The Eagles head to Atlanta Sunday night for a big test. Sure, the Falcons might be 0-1 and they are a team that Andy Reid has had little trouble with in his career, but this team is very talented and has Super Bowl aspirations of their own.
The Eagles can really put a dent in those hopes with a win. That would drop the Falcons to 0-2. Teams typically don't recover from a start like that and get to the Super Bowl without something crazy happening. Emmitt Smith ended his holdout back in 1993 and that propelled Dallas back to the Super Bowl after opening the season with two losses. The Falcons have no such savior in the waiting. A loss for them would be very discouraging.
I watched the Falcons' season opener, where they lost to Chicago 30-12. That was not a good showing by the Falcons. You know how sometimes the score doesn't show how close a game really was? That wasn't the case here. The Bears controlled the game right out of the gates. Atlanta's only touchdown was an interception return in the fourth quarter, when the Bears had one eye already on Week 2.
I'm not sure what happened. The Falcons went 13-3 last year. They added a couple of key pieces in receiver Julio Jones (high draft pick) and defensive end Ray Edwards (pricey free agent). Those moves were supposed to push Atlanta over the top. They sure didn't work out that way last week.
The goal on offense was to open up the passing attack. Anyone who watched the Falcons in the last couple of years could see the team's limitations. They were great when the game was close, but got in trouble if the other team built up a lead. The Falcons also struggled if the game looked like a shootout. They wanted to feed the ball to running back Michael Turner and control the flow of the game. Last season Atlanta lost to Green Bay in the playoffs, 48-21. The game wasn't even that close. The Falcons knew they had to change.
Right now, they are a mystery. Will the Eagles see Matt Ryan come out throwing? Will they see Turner get the ball over and over? I still think Atlanta is a run-based team. I know they want an improved passing attack, but I still don't see them becoming a Saints, Packers, or Eagles-type team that really throws the ball a lot. Sunday night will certainly give us another clue about what the Falcons do want to be.
Turner is up in the area where backs start to decline. He's 29 years old and has had more than 900 touches in the last three years (despite missing five games). He did break off a 53-yard run against the Bears, but was easily chased down by a defensive back. Turner can still move the chains, but he's not an impact back. You can see where feeding the ball to receivers like Roddy White, Jones and Harry Douglas, as well as tight end Tony Gonzalez, now makes a lot of sense.
No matter what Atlanta wants to do they will have to block the Eagles defensive line. No one has done that yet. The Eagles led the league in sacks during the preseason and then got five on opening day. Rams quarterback Sam Bradford took a pounding and was knocked out of the game. Ryan is a big, tough pocket passer. He needs a strong showing from his blockers. I think those matchups favor the Eagles. Trent Cole had two sacks against Atlanta last year. Jason Babin should be able to get by Tyson Clabo and pressure Ryan. On the inside, Cullen Jenkins will be facing a center and right guard who each started last week for the first time ever. Antonio Dixon gave the Falcons fits last year. I'm expecting big things from the defensive line on Sunday night.
Eagles fans want to know how the linebackers will fare against the Falcons' run game. The group was very up and down in the opener against the Rams. My hope is that a week of film study and practice will eliminate some of the issues. Moise Fokou must be more disciplined. He had some really good moments in the game. Casey Matthews needs to be more decisive and more physical. There were plays when he looked good. As he gets more familiar with things, his confidence will grow and he'll play better. Look for improvement.
The Eagles offense has been a tough matchup for the Falcons in recent years and I expect more of the same. Last week, Jay Cutler threw for 222 yards in the first half against Atlanta. There were some sizable holes in the secondary. You could argue that the group was just rusty, but the coaching staff is the same and most of the players are the same.
I think Jeremy Maclin and DeSean Jackson will be able to make some big plays and win their individual battles with the defensive backs. Michael Vick needs to be more efficient. Last week, he delivered enough big plays to beat the Rams. This week he needs to get the ball out quicker and more accurately. He was just off a bit on a handful of throws against the Rams. You could tell the timing of the passing game wasn't there due to the dysfunctional offseason. Vick got better as the game went along and should get off to a better start.
Vick does need protection. Last week, the offensive line did a fine job on plays when the Rams rushed just three or four guys. The blitz was a problem. There were assignment errors, both by linemen and by skill players who were helping out with blitz protection. The errors can be cleaned up in practice and the classroom. The challenge is getting different players to see the same thing and then interact accordingly, all in the few seconds that make up a play. Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg will build the game plan around protecting Vick.
Are there reasons to be nervous? Sure. The Falcons are a great home team. The Eagles' most recent trip to Atlanta came at a time when the Falcons were very banged up and Matt Ryan didn't play. The Eagles are aided by the fact that they just played in a dome on Sunday. They dealt with noise and communication problems and shouldn't be as affected by those issues this week. There were costly penalties on defense that extended drives and/or flipped the field. You don't want to help out a quarterback like Ryan. The Eagles need the sloppy play and big mistakes to stay in the past.
I'm looking forward to seeing what the Eagles can do. This isn't a defining game or anything like that, but it is a good test to see just where the Eagles are on the young 2011 season. I think we're going to like the answer.
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