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Eagle Eye: How Will Offense Attack Atlanta's Aggressive Defense?

Posted Jan 12, 2018

The Atlanta Falcons entered the postseason with one of the hottest defenses in football. That fact is apparent when you turn on the tape and look at the numbers.

The hallmark of this unit is its speed. It is a "fast-flow" defense that attacks the ball at 200 miles an hour. The attack mentality is on display at all three levels of the defense. The Falcons have a four-man rush up front that plays with a solid rotation both inside and out to keep players fresh. At linebacker, the Falcons feature plenty of speed and athleticism to play in coverage and attack the ball downhill in the run game. In the secondary, Atlanta boasts an aggressive, competitive group with speed, instincts, and ball skills.

The Falcons can stop the run (104.1 yards per game allowed, ninth in the NFL), limit big plays in the passing game (just 43 passes allowed of over 20 yards), and keep opponents from reaching the end zone in the red zone (their 77.1 percent red zone scoring defense ranks third in the NFL). From top to bottom, it’s a challenging defense to play against.

Let’s look at this team at all three levels and see what makes it so effective, and also what the Eagles will need to do to combat that aggressive style.

The Falcons are what is referred to as a "single-high" team, meaning they play with one single-high safety in the deep middle of the field more often than not. The second safety is typically located closer to the line of scrimmage. The staple coverage in this scheme is Cover 3.

Cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are really good in this scheme. They can run downfield with anyone and they compete at a high level. Safety Ricardo Allen, a former corner, is the starter at free safety, and he is the single-high player in the deep middle of the field. Keanu Neal, the strong safety, plays underneath with both linebackers and slot corner Brian Poole in the nickel subpackage. That’s how the Cover 3 scheme looks with this roster.

There are a lot of ways to attack Cover 3. It’s not a perfect coverage. The three-level stretches that the Eagles run so often are certainly one way. Skinny post routes are effective as well. You can attack the underneath defenders in a lot of different ways with different high-low reads. Will the Eagles use any of these concepts? All of them? Some of them? That’s what they’ve been working on in their meetings all week long as the game plan was constructed to find a way to attack the Falcons in zone coverage.

One of the more popular ways to attack Cover 3 schemes is with the use of 3x1 sets (which the Eagles do employ). If you’re able to hold a cornerback in the flat (removing him from his responsibility in the deep third of the field), you can run a receiver from the other side of the formation and hit him wide open for a huge play down the field. This is where gameplanning comes into play. The Falcons know that this is a weak point in their scheme, so their linebackers are prepared to run with receivers in the open field. Watch Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell make plays in the vertical passing game against these slot receivers for big plays.

Both Jones and Campbell are very good in zone coverage, but they have the speed and quickness to play in man as well. In fact, as a unit, the Falcons play a bit more man coverage than most analysts think. Yes, they’re primarily a zone coverage team, but they will line up and play man-to-man a good amount of the time.

In their various forms of man coverage, different players will match up on the tight end. When they play Cover 1 (the first video above), Neal is the man coverage player against tight ends. When they play Cover 2 Man (the second video), Campbell is often used over the tight end. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles feel about both of these matchups with Zach Ertz, Trey Burton, and Brent Celek in the fold.

Neal is an extremely talented player, and he was well worth the first-round pick used to select him in 2016. A do-it-all safety who can play deep, in man, underneath, and at the line of scrimmage against the run is tough to find. The former Florida Gator is exactly that for the Falcons. He spends most of his time in underneath zone coverage or in man-to-man against the tight end, which puts him near the line of scrimmage, often on the same level as Jones and Campbell. I’ve always been a fan of Campbell's play, going back to his college days at Minnesota, but it’s Jones who has really impressed me this year. The second-year linebacker has taken a jump in his performance, namely thanks to his instincts and play-recognition skills, which you can see in some of these shots.

