
The Falcons have run play action on 27.7 percent of pass plays (most in the NFL), and Ryan's 962 yards on play-action passes are 255 more than the next quarterback.
For several years, the Falcons had trouble protecting Ryan. A team so reliant on play action and deep shots to its wide receivers needs to be able to buy time for its quarterback, and Atlanta addressed a weakness by signing three-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack last offseason. Mack got $28.5 million guaranteed and has lived up to the price tag so far.
The Falcons lead the NFL with 33.9 points per game. They're second in yards per game, second in pass yards per game and 10th in rushing. It's become more than just the Ryan-to-Julio Jones Show.
Jones still obviously gets his — with 51 grabs for 970 yards, his average game this season has been six catches for 108 yards.
But the offense is more dynamic because of a few others. Devonta Freeman has proven that last year was no fluke by rushing for 4.7 yards per carry and again making an impact in the passing game. At 5-8/206, Freeman is similar to Darren Sproles in that he's a multi-purpose back who's stronger running inside than he looks like he should be. Freeman has great hands and balance for a running back, often bailing Ryan out when all else fails.
For most of the season, the 1B to Freeman's 1A has been Tevin Coleman, but the second-year Indiana product has been slowed by a hamstring injury that will keep him out again Sunday.
Opposite Jones out wide is Mohamed Sanu, signed away from the Bengals in the offseason. Sanu was an ideal addition to this offense — a playmaker with downfield speed who was already used to playing across from an All-Pro wide receiver in A.J. Green. Sanu has become more and more of a factor in the Falcons' aerial attack, catching 21 passes and two TDs over the last four weeks.
Sanu can also throw, so don't be shocked if the Falcons throw a trick play at the Eagles.
Atlanta also likes to get the ball into speedster Taylor Gabriel's hands on jet sweeps or deep shots. Gabriel isn't on the field a ton, but he's already scored a touchdown this year on the ground and through the air and accounted for 14 first downs.
To put it simply, the Eagles need to keep the Falcons off the field as much as possible Sunday. That will mean sustaining drives on offense. That will mean establishing a running game.
The most crucial thing for this Eagles defense on Sunday, though, will be shutting down the running game early. If they can do that, they won't be a step slow when Ryan drops back. They won't have to be so disciplined against the play action that a linebacker or DB is idle in the middle of the field for the split second Jones or Sanu needs to complete his drag route.
The Eagles have been stingy against the run at various points this season, but they've also avoided many of the top-tier RBs. When they faced Ezekiel Elliott, he rushed for 96 yards. The game in D.C. was an outlier — Matt Jones, Chris Thompson and Rob Kelley all ran through the Birds' defense. The return of DT Bennie Logan should help the Eagles potentially quiet down Freeman.
In the secondary, what can you say other than Julio needs to be double-teamed on every obvious passing down? Nolan Carroll is not stopping him 1-on-1, nor is Leodis McKelvin or Jalen Mills. Julio destroyed Byron Maxwell in the season opener last year, but just because Maxwell is gone doesn't mean the Eagles will be able to contain the NFL's best (or second-best) receiver.
The Eagles' defensive line didn't make much of an impact last week against the Giants because of Eli Manning's propensity to get the ball out quickly. Ryan has the same ability, but the delay caused by all those play-actions could buy Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham the extra second they need.
When the Eagles have the ball
The most improved player on the Falcons' defense is second-year speed rusher Vic Beasley, who is fifth in the NFL with 7.5 sacks and has forced three fumbles. He has eight QB pressures in his last two games alone.
When Beasley, Adrian Clayborn and the ageless Dwight Freeney are going well, this Falcons defense can be pretty good. But when they're not getting to the passer, they can be gouged.
The Eagles are fortunate to avoid Atlanta's top cornerback, Desmond Trufant, who has been ruled out with a shoulder injury. Second-year corner Jalen Collins takes his place.
Falcons safety Keanu Neal is one heck of a hitter/enforcer the Eagles must be cognizant of, specifically because of the fumbling issues of their running backs. Falcons HC Dan Quinn sees in Neal some of the same things that made Kam Chancellor so great during their days together in Seattle.
The Eagles should be able to move the ball against the Falcons — pretty much everyone has. Atlanta has allowed 381.1 yards per game, seventh-most in the league and about 60 yards per game more than the Eagles. And it's not as if they've bent without breaking. The Falcons have allowed 28.8 points per game, fifth-worst in the league. With 10 takeaways, it hasn't been an overly opportunistic defense either.
Doug Pederson said this week that he wants to rely less on Carson Wentz's arm the second half of the year. Makes sense after the rookie threw 90 passes the last two weeks. But in order to do that, they'll need to be able to establish a running game. And they can't rely solely on Darren Sproles. Ryan Mathews needs to be given an opportunity to have the ball fed to him throughout a drive or a quarter. He's played eight snaps in each of the last two games. Sproles can't be a bellcow long term, and Mathews has a specific, bruising running style the Eagles should look to hang their hat on.
The Falcons have been just average stopping the run.
Look for Wentz to again target Zach Ertz and Trey Burton. He had a lot of success against the Giants hitting his tight ends, who often seemed wide open. With Nelson Agholor failing to provide consistency and Dorial Green-Beckham disappearing at times, Wentz is going to have to go where he's most comfortable, which is Jordan Matthews and, at times, the TEs.
Sproles broke yet another big punt return last week but couldn't take it to the house.
What Malcolm Jenkins said last week had so much validity: The Eagles aren't going to win by being hyper-aggressive on offense; they'll win by playing solid offense, sound defense and elite special teams. That is their formula for success. Use it.
Some of that includes using Caleb Sturgis for three points in the red zone. Most weren't against Pederson's first fourth-down attempt early last week, but the second one was just plain bad, whether it worked or not. The head coach has to recognize he just doesn't have the offensive firepower to leave points on the board.
This will be a competitive game because even if the Falcons go up 14-0, they don't have a shutdown defense. But they just have too many more weapons than the Eagles do and that will play out over four quarters, as it did in Dallas.
Falcons 33, Eagles 24