All week, the talk has been about the players who touch the football. Carson Wentz, what does he do for an encore after throwing three touchdown passes to help defeat Washington? DeSean Jackson … what's next after a scintillating (re-) debut with the Eagles? How can the defense contain explosive Falcons wide receivers Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley?
The storylines are valid. The matchups are real, and they're spectacular (I feel like I use that line too much, but I love it!).
But the real story for Sunday night (8:20 p.m., NBC) is what happens at the line of scrimmage. This isn't a revelation, because it's been a theme for many years with an Eagles team that invests heavily season after season in offensive and defensive linemen.
Instead, it's a reminder that while the linemen in this great game's history have had some unflattering nicknames through the years (The Hogs, The Big Uglies, to name two), everyone who knows the game understands the importance of winning at the line of scrimmage.
And the Eagles have to win there to win on the perimeter. Those who have inquired as to the relative success the defense has had, for example, in the last few meetings against Atlanta's prolific quarterback Matt Ryan and the superstar Jones, inevitably point back to the way the Eagles' defensive line has A) Stifled Atlanta's varied and prolific running game; and B) Put relentless pressure on Ryan.
Do that and, hey, you're going to have success against every offense.
"It may not look pretty but we know how important it is that we control the line of scrimmage," defensive tackle Tim Jernigan said. "That's our job. We have to stop them from doing what they want to do. You let an offensive line get it going on the ground, then they have you on your heels. We want to do that to them."
That's the plan for the defense, which is always in attack, downhill mode. Atlanta's offensive line was a major point of emphasis in the offseason as the team used its two first-round draft picks there. Both draft picks started in the opener last Sunday at Minnesota, but right guard Chris Lindstrom suffered a broken foot in the game and went on Injured Reserve this week and right tackle Kaleb McGary, who started in the opener as well, is still working his way back to 100 percent after undergoing a heart procedure on July 31.
Minnesota sacked Ryan four times in the opener, hit him another seven times, and forced Ryan into a pair of interceptions.
"That's ideal," defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. "You want to pressure the quarterback and get him off his spot. Hit him. Get to him. No quarterback likes to be hit."
On the other side of the football, Atlanta gave up 172 Vikings rushing yards as Minnesota averaged 4.5 yards per carry. The Falcons sacked quarterback Kirk Cousins just one time. And while the Vikings gained only 269 total net yards, they converted 5 of 10 third downs and generally pushed Atlanta around.
Minnesota won the line of scrimmage and won the game.
"It's always on us, I feel," right tackle Lane Johnson said. "If we don't do our jobs, the offense isn't going to function the way we want. I think it's a pretty simple game that way."
Simple, yes. Pretty, no. The Eagles head into Atlanta fully healthy along the offensive line with right guard Brandon Brooks good to go in his second game back from the Achilles tendon injury. There is no limit to his number of snaps. The Eagles match up well against Atlanta, a team that has a dominating player in Grady Jarrett at defensive tackle and good pop off the edges. The linebackers are fast and play downhill. It's a very good defense.
On the other side of the ball, Jernigan steps in for the injured Malik Jackson (foot) and newly added Akeem Spence is on board in the defensive rotation. The Eagles need to get more pressure on Ryan than they put on Washington quarterback Case Keenum last week, so watching Derek Barnett against left tackle Jake Matthews and Brandon Graham against McGary is where the game will be won and lost.
"They don't want us in Ryan's face, so they're going to do things to get the ball out of his hands and into their receivers' hands," Graham said. "It's a chess match. We have to get after them, like we always try to do."
It boils down to the big boys on Sunday night. Hogs. Uglies. No matter. They're beautiful to watch when it all works the right way. And for the Eagles to win a big early-season game on the road, against an NFC playoff contender, they have to own the line of scrimmage, plain and simple.