The loss at Atlanta was a tough pill to swallow for everyone, there's no question about that. As low as fans felt last night, is there a reason to panic? Is the season over? Absolutely not. Remember, two of the last four Super Bowl champs lost their opener, including New England who lost by two scores on the road to division-foe Miami. The season has just begun. So what were the bright spots from the game? What can the team learn from? Let's start on defense, where the Falcons appeared to make it a part of their game plan to take away one member of the Eagles' defensive line.
On the very first play of the game, Atlanta came out and tried to run the ball. The Falcons had more success on the ground than I admittedly thought they would on Monday night, and while the Eagles defense could've been better in a number of areas (including setting the edge in the perimeter run game), overall they were able to limit the Falcons' ground attack with rookie Tevin Coleman.
The first play called out of the huddle for Atlanta was their stretch run play, the outside zone. We've broken this concept down numerous times in the past, and it's the bread-and-butter play for a Kyle Shanahan offense. The added wrinkle that I noticed on the first play, and on multiple other occasions later in the game, was the "wham" element.
The Falcons are running this play to their left, but the tight end to that side comes back across the formation to block nose tackle Bennie Logan. This action is what is called a "wham" block, where a fullback or tight end comes across to block an interior defensive lineman.
This was by no means a dominant block by the tight end on Logan. He barely touched him. But as I continued watching the tape, I saw this a few more times. This is a tactic that offenses use to try and neutralize a disruptive force inside. Ndamukong Suh saw wham blocks often throughout his career in Detroit because teams had issues blocking him. With a wham block, you're using a defensive tackle's aggressiveness and ability to penetrate against him because he gets a step in the backfield only to be ear-holed by a tight end coming across the formation that he, in theory, doesn't see coming. Chris Brown did a great job breaking down the wham block in a piece for Grantland back in 2011. Some may be surprised that Atlanta chose to attack Logan this way, but if you watched this game on Monday night (or if you've been paying attention for the last couple of years), you know that Logan has developed into one of the most disruptive nose tackles in the game today.
Later in the first quarter, Logan dominates center Mike Person down in the red zone. Logan gets right into Person's pads, controls him with good hand placement while also locking out his arms to maintain separation between himself and the block. He then sheds him to make the tackle against the run.
Here's another stretch run from the Falcons except this time with a split zone element with the tight end coming across to block the backside edge rusher, Connor Barwin, instead of Logan. Look at the athleticism No. 96 displays by avoiding the block then chasing the ball carrier down behind the line and pulling him down for the tackle for loss. Logan has turned into a monster up front, and the combination of him, Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox form one of the most formidable defensive fronts in the game.
Speaking of Cox ...
I know this play came back because of a defensive holding call downfield, but this is just silly for a 300-plus-pound man to come off the edge with that kind of velocity against a tackle. Jake Matthews stood no chance against Cox on this play, as the pocket collapses on Ryan and he fumbles the ball on what would have been an Eagles turnover if not for the flag. Cox had another sack on the day and he had a huge impact on the ground game as well against the Falcons. There's no reason why both Cox and Logan shouldn't be in the Pro Bowl at the end of this season.
Greg Cosell did a great job breaking down Kiko Alonso's spectacular interception in this week's All-22 Review after the game, where he explained exactly what the Falcons were looking to do from an offensive perspective in matching up Roddy White on Alonso. But what did things look like from an Eagles perspective? Let's take a closer look.
Down in the red zone, the Eagles played a form of 2-man coverage, with two high safeties and man coverage underneath. This version of 2-man that the Eagles are playing, though, is a fun one to watch, because who the two free "safeties" are at the start of the play aren't necessarily the free players at the end.
We'll start at the top of the screen, where Atlanta is running a simple smash concept with a corner route and a quick in-breaker. Malcolm Jenkins is lined up in the slot over the receiver running the corner route. Nolan Carroll is over the No. 1 receiver running the in-breaker. Walter Thurmond is the free safety near the goal line.
This is a great example of how team pass defense works. Watch as the three defenders - Jenkins, Carroll and Thurmond - play this concept. Carroll passes the in-breaking route off to the free player, Thurmond, inside. Carroll, in turn, becomes the free player, dropping off to play the corner route and taking away that throw. We know, though, that isn't where Ryan looked on this play. So let's look at the other side.
The Falcons are running a Flat-7 combination to the right (with the running back in the flat, and the tight end running a "7" or corner route), with White screaming at the post. This is where Alonso's athleticism comes into play.
In a spot that pretty much any linebacker would lose, Alonso is initially beaten on this play. However, Ryan slightly underthrowing this pass and Alonso makes a leaping, one-handed grab, a huge play for the Eagles' defense.
The Eagles' defense's first interception came from 2-man coverage. Let's look at the second pick, this time from Walter Thurmond in Cover 1 Robber.
Robber coverage is a simple concept. You've got man coverage underneath, a single high safety and a hole defender in the form of a second safety. More often than not, teams come out showing two high safeties before the snap, and roll a safety down underneath after the snap to help fool the quarterback. That's exactly what happened on this play.
White, again the target on this interception, was running a deep dig route. Ryan didn't see Thurmond laying in the weeds and pulls the trigger, delivering an interception to get the comeback started early in the second half.
One of the big mysteries entering the game against the Falcons concerned who would play in the slot in nickel situations. Would it be Nolan Carroll? Eric Rowe? E.J. Biggers? One of the safeties? The latter turned out to be the case, as Jenkins rotated down to play in the slot in nickel subpackages, with Chris Maragos entering the game as the team's third safety. A lot of fans are hung up on Jenkins' missed opportunities for interceptions. I think he'd be the first to admit that he should've finished better on the ball in those situations, but let's see what he brings to the table as the team's slot defender.
This is one of those aforementioned dropped interceptions, but lining up against Julio Jones, you can see Jenkins' ability to read routes, stay on top of receivers in the quick game and disrupt at the line of scrimmage. Jones slips, but Jenkins still did a good job staying in his hip pocket through the play and breaking on the ball, putting those instincts to good use.
We got to see another instinctive play from Jenkins late in the game. The Falcons called a shot play - a post-cross concept - with a deep vertical route at the post and a crossing route in the middle of the field at the intermediate level. This play is run specifically to put a player in Jenkins' position in a bind, but he reads this perfectly. Watch Jenkins read Ryan's posture, break on the ball and close in a hurry to break up the pass. This was a great play by Jenkins.
Byron Maxwell is catching a lot of heat in the media after a rough outing against Jones and the Falcons on Monday night. There were some plays where, as Chip Kelly put it on Tuesday, his technique was up and down, but a good bunch of those big gains from Atlanta came on plays where the Falcons utilized those "minus splits" that I explained last week.
When the Atlanta receivers line up so tight to the formation, the receiver essentially has a two-way go on the cornerback. With help in the middle of the field, and too much room between where he was lined up and the sideline, Maxwell had to play with outside leverage, funneling him inside in the general direction of his help. The downside of that is that you now have a receiver running full bore across the field, and the corner is stuck in trail position on his back side. This is a tough position for any corner to be in on any receiver, let alone against a physical talent like Julio Jones. Maxwell made some plays on the ball, including a key third-down stop in the middle of the game on Jones, so it wasn't all bad, but I have full confidence that he'll learn from this and rebound for next week.
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.<