Sizing up Sunday’s game between the Eagles (3-2) and Atlanta Falcons (4-1) at Lincoln Financial Field.
When the Eagles Have the Ball
Mike Vick would love to play against his former team and he dropped hints that he might (“Don’t count me out,” he said this week), but given his rib cartilage injury, Vick will be relegated to either backup or emergency QB duties this week. Even a Wildcat role would be a stretch. It seems foolish to risk further damage by rushing him back.
Kevin Kolb practiced with the first unit all week and is expected to make his second consecutive start at QB. Last Sunday, Kolb played much better in the 27-24 win over San Francisco, completing 21 of 31 passes for 253 yards. Clearly Kolb benefitted by having a full week of preparation and will again this week. He threw the ball better, threw it down the field more often and ran the offense more efficiently despite playing behind a patchwork line.
Kolb was very good in the first half (12-of-14) but had problems in the second half (two for eight on third down conversions) as the 49ers exploited King Dunlap at left tackle replacing the injured Jason Peters. Dunlap was beaten for three sacks and Kolb reverted to a bad habit: dropping his eyes and looking for the rush instead of keeping his focus down the field. He had two or three shots at big plays with receivers coming open, but he didn’t see them because he was looking for an escape route in the pocket.
That is the challenge Kolb will face this week with Peters still sidelined and the 6-9, 330-pound Dunlap slated to start at tackle. Dunlap will be matched against Atlanta’s best pass rusher, John Abraham, who has four sacks. Abraham has an explosive first step and will give Dunlap fits if the Eagles put him out there one-on-one. Abraham tore up Cleveland’s Joe Thomas, a quality tackle, last week so it is scary to think what he might do to Dunlap.
Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg have to devise a plan to give Dunlap some help, especially in passing situations. The easy solution is to keep the tight end in to double-team, but the Eagles need Brent Celek in the passing game so they can’t tie him up as a blocker. They will probably mix it up, using Celek sometimes, Garrett Mills other times and fullback Owen Schmitt also taking a turn. But one way or another, they have to give Dunlap help or else the blindside could become a landslide.
The Eagles aren’t in great shape on the other side of the line either. Max Jean-Gilles started at right guard against the 49ers and again was ineffective. Even with his weight loss, he still isn’t quick enough to get good blocking angles or get to the second level. That’s why Takeo Spikes, who doesn’t make a lot of plays anymore, had eight solo tackles. The Eagles never got a body on him all night.
Like the Eagles, the Falcons have a smallish defense that is built for speed. They have two quick tackles, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux, who attack the gaps and put pressure on the center. Mike McGlynn (who played well against the 49ers) will be a key player for the Eagles in this game making the line calls and double-teaming inside.
Curtis Lofton is a tackling machine at middle linebacker and Sean Weatherspoon is playing well as a rookie on the weak side. The addition of free agent cornerback Dunta Robinson, formerly of Houston, has solidified the secondary. The Falcons are ranked 19th against the pass, which doesn’t sound great, but they lead the league with 10 interceptions in five games.
The Eagles should have opportunities to hit big plays to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. The Falcons don’t play both safeties deep the way Washington and the 49ers did. The Falcons walk strong safety William Moore up to the line and let him read and react. If he reads run, he attacks the football. If he reads pass, he drops into coverage. A good play-action fake could set up a deep shot to either Jackson or Maclin on Moore’s side.
Reid had good balance in his play-calling last week (31 passes, 27 runs) and needs to stay with it Sunday. He can’t get into a heavy passing mode with Dunlap struggling to protect. He has to make Abraham play the run and with LeSean McCoy averaging better than five yards a carry, he has an effective (if damaged) weapon to do it.
When the Falcons Have the Ball
The Falcons pose a problem because they are so well-balanced on offense. They are known as a power run-based offense and the numbers bear that out (they are second in the NFL in rushing), but they can also make big plays in the passing game.
Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey operates primarily out of power formations, which appear simple, but he also puts receivers in motion and creates mismatches for defenses geared to stop the run. He is becoming more aggressive in his play-calling as quarterback Matt Ryan, the Philly native now in his third season, continues to mature.
The Falcons have two good backs, Michael Turner and Jason Snelling, and both are off to strong starts. Turner has 93 carries for 421 yards, a 4.5 yard average, and is coming off a big game against Cleveland (140 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown). Snelling has 53 carries for 244 yards, a 4.6 yard average.
The Eagles run defense was better last Sunday. Antonio Dixon played more snaps at tackle in place of Brodrick Bunkley and he did a good job in shutting down Frank Gore.
Ryan, the Penn Charter alum, is completing 61.6 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns. His favorite receiver is Roddy White with 37 catches, second only to Reggie Wayne of Indianapolis. White has been mostly a short range target – he had his first catch of more than 25 yards last week, a 45-yard touchdown – but he is productive on third down. His 11 third-down receptions lead the NFL.
Michael Jenkins, the Falcons No. 2 receiver, is expected back for this game after being sidelined with a shoulder injury. That will allow the Falcons to move Harry Douglas back to the slot which makes the offense even deeper.
The most worrisome matchup for the Eagles is tight end Tony Gonzalez. Given the problems the Eagles had covering Chris Cooley of Washington and Vernon Davis of the 49ers, you have to wonder how defensive coordinator Sean McDermott will deal with the 6-5, 250-pound Gonzalez. At 34, he isn’t the deep threat he once was, but he is effective on underneath routes (24 catches, 246 yards) and he is an underrated blocker.
