Julio Jones

Game-winning stand just another play for Eagles' defense

USA Today Images

Game-winning stand just another play for Eagles' defense

There were no special instructions. No extraordinary measures taken. Not much was said. Not much needed to be said.

The game was on the line. The season was on the line. For the Eagles' defense, it was just another play. The stakes were just incredibly high.

It was 4th-and-goal for the Falcons at the Eagles' 2-yard-line in the final seconds Saturday.

Give up a touchdown, and the season's over. Stop the Falcons and you're one game closer to the Super Bowl.

"Our guys, we don't do a whole lot," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "Our guys know what to do, and they have downloaded that software enough that it's a little bit automatic for them.

"We also didn't change. We don't surprise the players. What we practiced in our red-zone period is what we played."

The Falcons had already driven from their own 24-yard-line down to the 2-yard-line.

Their quarterback, Matt Ryan, has the fourth-highest passer rating in NFL postseason history, behind Jeff Hostetler and Hall of Famers Kurt Warner and Bart Starr.

That's what the Eagles' defense was up against.

"At that point, you sort of have to trust the players and the players have to trust the scheme," Schwartz said. "I think you saw a combination of both of those. We didn't feel the need to blitz. Played coverage, played good technique."

The clock showed 1:05.

Ryan’s two favorite receivers, Julio Jones and Mohamad Sanu, both lined up on the right side of the formation, Jones outside with Jalen Mills on him and Sanu in the slot with Malcolm Jenkins covering him in a battle of North Jersey natives.

Ryan took the shotgun snap from center Alex Mack at the 7-yard-line and immediately rolled to his right, retreating to the 10 as he neared the sideline.

Nigel Bradham, lined up as the left linebacker, trampled blocking tight end Levine Tollolo, who had his hands full with Brandon Graham, and ran around guard Wes Schweitzer, giving him an angle on Ryan. 

Meanwhile, Vinny Curry, after getting cut blocked to the ground by Falcons running back Tevin Coleman, quickly bounced back up and began pursuing from Ryan’s left. 

Ryan pumped once toward Sanu, who was covered by Jenkins. He quickly looked left but saw only Curry closing in. Thanks to the pressure, he had to quickly backpedal back to the 14-yard-line and finally was forced to unload that lob toward Jones at the right sideline in the end zone.

At that point, it was up to Mills, who had Jones blanketed, and the rest is history.

The ball went through Jones’ hands, his feet came down out of bounds anyway, and after an agonizing moment looking for flags, the play was over.

"A lot gets made of what Jalen did, rightfully so," Schwartz said. "You're talking about a Pro Bowl, All-Pro receiver, 1-on-1. But Malcolm playing the seven route to Sanu and Rodney (McLeod’s) ability to help him leverage that, that was because he's looking for Julio Jones first.

"Julio slips, he's looking for Sanu, nowhere to go and now he has to re-rack that thing and by then, Nigel is closing down on him and everything else.

"If Malcolm doesn't get that route that he covered, if he doesn't get that covered, nobody's talking about Jalen Mills right now."

Mills was physical with Jones but not physical enough to draw a flag. Schwartz said Mills has made huge strides this year with his technique, and on the biggest play of his life, his technique was perfect.

"It's one thing to have confidence, but that's just not the sole requirement for the position," Schwartz said.

"There's a lot of technique that goes along with playing, and I think if you look at that last play, he did a great job of staying square. Meaning his shoulders were perpendicular to the line of scrimmage.

"What the receiver there is trying to do is get you turned so he can come back for the ball. He could never get Jalen turned."

Mills is 23 years old, a second-year pro, a former seventh-round pick, a first-year starter.

To think that he made one of the most historic plays in Eagles postseason history is remarkable.

"I think every player makes a big jump from year one to year two, as far as knowledge of scheme and knowledge of opponents and things like that," Schwartz said.

