Sunday night was a tough loss from a fan’s perspective because the Eagles were THIS close to snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. There were a handful of plays that the team can look at in all three phases and wonder "what if." Most NFL games are this way, especially when they’re decided by just one score.
The Eagles dealt with multiple forms of adversity in this game and found a way to overcome them. It was a hostile environment on the road against a battle-tested team in its home opener coming off an ugly loss to start the season. The Falcons knew they could not start 0-2. Atlanta had good a game plan and executed it well. Injuries mounted up, causing the offensive staff to rip up most of the game plan and start changing things on the fly to account for the changes in personnel. There were turnovers, sloppy play in all three phases, and an Atlanta team that had talent and took control of the early momentum.
Most teams, in that scenario, would have folded, particularly in the third quarter.
The Eagles didn’t, and they took Atlanta to the brink in this game. That was my biggest takeaway as I prepared to jump on-set for the Postgame Show presented by Ricoh late on Sunday night. This team didn’t quit, and its resiliency showed up on film. That winner’s mentality impressed me in this game.
In today’s piece, I’m going to focus on the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons started this game on offense, and right from the jump offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter had his unit ready with plays designed specifically to attack the Eagles’ aggressiveness. Most teams utilize these kinds of plays, that wasn’t new, but the execution and timing of the play calls were great. That helped put Atlanta in position to succeed.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
On the Falcons' opening drive, there were quick throws, "bang" play-action plays, screens, misdirection concepts; all meant to keep Matt Ryan upright and negate the Eagles’ pass rush. After watching the whole game, I wanted to go back and chart exactly what the Falcons did from a game-plan standpoint in their passing game. Here’s what I came up with off of Ryan’s 46 dropbacks.
|Quick Game||26 out of 46||151||12-of-25 (48%)||1 Sack, 1 TD, 3 INTs|
|Screen||7||102||7-of-7 (100%)||1 TD|
|RPO||4||37||4-of-4 (100%)||1 TD|
|Play-Action (Quick)||3||28||3-of-3 (100%)|
|Max Protection||3||-3||1-of-3 (33%)||1 QB Scramble|
|5-Step||2||0||0-of-1 (0%)||1 Holding Penalty|
What does this chart tell me? The Falcons had a game plan, and executed it at a high level. They hit on their schemed-up plays. Matt Ryan was 7-of-7 on screens (only two of which went to running backs), he was 4-of-4 on Run Pass Option (RPO) plays. Clearly, they wanted to rely on the quick game (whether it was under center or from the shotgun), so that Ryan could get the ball out quickly. The Eagles did a lot to limit the effectiveness of those plays. That’s where blitzes come into play, where the ball comes out earlier than the offense wants and throws are off target. Fletcher Cox nearly came away with an interception in the quick game on a zone exchange blitz. One blitz got home for a sack, and they had a number of pressures as well (Derek Barnett, Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, and Josh Sweat all got their hands on Ryan as he was delivering the ball to help force incompletions or interceptions).
People are quick to knock a defense when the rush isn’t getting home, but sometimes you have to give a tip of the cap to the opposing offense. The Eagles held Ryan to less than 50 percent completions in their quick-game throws, forced three interceptions (pressure was a factor in all three), and held an offense with explosive wideouts to 20 points (with one touchdown coming on a short field after a fumbled kickoff return). Sacks are important, but they can be finicky as well. A team can have a fine day getting after the quarterback without it showing up in the stat sheet.
The big theme coming away from the game, however, was the Eagles use of the blitz. Jim Schwartz is not typically known as a heavy blitzer, but sending extra defenders helped to disrupt the timing of those concepts.
The extra pressure forced Ryan to get rid of the ball a bit earlier than he would have liked to on those shots above. This caused errant throws, incompletions, and, in some cases, turnovers.
When it was all said and done, the Eagles blitzed Ryan 12 times on dropbacks. Ryan was 5-of-11, with one interception, a sack, and the Julio Jones touchdown to win the game. That's the double-edged sword that is blitzing in today’s NFL. More often than not, however, these tactics were effective for Schwartz’s unit against the Falcons.
After losing Malik Jackson in Week 1, the Eagles suffered another injury at defensive tackle with Tim Jernigan going down against Atlanta. In my mind, this will increase reps for two of the younger players on the Eagles’ front in tackle Hassan Ridgeway and end Josh Sweat. Here’s what I saw from both players last week against Atlanta, starting with Ridgeway.
From the very first time I saw Ridgeway in this scheme, the first thing that stood out was his get-off. This kid flies off the ball, and his ability to get from Point A to Point B in a flash is surely what attracted the Eagles’ pro scouts before the team traded for him in the spring. The fourth-year pro fires out of his stance against both the run and the pass and looks to wreak immediate havoc on the other side of the line. While he’s not the one finishing, he’s creating opportunities for others and helping to disrupt the flow of the offensive play call.
In a lot of ways, Sweat is similar to Ridgeway with his ability to get off the ball, his physical tools, and ability to disrupt plays in the backfield. The second-year defensive end was a raw pass rusher a year ago coming out of Florida State, but has continually developed his repertoire of moves. He has incrementally improved every step along the way this offseason. Sweat earned some reps inside in some subpackages. As the Eagles rely on more end-heavy looks on passing downs, Sweat will only see increased snaps on defense.
Here are a couple of plays where you can see both Ridgeway and Sweat making plays and disrupting the action behind the line of scrimmage. Again, the numbers may not always show it, but as the saying goes, "disruption is production." These guys fly upfield, play with good energy, can defend the run, and get after the quarterback. They have done a solid job over the first couple of weeks in limited snaps. Hopefully, they are ready for the challenge with more work on the horizon.
The last player I wanted to focus on in this game was Sidney Jones. Schwartz brought up Jones’ tackling and competitiveness in this game in his Tuesday press conference. It just so happens that I pulled all of those snaps before the press conference in hopes of sharing them with you.
Jones got after it on Sunday night, showing the same fierce competitiveness downhill that made DB coaches all over the NFL salivate when he was coming out of Washington in 2017. The best corners in the NFL have to be able to come down and be a factor as a tackler, particularly in the league we live in now with the advent of bubble screens, jet sweeps, and other horizontal concepts meant to get the ball out quickly. Jones was rewarded for that performance with an interception, the first of his career. I’m excited to see how he builds on this performance moving forward.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show 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 the Journey 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.