Jones is explosive. He’s physical. He’s instinctive. There are a lot of really smart evaluators who will point to the linebacker position and bring it down to those three traits: speed, toughness, and instincts. The former LSU Tiger has all three. How do the Eagles account for that? The same way most teams have tried to this season. You’re likely going to see different forms of backfield action to draw his gaze and keep his attention away from the football. Misdirection plays will get him flowing one way to only have the football go the other. It’s those types of plays that work against fast-flow defenses like the one that the Falcons run.

From a pressure standpoint, the Falcons typically utilize a four-man rush (their 96 blitzes on pass plays ranks as the sixth fewest in the league). They do have a number of pressure packages that they’ll use selectively depending on the opponent. They like to use Double A-gap pressures as well as overload fronts with three defensive linemen on one side of the center and a fourth all by himself on the other side to isolate a matchup they like. The other thing they like to do is put five defenders up on the line of scrimmage, something the Eagles do as well, to help set protections the way THEY want them set before the snap of the ball. There’s one blitz the Falcons ran multiple times on third-and-long that stood out to me from this look.

With Jones lined up over the center, the offense has to set the protection accordingly. The Falcons have an idea of how they’re going to protect, and they find a way to attack that protection. Here, the Falcons get home on both blitzes with hits on the quarterback. On the second play, against Chicago, the quarterback gets the ball out quickly and the Bears convert. These are the kinds of plays Nick Foles will have to make on Saturday night if he gets stuck in those situations behind the sticks.

From a personnel standpoint, the Falcons have depth up front.

The two starters at defensive end are veterans Brooks Reed and Derrick Shelby. Reed is a crafty veteran who is very disciplined getting after the quarterback and, like the Eagles' Chris Long, wins with a couple of go-to moves. His spin move, in particular, has worked well for him this year. Shelby is a big, strong, powerful rusher who is probably the best run defender up front for the Falcons.

Adrian Clayborn comes on the field in a lot of their subpackages. He jumped onto the national map this year with a six-sack performance against the Dallas Cowboys. Clayborn spends most of his time at right defensive end, though he will slide inside to right defensive tackle in some of the subpackages. He will be a test for Halapoulivaati Vaitai in this game. Veteran Courtney Upshaw also lines up both inside and outside, typically from the defense's left side. He wins with power and physicality more than he does with speed and flexibility. Starting defensive tackle Dontari Poe, a former first-round pick for the Kansas City Chiefs, spends most of his time at 3-technique. He’s fairly stout in the run game and is able to collapse the pocket from that position. Keep an eye on him in this game as well.

There are three players, however, who I think fans need to focus on up front for the Falcons: Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, and Grady Jarrett.

Beasley, the former No. 8 overall pick out of Clemson, is actually a strongside linebacker on the depth chart. When he plays in the base defense, he spends a majority of his time in coverage. In the Falcons' subpackages, however, he will come down and rush the passer, typically from the left side of the defense (so he will be matched up against Lane Johnson). Beasley wins with speed and flexibility. He’s got a lightning-quick first step and can turn the corner as well as anyone in the NFL. He doesn’t win with power, but he can win inside as part of the Atlanta stunts package. If the Eagles ever line up a running back on his side of the formation, the Falcons' defensive line will often call a stunt with Beasley looping inside. Keep an eye out for that in this game.

McKinley, in my opinion, has a higher ceiling as an every-down pass rusher. He’s nowhere near where he needs to be as a polished pass rusher, but he can win with speed and power. A ball of energy who plays at 3,000 miles an hour on every snap, the rookie first-round pick has an extremely high motor and is relentless in his pursuit of the quarterback. He will be a challenge for both of the Eagles' starting tackles.

Jarrett, the starter at the 1-technique, is smaller than your normal nose tackle, but he’s extremely disruptive against both the run and the pass. Jarrett wins with his first step, his natural leverage, and heavy hands at the point of attack. The matchup between him and Jason Kelce will be fun to watch ... so much so that I made a point to go back and look at the matchup between the two last season.

I thought Kelce and Jarrett each had their share of wins last season and, to me, this is one of the best one-on-one matchups in the game. Both linemen are playing at a high level, and both also took their games to the next level this fall. I’m excited to watch Round 2 of this battle on Saturday.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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