It’s the run, first.
As the Eagles get their game plan in order for Sunday night’s game in Atlanta against a high-flying Falcons passing game, the first focus is on the running game. That’s, honestly, the way it always is for this defense, a common theme in the Jim Schwartz era – and probably for many years prior to that.
The thinking is this: If you can stop the running game and turn an offense one-dimensional, you have created an advantage. You can turn loose your pass rush and dictate to the offense.
So, while the Eagles have all the respect in the world for Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan and his impressive receiving corps headed by superstar Julio Jones and second-year ascending standout Calvin Ridley and one of the better tight ends in the game in Austin Hooper, the running game is what makes it go for the Falcons. On Sunday, in a 28-12 loss to Minnesota, Atlanta’s running game didn’t go, and the result was that the Falcons’ offense was stymied.
Devonta Freeman gained just 19 yards on eight rushing attempts. The rest of the offense followed that lack of production. Ryan was sacked four times and intercepted twice. Minnesota dominated.
The Eagles hope to follow that blueprint on Sunday night.
“I think the challenge is their run game,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said on Tuesday at the NovaCare Complex, “being balanced enough with Freeman out of the backfield and they make you respect the run and all of a sudden those lanes behind the backers (linebackers) start opening up. They’ve got a bunch of different ways to pass the ball. You’ll see them in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends) all the way to 10 personnel (one running back, no tight ends) and obviously they move Julio Jones around a lot, get him the ball in a lot of different ways, and that creates a challenge as well.”
Another week, another challenge. The Eagles gave up two big pass-play touchdowns and 20 first-half points to a Washington offense on Sunday that lacked explosiveness. On Sunday night, they enter the Mercedes-Benz Dome against an angry offense smarting at its lack of production in Week 1.
Does one week have another to do with the next week? Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz thinks it could actually have a positive impact. The Eagles, he said, know they have a lot to work on after a down, and then up, first-game performance, and they’re going to have to do it without tackle Malik Jackson, who went on the Injured Reserve list on Tuesday with a foot injury suffered late in the win.
“Everybody always likes to have those games where everything's going right and you're doing the Electric Slide (dance) and everybody's into it and it feels great, but sometimes long-term it's better to have a game like we had and to look bad in the first half and to get booed off the field – and we deserved that. I would have been booing too,” Schwartz said at his Tuesday press conference. “But it was interesting, because we just weren't playing good. It wasn't anything that we needed to particularly address, it wasn't really a whole lot of changes we made.
“We really didn't make a ton of changes at halftime; the guys just came out with more resolve and they played the way that they can. We got third-down stops, we played tight coverage, stopped the run, forced some penalties – like I said our pass rush wasn't the greatest as far as sacks and things like that, but we forced a lot of holding penalties which stopped the drives or put the offense or their offense in some tough positions. We just have to get to where we're coming out and playing that way. No excuses, we didn't start that game the way we needed to.”
Let’s make this perfectly clear, and it’s a consistent theme across the NFL: Teams are still learning about themselves through these early weeks of the season. This Eagles defense, for example, hasn’t been together long enough to find its groove. Cornerback Ronald Darby, linebacker Nigel Bradham, and linemen Derek Barnett and Fletcher Cox didn’t play a down in the four preseason games. While all four have familiarity with the defense, they still had some rust to knock off in the opener.
There’s a lot to watch with the matchup on Sunday night. Schwartz admitted that he needs his secondary to cover better than they did against Washington against a vastly superior receiving group. How the Eagles attack Atlanta’s offensive line – under fire after the poor performance in Minnesota and now without starting guard and first-round pick Chris Lindstrom – is something to monitor.
Sunday night, then, represents another learning opportunity and a chance to play 60 good minutes of football. The Eagles want to start fast on defense, get some three-and-outs, and silence the crowd. They want the offense to get off quickly and get on the scoreboard and turn Atlanta into a catch-up team.
“Get up on them early and everything changes,” Jenkins said. “That’s always been the case.”
So, too, has making the run defense the first priority. Not the only one, mind you, but the first. It remains a top key heading into Atlanta against a Falcons offense looking to get the bad taste of Sunday’s loss out of its mouth.