"(Defensive backs coach Cory) Undlin and Jalen have worked really hard. He's haunted the hallways quite a bit, even on off days this year, just trying to improve his technique. It hasn't been by chance that his technique has gotten better. It's a lot of hard work that's gone into it from a coaching standpoint and from a player's standpoint."

The bottom line is that this defense has played tremendous football all year.

And with the season on the line, everybody simply went out and did their job. Nothing more, nothing less.

"I just think a part of our success is our guys just understand what's asked of them in the schemes," Schwartz said.

"They communicate well. We don't make a lot of mistakes, mental mistakes, and I think that makes it hard to drive the ball on us.

"When you get into those situations where is it's closed quarters and you don't have to defend deep balls, our guys have a good understanding of what opponents are going to do. I was proud of them on that play."

In 'this is it' moment, Eagles' defense holds strong

In 'this is it' moment, Eagles' defense holds strong

Because the previous play was under review, the Eagles were stuck on the field with some time to ponder their own mortality. The defense had to patiently wait for a 4th-and-goal from the 2-yard line with 1:05 left in the game.

Stop the Falcons and win.

Don't and lose.

"This is it," Malcolm Jenkins recalled thinking to himself. "This is the season. We're either going home or going forward."

The Eagles are going forward (see Roob's observations).

Matt Ryan's pass on 4th-and-2 went through the hands of Julio Jones on the right side of the end zone. The Eagles finished off a 15-10 win to push them into next week's NFC Championship Game at the Linc (see breakdown).

What were the Eagles thinking as they awaited the crucial play?

"Get off the field," Ronald Darby said. "Get the ball back into our offense's hands, run the clock out and go home."

Before the play even happened, during that long wait for the review, the Eagles' defense stayed on the field and kept themselves in the frame of mind that the ball was going to stay at the 2-yard line. They knew they were going to have to defend the goal line.

As the Falcons got in their huddle, the Eagles were already starting to dissect what they were seeing. Atlanta came out in 21 personnel — two running backs — which seemed to limit their options. The Eagles knew they weren't going to run and they knew with two running backs, the likelihood of a sprint out play rose. They played process of elimination.

While the Falcons were lining up in their formation, Jenkins guessed there were about three different defenders all shouting out what the play was going to be. They recognized it from their film study.

"We're going to play the odds," Jenkins said.

It certainly helped.

On that play, Jenkins said he was busy chasing Mohamed Sanu as Ryan rolled right. Darby was covering Tevin Coleman in the flat. Nigel Bradham had coverage on a tight end, whom he plowed through when he started to block.

But the biggest assignment on that play belonged to Jalen Mills. He was lined up across from Jones, the closest thing the NFL has to a real-life monster. At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Jones is arguably the best and scariest receiver in the NFL.

And Mills had him 1-on-1 with the game and the season on the line.

"That's what you want," Mills said. "As a defender, you always dream of being in that situation, coming down to the fourth down and making that fourth down stop with whoever it was."

Mills said when he lined up across from Jones, he knew he needed to be ready. He knew the Falcons were going to go to their best player with their own season on the line. He was ready.

As Ryan was rolling to his right and trying to buy time, Mills jammed Jones so hard the All-Pro receiver fell to the ground in the end zone and Mills gave him one last shot before Jones sprung back to his feet.

Mills, who got super physical on the play, said he wasn't worried at all about drawing a flag on the play.

"It's playoff ball," Mills said. "This is big-boy ball. If it was coming down to a call like that … I'm not thinking about that. I'm thinking about making a play. He's a big guy, he's a physical guy. If you go out there and play timid, he's going to push you around."

Mills had tight coverage on Jones as the ball sailed through the receiver's hands. Even if he caught it, Jones' feet came down out of bounds.

As the pass fell incomplete and the game — for all intents and purposes — came to a close, Darby was so busy covering Coleman, he didn't know until he heard the roar of the crowd. He turned in time to see Mills stretch out his arms and fly away in celebration.

Bradham turned just in time to see Mills lock down Jones. He said he knew the game was over and just "started flexing."

