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Falcons: What To Watch For

Posted Oct 27, 2012

When The Eagles Have The Ball

The Eagles are certainly becoming familiar with the Atlanta Falcons having played them in each of the previous four seasons. However, there are two very notable differences when analyzing this year's version of the Falcons defense.

First, there's an old friend who is now a dirty bird.

Four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel was traded to the Falcons prior to this year's NFL Draft. The Eagles signed Samuel in 2008 to boost the turnover total. Samuel did that playing off coverage and baiting quarterbacks into a false sense of security. However, he did not fit the physical, press style of play the Eagles want now from their cornerbacks. The Falcons wanted Samuel to bring an energy to a defense and a team that has been good in the regular season, but knocked out of the playoffs in the first game in each of head coach Mike Smith's three playoff appearances.

The other difference doesn't involve personnel. The Falcons hired Mike Nolan back in January to be the team's defensive coordinator. Nolan's troops rank seventh in points allowed. However, they are 22nd in yards allowed and 28th in rushing defense. The Falcons are opportunistic with 17 takeaways, which ranks fourth in the league. In fact, Samuel's first interception as a Falcon was returned for a touchdown to give Atlanta a 23-20 win over Oakland.

Up front, Nolan has the ageless John Abraham at defensive end. The four-time Pro Bowl selection paces the Falcons with six sacks in 2012. Up the middle, defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux is an agile, quick player who has registered 2.5 sacks this season. He will even line up at end in some nickel situations.

Two rotational players up front to keep an eye on are end Kroy Biermann and tackle Vance Walker. Biermann is a key chess piece for Nolan. He will drop back into coverage. He will rush the passer. He will even be used as a spy, as he was against Carolina's Cam Newton. Walker comes off the bench and has a pair of sacks on the season.

Nolan is not shy about using second- and third-level defenders to blitz. Former first-round pick Sean Weatherspoon is a force in both the run and the pass game. Akeem Dent replaced Curtis Lofton as the middle linebacker after Lofton signed with the Saints in the offseason. Strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas is one of the nickel linebackers along with Weatherspoon. Nicholas is returning from an ankle injury that sidelined him against Oakland in week 6.

Don't be surprised to see Weatherspoon and Nicholas line up in the 'A' gap in nickel situations.

Opposite Samuel at cornerback is Dunta Robinson, who is notorious among Eagles fans for his dirty hit against DeSean Jackson in 2010. Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes is sidelined for the year with an Achilles injury. At safety, Nolan lines to feature a lot of pre-snap movement. Thomas DeCoud on the weak side will come up to the line of scrimmage only to drop back at the last minute. William Moore is the strong safety.

The Eagles know the Falcons and even know their new pieces for 2012. Samuel is known for his film study and he certainly knows this Eagles offense inside and out. Nolan will have a lot of tricks up his sleeve to keep the Eagles off-balance. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles game plan for the Falcons. Football Outsiders has the Falcons ranked third overall against the pass and 25th against the run. Breaking down the pass defense even more, the Falcons rank seventh against No. 1 receivers, No. 4 against No. 2 receivers and No. 1 vs. tight ends, per Football Outsiders.

When The Falcons Have The Ball:

If you haven't been paying much attention this year, the thought of the Falcons offense might bring to mind a plodding, ball-control offense build around Michael Turner. But the Falcons have undergone a shift this season, focusing more on letting Matt Ryan air it out to Roddy White and Julio Jones on the outside and Tony Gonzalez over the middle of the field. Turner, who amassed at least 300 carries in three of the last four seasons, in on pace for only 224 carries this season. And it's no surprise why the Falcons would want to lean more on the passing game as Turner's explosiveness declines and the key players in the passing game are as dynamic as many in the league.

Jones, whom the Falcons surrendered a ransom for in last year's draft, is a physical marvel and matchup nightmare at 6-3, 220. Because of his athleticism, Jones could see himself matched up on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie more often than not. If that's the case, Nnamdi Asomugha would see himself covering Roddy White, who is on pace for what would be a career high 1,474 receiving yards. But there's mystery as to what kind of coverage the Eagles will utilize against the Falcons because Todd Bowles is now in charge of the defense. Bowles has never been a defensive coordinator before and his message to the team was reportedly that the defense's goal is to not be predictable. So what exactly should the Falcons prepare for? Therein lies the hidden beauty of the bye-week coaching change.