Atlanta’s offensive line doesn’t have any big names, but it plays well as a unit. Todd McClure anchors the line at center. Left tackle Sam Baker is a finesse player who has trouble with speed rushing ends like the Eagles’ Trent Cole. That is a matchup the Eagles need to win. Right tackle Tyson Clabo is a nasty 6-6, 320-pound road grader who will outweigh rookie Brandon Graham by 50 pounds which will be a problem for the Eagles when the Falcons run the football.
If the Falcons have trouble in pass protection – the Eagles have 15 sacks with Juqua Parker (four) leading the way – Mularkey will use short drops and quick throws and Ryan is very good at finding the hot receiver. The return of cornerback Asante Samuel will help the pass coverage if not the run defense.
When Bobby April joined the Eagles coaching staff, he was hailed as a special teams guru. Five weeks into the season, folks want to know: when he will start guru-ing? The Eagles punt coverage team ranks 27th in the league. The kickoff team ranks 21st and it almost blew Sunday’s game against San Francisco, allowing Ted Ginn, Jr. to average 36.2 yards on five returns.
Kicker David Akers is fine (six for seven on FG attempts) and punter Sav Rocca is punting very well (47 yard average), but the return teams and coverage teams have been a problem. The Eagles are losing yardage on every change of possession and that puts a strain on the offense and defense. So is it the fault of the coach or the players? Bobby April is doing the same things he has always done. His scheme is sound. The players simply aren’t getting it done.
Focus on the kickoffs. The Eagles did a good job on punt coverage. Ginn had two returns for 9 yards with one fair catch. But the kickoff coverage? Yikes!!! Special teams are a mess. They are getting little from their returners – Jackson is averaging 8.0 yards on punts and Ellis Hobbs is averaging 23.7 on kickoffs – and they are being gashed by returners from other teams.
49ers Ted Ginn, Jr., had five returns for 181 yards, a 36.2 yard average, on Sunday. He broke a 61-yard runback late in the game that could have cost the Eagles the win. This week the Eagles traded Mike Bell, whose lackadaisical effort was a contributing factor to the long Ginn return. Was it a message sent to the rest of the special teamers that jobs were on the line? Maybe. It also improves the rushing attack behind the very injured Shady McCoy.
The Falcons have their own special teams’ issues. They allowed a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown in their Week 3 game at New Orleans and against San Francisco, they had a punt blocked for a touchdown. They managed to win both games, but those plays made it tougher than it should have been. Atlanta punt coverage team actually ranks lower (31st) than the Eagles (27th). They have a good return man in Eric Weems who is averaging 12.8 yards on punts and 24.4 yards on kickoffs. Punter Michael Koenen ranks 30th in the league. Placekicker Matt Bryant is the same Matt Bryant who beat the Eagles with a 62-yard field goal in 2006.
The Falcons have a four-game winning streak, longest in the league, but they needed a strip and a fumble recovery to beat the 49ers and they needed a TD return of an INT to nail down a win over the sad sack Cleveland Browns last week, so some still don’t see them as a legit contender.
Despite their record, the Falcons are underdogs in this game, so coach Mike Smith will probably use the no-respect angle for motivation. This is a huge game for the Falcons. Their next three games – and four of the next five – are at home so if the Falcons can beat the Eagles and get to 5-1, they will be in great shape.
The Falcons have not forgotten how the Eagles embarrassed them in Atlanta last season, beating them 34-7 when they were without Ryan and Turner. The Eagles rubbed it in by putting Vick in the fourth quarter to run wild in garbage time. The Falcons didn’t appreciate that.
The Eagles have dominated the series, winning the last three meetings and seven of the last eight. The Falcons have never won in Lincoln Financial Field (0-3, including the 2005 NFC Championship Game) and they haven’t beaten the Eagles in Philadelphia since 1988.
The Falcons have been living on the edge and the Eagles are due to win at home.
Eagles 23, Falcons 20.
About the Author
Written by Christopher Rowe
Contributing writer Comcast Sports, NY Times contributing stringer 1996-2000, Contributing writer Yahoo Sports (2001 World Series). Contributing writer Newsday Long Island (1992-1994, Jets Training Camp) and Newak Star Ledger. Freelance Copywriter, Editor/Founder Atlantic Times Weekly (1993-2003) fantasy football magazine, produced screenwriter and general humorist. Hofstra University grad, Marist College honorary alum, Salesian; Purveyor of the Value and Valor of Philadelphia Eagles 1960 NFL Championship; Adrent believer that Eagles could have won Super Bowl XV...and Super Bowl XXXIX...plus modern decade of Eagles 5 NFC Championships... Believer in the Broad Street Bullies and the 1983 Sixers... Witness to Philadelphia Phillies World Series championships 1980 & 2008, Suffered Phillies first pro sports team to reach 10,000 losses,witnessed "1980 Cardiac Kids," 1983 "Wheeze Kids," 1993 "Macho Row" and many, many, many not-so-memorable seasons in-between... until the Philadelphia Baseball Renaissance of 21st Century, Five NL East division titles 2007-2011, 3 NLCS appearances 2008-2010, 2 consecutive World Series berths 2008 & 2009. 2008 World Champions of baseball [miss ya Harry and Richie]; "collector" of MLB ballparks (42 stadiums including 15 which are gone); Fantasy Football & Baseball player since 1992. Always a sports fan... Tenui Nec Dimittam Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org