Jenkins, who seconds before had time to think about the finality of the play, turned his head just in time to see the Falcons' season end and his own continue.

"I saw it was overthrown," Jenkins said before breaking into a grin. "And then I took a little lap."

Odds are Vegas is wrong about Eagles-Falcons

Odds are Vegas is wrong about Eagles-Falcons

4:35 p.m. on NBC
Eagles +3

After what felt like an eternity, the Eagles are finally set to play their first postseason game since 2013, hosting the defending conference champion Falcons at Lincoln Financial Field on Saturday.

Coming off a first-round bye and a regular-season finale that was irrelevant in the standings, the Eagles haven’t played a meaningful game in almost three weeks — since Christmas night, to be exact. The long layoff gave players time to rest and recuperate, but the dreaded slow start is always a concern after an extended break, too.

Meanwhile, the Falcons appear to be hitting their stride. A 26-13 win over the Rams in a wild-card playoff game last week marked the fourth time in six games Atlanta held an opponent to 17 points or fewer. All of a sudden, the No. 6 and lowest seed in the conference has people talking about a potential repeat trip to the Super Bowl.

They have to go through No. 1 first, and while the Eagles are without starting quarterback Carson Wentz, there’s still plenty working in their favor in this matchup with the Falcons.

They’re no offensive powerhouse
Led by reigning league MVP Matt Ryan, the Falcons are perceived as a team with a prolific offense. While that was certainly true in 2016, it’s not necessarily been the case this season.

Though Atlanta ranked eighth in the NFL in total yards in ’17, it was only 15th in scoring. Simply put, the Falcons have not been good in the red zone, finishing 23rd with a 50.0 percent conversion rate. They were also 2 for 4 against the Rams last week.

There’s a lot of Pro Bowl talent on that offense — Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones, running back Devonta Freeman, center Alex Mack. However, the unit hasn’t been the same this season, after offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan took the 49ers’ coaching job.

They’re hurting
As if Atlanta’s offense wasn’t already somewhat limited, some key injuries could conspire to further cripple the unit’s production.

Jones, perhaps the most physically dominant receiver in the NFL, has an ankle injury and missed practice Wednesday and Thursday. He’ll play, but may not be nearly as imposing as a result. Left guard Adam Levitre also went on injured reserve, and the interior of the offensive line has been a bit of a mess ever since.

Between Jones and Levitre, as well as knee injuries that limited Freeman and wide receiver Mohamed Sanu in practice this week, the Falcons’ offense is less than 100 percent. Not that they were firing on all cylinders to begin with.

Their journey has been a logistical nightmare
It’s been a rough week on the road for the Falcons, to say the least. Their game against the Rams in Los Angeles last Saturday wrapped up around midnight on the East Coast, which means a flight back to Atlanta only got in early Sunday morning. Now it’s back on a plane to ship up to Philadelphia and play the Eagles.

As anybody who’s ever traveled can tell you, it takes a toll. As for the Eagles, they’ve been home the last four weeks, and haven’t wandered any farther than New Jersey since Dec. 10. Not only do they have home-field advantage, but they should be settled in and comfortable as well.

Their opponent is rested and motivated
Let’s not forget, Wentz or no Wentz, the Eagles are still a quality team. They’re the No. 1 seed in the NFC, after all, and they’ve had a month to prepare for this game.

The Eagles started dialing back practices and game plans back in Week 16, before they even clinched the top seed. While the performance of the offense was concerning in the last two contests against the Raiders and Cowboys — particularly the play of quarterback Nick Foles — they were also being treated as glorified preseason games.

Players were being rested and should be fresh now. The intensity was ratcheted up at practice beginning last week, Foles had opportunities to work on his timing in the offense, and the coaching staff won’t hold anything back against the Falcons. Oh, and now the Eagles are playing the “disrespect” card after being installed as the underdog by Vegas.

The Eagles are prepared and motivated. The Falcons are hurting, road weary and limited offensively. It all sets up very nicely for the home team.