As for Gonzalez, Asomugha saw his first action covering tight ends with the Eagles against Gonzalez last year and did well, notching his first interception with the team. But in the red zone, where Asomugha was back on the outside, Gonzalez made the Eagles pay to the tune of two touchdowns. The ageless Gonzalez is having another productive season at the ripe old age of 37 and he'll be a major focus for an Eagles team that has improved from 30th in red-zone defense last year to third in the category this season.

The other major question for the Eagles defense against the Falcons is whether they'll be able to maintain consistent pressure on Ryan. The Eagles' lack of sacks in each of the last three games has been belabored, but there's no question that pressuring Ryan will be a factor. According to ProFootballFocus, as pointed out by Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News, Ryan's quarterback rating with no pressure this season is 106.9. When facing pressure, that rating drops all the way to 74.8. An experienced Falcons offensive line led by Sam Baker at left tackle has protected Ryan well, allowing a sack on 5.5 percent of the team's dropbacks, good for 13th in the league.

Finally, though Turner may lack explosiveness, he is still a capable volume runner. The Eagles' run defense has dropped off a bit in the last two games, so they'll be charged with bouncing back against Turner. Meanwhile, change-of-pace back Jacquizz Rodgers is a dangerous pass-catching threat who is often utilized as a mismatch by Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. The Eagles should be well prepared for Rodgers, as the defense ranks seventh in the league when it comes to covering opposing running backs, according to Football Outsiders.

Falcons Projected Starting Lineup
Offense Defense
WR Julio Jones LDE Ray Edwards
LT Sam Baker DT Jonathan Babineaux
LG Justin Blalock DT Peria Jerry
C Todd McClure RDE John Abraham
RG Garrett Reynolds OLB Sean Weatherspoon
RT Tyson Clabo MLB Akeem Dent
TE Tony Gonzalez OLB Stephen Nicholas
WR Roddy White RCB Dunta Robinson
QB Matt Ryan LCB Asante Samuel
RB Michael Turner SS William Moore
FB Lousaka Polite FS Thomas DeCloud

Key Matchups

Eagles Wide Receivers vs. Falcons Cornerbacks

To say that the Eagles receivers and Falcons cornerbacks have a checkered history would be an understatement. Over the past four seasons, these teams’ matchups have been highlighted by close games, big numbers and huge hits.

In 2010, Falcons corner Dunta Robinson drew the ire of Eagles fans when he put a now-infamous hit on receiver DeSean Jackson that concussed the star receiver. And last season Robinson took receiver Jeremy Maclin down with a helmet-to-helmet hit. Both plays resulted in a fine for the corner.

And as if that weren’t enough, Sunday will also be the first time both Maclin and Jackson will face former teammate Asante Samuel in a game. A big-ticket free agent signing by the Eagles in 2008, Samuel spent four seasons in Philadelphia before being traded to Atlanta this past offseason.

Samuel likes to bait quarterbacks into throwing in his direction, often times resulting in interceptions. In four seasons with the Eagles, Samuel compiled 25 interceptions, including playoffs. But throughout his career Samuel has been susceptible to double moves and pump fakes. This creates opportunities for the Eagles offense to exploit.

But that isn’t to say the Eagles receivers haven’t won their share of battles. In their last four meetings, the Eagles are 3-1 and have outscored Atlanta 123-73. And in three career games against Atlanta, Maclin has 28 receptions for 413 yards and four touchdowns. Expect to see big plays and plenty of drama when these two units square off Sunday.

RB Michael Turner vs. Eagles Run Defense

Since joining the Falcons as a free agent in 2008, running back Michael Turner has been one of the most consistent and productive backs in the NFL. In four seasons with Atlanta, he has broken 1,300 yards rushing three times. The only time Turner finished with fewer than 1,000 yards as a starter was in 2009 when he missed five games due to a high ankle sprain.

But while his production has been stellar, 2012 has been something of an off year for the back. After averaging 21.1 rushes per game in the three seasons in which he played all 16 games, Turner is averaging just 14 this season. And his 357 rushing yards through six games is his worst output as a full-time starter.

Still, the bruising Turner is a threat the Eagles defense must take very seriously. At 244 pounds, Turner is capable of running through—and over—defenders.

Opposing him will be an Eagles defense at a crossroads. After allowing an average of 91.5 rushing yards per game in the first four weeks, the defense allowed both the Steelers and Lions to rush for over 130 yards. Still, the defense has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher this season. Shutting down Turner on Sunday would be a big statement for the defense and new coordinator Todd Bowles.

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