Eagles offense and special teams will have to show up early and big on Sunday— but to break through the “ice” ceiling keeping them under the thumb of Atlanta in recent history, the Eagles defense has to find a way to melt down the extremely efficient and complex Falcons offense run by Matt Ryan.
It will require a mental blow-torch as much as a physical effort to melt Matty Ice.
The Falcons are averaging 433 total yards of offense in their five road games this season. Matt Ryan hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 72 passing attempts, including the entirety of the Falcons’ last two games.
Ryan has evolved into a very smart quarterback. Even when Ryan takes a sack, he uses information gained from that play to set up a misdirection or a mismatch on the next series of plays.
Quick defensive reads and reactions to Ryan’s formation variations (as called by Kyle Shanahan) will be required by Eagles defenders. Ryan doesn’t miss many openings, and doesn’t beat himself anymore.
WR Julio Jones remains the top priority of coverage for the Eagles pass defense. He leads the league with 970 receiving yards and has hauled in five touchdown passes. Against the Panthers in Week 4, Jones caught 12 passes for 300 yards and touchdown.
“All those big guys, even when they’re covered, they’re still open because their catch radius is so big, they’re so strong, they’re so physical and they can jump. I think that’s what takes Julio to a level that’s different than other NFL receivers,” said Eagles DC Jim Schwartz. “He can threaten deep down the field; he can catch the ball over the middle; he can take a short pass and he can run. He’s extremely strong and he’s hard to knock off his routes.”
“Larry Fitzgerald has a lot of that. I think Julio Jones might even be more explosive and more dynamic than Larry Fitzgerald, who is a Hall of Fame receiver.”
When Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins was a member of the New Orleans Saints, he played against Jones twice a season from 2011 to 2013.
“He’s a special talent. You talk about his speed, his size, his agility and his ability to get in and out of breaks is like nobody else in this league,” Jenkins said. “When he’s double-covered, he’s fast enough to get through it. When he’s single-covered, he can beat man to man, he can beat press. He’s strong enough where when he makes a catch he can break tackles. He can out-run (defensive backs). When you talk about all of the talented receivers that we play this year, he’s probably at the top of the list.”
“We always want to eliminate the big plays,” added linebacker Nigel Bradham. “When you give up big plays, you obviously have a terrible chance of winning the game. We pretty much just have to eliminate the big plays. We know who they’re going to get the ball to. We need to figure out ways to be physical and take that away.”
Good luck with that—seriously! But it’s not just Julio Jones they have to plan for.
Atlanta’s offensive line has improved as much as any in football since the start of the 2015 preseason. Left tackle Jake Matthews has come into his own as a solid starter on Ryan’s blind side. Left guard Andy Levitre was acquired in a trade just before the start of last season and has settled in after a disappointing tour in Tennessee. The team signed star center Alex Mack in free agency this offseason. Veteran right guard Chris Chester is a solid presence and right tackle Ryan Schraeder has experienced huge improvements.
If you have the time to read a pretty lengthy analysis of how Ryan orchestrates a total Falcons attack, then check out Fran Duffy’s film study at PE.com. If not, I’ll try to summarize the key points for you:
Out of the “21” personnel package, the Falcons call a good amount of runs with fullback Patrick DiMarco and a running back out of the backfield in a straight I-formation. However, the Falcons use a ton of different formations from that same personnel grouping.
Matt Ryan likes to look for mismatches, like getting a linebacker on wideout Mohamed Sanu in the slot. This is a mismatch in space for the Falcons, just what Ryan will be looking to create on Sunday against the Eagles.
Just like when Shanahan was in Washington, he likes to manipulate defenses into playing single-high coverage in the secondary. Shanahan and Ryan call pass concepts that specifically attack those coverages, namely the “Post-Cross” concept with a deep post route and a crossing route underneath.
The Falcons don’t stop there though, as they’re also one of the best “13” personnel (one back, three tight ends) teams in the entire NFL.
Ryan has been a killer in passing situations with three tight ends on the field. On the season, he’s a whopping 24-of-31 (77.4 percent) with five touchdowns and no interceptions with a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating. He’s thrown five passes of 25 yards or more out of these sets with a combined 19 first downs.
If the Eagles defense decides to double-team Julio Jones, which is pretty common, they better be sure to complete their assignments across the formation. With players like Sanu, Freeman and Coleman as well as the trio of tight ends, Ryan will find a way to get a screen to Freeman or hit Sanu in the middle vacated by Jones’ double coverage.
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By now you’ve probably already heard, but Doug Pederson announced on Friday that CFL veteran and first-year NFL cornerback Aaron Grymes will be elevated from the practice squad to the active roster.
Grymes played college football at Idaho before spending three seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos. He signed with the Eagles during this past offseason and had a very impressive Training Camp and preseason, until his progress was derailed by a shoulder injury. Grymes was re-signed to the practice squad on October 24.
Not sure if Grymes will actually be activated on Sunday against the Falcons, but you can bet he’s looking at a lot of game tape on Matty Ice and the Falcons as we speak!