So much for the suspense: Atlanta head coach Mike Smith has ruled Matt Ryan out for Sunday's game, meaning Chris Redman starts against the Eagles defense. Redman came off the sidelines and led the Falcons to a win over Tampa Bay and he'll enter the upcoming game with a week of practice under his belt and a lot of confidence to boot.
It is far too early to tell what the move means, other than the Falcons are without one of the more promising young quarterbacks in the NFL. Ryan demonstrated last year at Lincoln Financial Field how dangerous he is, how cerebral he plays and the big-play ability he has on every snap. Knowing that he is out and Redman is in gives the Eagles an opportunity to study solely on Redman, who completed 23 of 41 passes with two touchdowns on Sunday.
What wrinkles the introduce for the Falcons -- who are also likely to be without running back Michael Turner -- remains to be seen, but this much is obvious: The defense has many, many areas to improve, serious personnel issues to sort through, and another week of hoping that the health situation improves just enough to go out and win a football game on Sunday.
Sean McDermott's group came to life just in time against Washington to help secure a victory. Washington's offense, which has struggled for most of the season, converted 8 of its first 12 third-down opportunities before the Eagles shut down the Redskins in the final quarter of the game. It was an encouraging turnaround, and two Asante Samuel interceptions led to six Eagles points, but no matter who plays for Atlanta, the Eagles have a lot of work ahead to better the defense. Some of the key areas ...
1. IMPROVE THE PASS RUSHTrent Cole has been a beast and his 9 1/2 sacks and relentless pressure has been duly noted many times. You can't help but be impressed with Cole. He needs some help, though. The Eagles have just two sacks in the last two games, and while they have blitzed successfully at times to generate some pressure, they really aren't getting the kind of one-on-one pressure they need up front.
Victor Abiamiri has been quiet since his return from injury. Juqua Parker is giving great effort and has been close on several occasions, but his sack presence has dipped. Where is Darren Howard? He has been extremely quiet all season.
Maybe the most effective pass rusher beyond Cole is Jason Babin, who is playing with high energy and good quickness. Babin really has kept the energy level high when he has been on the field.
Inside, both Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley are banged up from a long season of physical play. They need to summon the energy and get some push. Same with Trevor Laws, who needs to emerge in his second season here. Antonio Dixon is making a push for more playing time and he could get it if the Falcons accentuate the run this week.
2. FIND AN ANSWER AT MIDDLE LINEBACKERThis is as patchwork an effort as you are going to find on any team this late in the season. The Eagles have not settled on a single player at middle linebacker. They are, apparently, keeping Will Witherspoon at the WILL position and are using Jeremiah Trotter and Joe Mays on a rotational basis at the MIKE position. Trotter took the majority of the snaps against Washington and is line to do the same this week. Akeem Jordan is trying to get back on the field after missing three games with a hyper-extended knee, and we won't really have an idea of how close he is until later in the week.
It is curious why the Eagles aren't moving Witherspoon to the middle, other than the answer that he is a "more natural" player on the weak side. The next question is what happens when Jordan returns to the lineup, something the Eagles can't answer until Jordan actually does get back on the field. Would Witherspoon then move to the MIKE position? Stay tuned.
Until then, Trotter and Mays will share time at middle linebacker. Witherspoon starts at WILL and Chris Gocong, whose one-game experiment at MIKE did not go well against San Diego, is the SAM linebacker. Witherspoon and Tracy White are the nickel linebackers.
What that means and how Atlanta plans to attack the linebackers and what the Eagles do to counter is part of a very intricate chess match leading into the game and all the way through four quarters on Sunday.
3. IMPROVING THE COVERAGE GAMERedman is going to throw the football to a pair of outstanding weapons on Sunday -- tight end Tony Gonzalez and wide receiver Roddy White. The Eagles have their hands full in this game, with or without Ryan at quarterback. Gonzalez is so big and so athletic and it is tough to see the Eagles matching up with him. White is a fantastic receiver who came into his own with Ryan at the helm last season.
Most concerning about the Eagles in coverage is the health of cornerback Sheldon Brown. He was clearly not himself against the Bears or the Redskins. The Eagles think another week of limited work in practice will get him closer to 100 percent.
The team also needs to look at its nickel cornerback situation. Macho Harris had a rough day against the Redskins. Is he the right cover man to play in the slot? Should the Eagles consider Dimitri Patterson or another young cornerback?
Beyond that, there are concerns about coverage in the red zone. If the team isn't getting enough pressure up front, the coverage takes the hit. And the Eagles took a lot of hits against Washington, particularly on third down. Redman has 19 career touchdowns and 10 career interceptions. He is a good quarterback who has a week to prepare and get a very good, long look at the Eagles' defensive schemes.
4. EFFECTIVENESS IN THE RED ZONEYou know how damaging the Eagles' offensive performance has been in the red zone and it is the same way for the Eagles defense. Philadelphia ranks 20th in the NFL in red-zone defense, and that just won't cut it. The Eagles must be more physical and must tackle better in the short area.
One of the keys to success in years past for this defense was its ability to limit teams to field goals in the red zone. The numbers this year say the red zone has been more of a problem than it has ever been. Solutions? Trust that Sean McDermott is working overtime trying to make it better.
So, really, knowing that Redman is starting on Sunday eliminates any of the uncertainty preparing for Atlanta. The Eagles will use the knowledge to study Redman as much as they possibly can. But they are studying the system and the rest of the offense just as much as they are studying the quarterback. And the coaches are looking inward-out to make it better for this defense.
You win down the stretch with defense, as the Eagles have done in the past. Is this group up to the task? Sunday is a great test to find out where the defense stands as December begins.