The Eagles have played the Falcons in each of the past four seasons, so there is certainly some familiarity here on both sides of the ball with these two teams. There's been continuity on both coaching staffs, before this season, and the teams themselves have been very competitive. You'd think that the Eagles would be able to expect the "same old" Atlanta Falcons when they travel south on Sunday night.
That won't be the case, however.
Atlanta's offense is back in control of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who held the same role from 2012-14. Koetter left to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before returning to Atlanta to replace Steve Sarkisian. The offense will have a bit of a new feel this season, getting back to being a bit closer to what they were from an identity standpoint under Kyle Shanahan in 2016. We covered these changes this week on Eagles Game Plan, where Greg Cosell diagrammed one of Atlanta's staple philosophies and how the Falcons will use it to attack the Eagles' defense in prime time this weekend.
I want to focus on Atlanta's defense in this piece, which has always been under the watchful eye of head coach Dan Quinn. This year marks the first time where he's the defensive coordinator in name. What has changed? Well, they've done some different things with their fronts this summer and in Week 1 against Minnesota.
When you watch the Falcons on Sunday, you'll see more examples of them lining up with three down linemen and both of their edge rushers standing up off the edge. Some of these looks are going to be pure 3-4 fronts, but a majority of them will be "Bear" looks, where the three linemen align tight to the center, putting themselves directly over the center and both guards. These kinds of fronts -- popularized by Buddy Ryan during his days with the Chicago Bears (hence the name) -- make it very difficult for blocking schemes. Double teams are difficult. Pulling can be difficult. Getting blockers up to the second level can be difficult. Atlanta is using these Bear looks and we've seen good flashes of the front so far this summer.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
Watching that film, you can see some of the issues these fronts can create for an offense. Double-teaming those three defensive linemen is fine, but then you have athletic, rangy players like Deion Jones, De'Vondre Campbell, Keanu Neal, and Vic Beasley free. If you don't double-team them, then you're relying on your offensive linemen to win quickly against explosive interior rushers like Grady Jarrett. It's a tough task.
In the past, Quinn's defenses have relied mostly on four-man rushes to get after the quarterback. Created from the Seattle Seahawks mold, Atlanta's defense didn't often blitz. That could change this year. The Falcons have definitely incorporated more pressure looks, namely the use of the Double Mug front.
The Double Mug front is one of the most popular pressure looks in the NFL. Basically every team has incorporated it into its scheme. One important part to consider with Atlanta, however, is that the Falcons have shown on film that they are willing to send both of those stand-up rushers over the center. Not everyone does. The THREAT is always there, and so you have to respect that, but you're always a bit more cautious and tense as a quarterback, running back, or offensive lineman if you think both of those linebackers are blitzing right up the gut on third-and-long, not to mention the other defenders who could come as well.
The other aspect of these looks, and the one that leads so many coordinators to incorporate them into their schemes, is that the front creates one-on-one matchups for your defensive linemen. Want to get a single block for your 3-technique? Done. Want to isolate your best pass rusher against their left guard? Done. Want to occupy a running back so you can send a rusher off the edge with a free run at the quarterback? Done. These looks do a lot for a defense, and the Falcons have it in their back pocket entering this game.
The Falcons also did a nice job of creating some "overload" looks with their speed package against Minnesota. Basically what they'd do is put a defensive tackle head up over the center, and then line up two other pass rushers to one side of that tackle. This helps to create one-on-one matchups in the trenches, and by giving athletic defenders like Beasley and Takk McKinley running starts to hit the top of the rush at full speed, they're gaining an advantage.
These different fronts are definitely something to keep in mind when watching the game on Sunday night. Atlanta gave up a lot of yardage in the run game against Minnesota, but don't think that it's an automatic repeat in this matchup. The Eagles have to be ready, schematically, for everything the Falcons will throw at them in both the run game and the passing game. Communication will be key up front along the offensive line.
Now let's look at this front from a personnel standpoint because they have a number of players who are impressive on film. At the top of that list, for me? Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett.
Jarrett is one of the best interior disruptors in the NFL. He's a handful to deal with on an every-down basis. Whether he lines up at his typical 3-technique spot (between the guard and the tackle) or further inside as a 1-technique (between the center and the guard), he is a gap shooter who can win quickly off the ball and fly upfield to wreak havoc. His best move? A violent club-rip move, where he'll use his outside arm to club the offensive lineman before he rips through with the inside hand as he gets upfield.
He also has a really savvy cross chop move, which you saw on that sack-fumble in the clip above, where he takes his inside hand across his body and then violently chops down across the hands of the offensive lineman to keep himself clean as he works toward the quarterback. He'll also win with an extremely quick swim move off the ball. Whether he's matched up on Brandon Brooks, Isaac Seumalo, or Jason Kelce in this game, make sure you're watching out for No. 97 as you're viewing the game at home! He's the best player on that Falcons front.
Lining up next to Jarrett most of the time will be nose tackle Tyeler Davison, a free agent acquisition from New Orleans. I've been a fan of Davison's since his college days, because he's not just your typical nose guard. Yeah, he's stout and can make plays in the run game at the line of scrimmage. He's really violent and plays with great urgency and he's strong as an ox. That's all true. But Davison is also pretty darn quick off the ball. That swim move you see in the clips above has beaten a lot of good linemen in this league. He's not on Jarrett's level as a pure disruptor, because he lacks that second gear to react and explode to the football in the backfield off his third or fourth step. But this guy can make plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage. The matchup between Davison and Jason Kelce will be a fun one to study on Monday morning.
These Bear looks also benefit the guys standing up off the edge. Vic Beasley has always been at his best in space where he doesn't have to deal with too much contact (that's in the run game and in the pass game). Takk McKinley, on the other hand, loves contact. They line McKinley up on the tight end side and ask him to take on those guys in the run game. He's been effective at that so far in a few games on film between the preseason and last week against Minnesota.
McKinley, as I described on this week’s Eagle Eye in the Sky podcast, made a killing taking on tight ends in the run game at UCLA, so this fits his skill set. Standing up out wide and getting a running start from a distance helps McKinley as a pass rusher as well. He's a big, strong kid who is explosive off the ball. McKinley isn't the most savvy pass rusher in terms of his hand usage at this stage of his career, but the Falcons just cutting him loose and letting him get after it is a great way to use him in their scheme. Most of his reps have come against opposing left tackles in the past, but he's moved around a bit more now and should see some reps against Lane Johnson as well in this game.
The Falcons' defense was crushed by injuries last year. Two of their best playmakers missed the majority of the year in linebacker Deion Jones and safety Keanu Neal. As a refresher, here's what both guys bring to the table.
Jones is an extremely explosive, fluid athlete who can play sideline to sideline and match up with any running back in space. Offenses do have some success fooling Jones with misdirection since he's an aggressive player who doesn't back down from a battle in the trenches. He's got the athleticism to overcome missteps early in the down and put himself in position to make a play more often than not. Jones will be put in charge of defending Eagles running backs in space.
Neal got hurt back in Week 1 against the Eagles last season. He's one of the best safeties in the NFL when healthy, so Atlanta really missed him last season. An explosive athlete with range to play sideline to sideline, Neal is a really violent hitter with devastating pop on contact, whether he's hitting receivers over the middle of the field or coming downhill against a ballcarrier in the run game. He also happens to be a phenomenal blitzer. The Falcons will match him up with tight ends at times, so keep an eye on his battles with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert in this game.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Planshow which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts,Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as theJourney to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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.