January 13, 2018

First half observations: Falcons 10, Eagles 9

Eagles NFL
011318-JayAjayi-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia Eagles running back Jay Ajayi runs the ball against Atlanta Falcons middle linebacker Deion Jones during the first quarter in the NFC Divisional playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field.

If you want the silver lining, the Eagles played terribly and go into halftime down by a single point. Nobody wants to hear about silver linings when you're losing a home playoff game, though, and the Eagles killed themselves with silly mistakes against the Falcons.

There's still 30 minutes of football left, but if they can't take care of the ball or execute when it matters on offense, don't expect this 10-9 scoreline to change all that much in the second half.

The Good

• Aside from the fumble on the opening series — and we can't just throw that out, it's an extremely costly play — Jay Ajayi ran like a man possessed in the first half. Part of that success is just having Pederson's trust to handle the rock because it would have been easy to go away from him after the first-quarter turnover.

But Pederson stuck with his guy, and Ajayi gashed the Falcons in the first half. He had eight touches in the first quarter alone, almost half of the high mark he has hit in a full game for the Eagles prior to Saturday. Pederson came in with a smashmouth mindset, and he was rewarded by the early play of his bell-cow back.

In fact, if there was one major positive takeaway from the first half, it was the return of a more creative Pederson. Faced with a critical third-and-three in Falcons territory, Pederson designed a run play for Nelson Agholor, who got separation on the edge and came within a few yards of punching it in for a touchdown.

For a coach in his first ever playoff game as the head honcho, Pederson impressed me a ton in the first half. The Eagles took deep shots, drew up some great gadget plays and committed to running the ball rather than overthinking things. Regardless of the final outcome, Eagles fans should come away even more confident in their coach moving forward.

• "Big Balls Doug" did not back down under the playoff spotlight. It's a lot easier to go for it on fourth down in a regular season game against hapless teams like the Chicago Bears, and much more difficult to make the call with your season on the line.

Yet Pederson didn't blink on his first big decision of the evening, and LeGarrette Blount punched it in from a yard out to give the Eagles their first lead midway through the second quarter.

Aggressiveness is a core part of this team's philosophy, and Pederson made sure that continued to be the case in January. Well done, coach.

• As difficult as the offense made it for them early on, the defense did their best to hold the line against a Falcons team capable of running up the score early. Jim Schwartz's guys came out with a bend, don't break strategy and did not allow the Falcons' talented wideouts to beat them down the field.

In fact, the Eagles lined up in a way that outlined how they wanted the Falcons to attack them. They ran "dime" coverage on several different running downs as if goading Atlanta into pounding the rock. They mostly obliged, and the Eagles' defensive line got the job done up front.

The Bad

• Philadelphia had the crowd roaring behind them and the ball to start the game. What transpired in the first two plays following the opening kickoff activated all the worst fears of the fanbase leading into the game.

He ended up drawing a pass interference penalty with the throw, but Nick Foles threw the most blatant wounded duck I think I've ever seen on the first play from scrimmage. The Eagles ended up moving 40 yards down the field on the play, but the city was already groaning about how Foles looked.

On the very next play, the Eagles decided to pound the ball up the middle with Jay Ajayi. It didn't look like a terrible move until, you know, the play was actually run and Ajayi put the ball on the turf. If you wanted to take the crowd out of the game quickly, it would have been harder to draw up a more effective way of doing so than the way the Eagles started.

• Jake Elliot's up-and-down ride continued on Saturday, with the rookie kicker missing what could be a critical extra point in the second quarter. We've talked for months about how those plays on the margins can make or break a playoff game, and we'll get to put that theory to the test today. The rookie has to do better.

• Speaking of doing better, the special teams unit did not exactly drape themselves in glory in the first half. After building some momentum and getting another stop on defense, the Eagles were set to get the ball back. But an Atlanta punt into the wind turned into complete chaos, with a weird bounce taking the ball off of Bryan Braman, who was too engaged with a block to notice.

It ended up costing the Eagles seven points after Atlanta used a couple bogus penalties to extend the drive and score on a broken third-down play. It's difficult to win any football game if you lose the turnover battle, and the Eagles are trending in the wrong direction through half one.

• Foles' accuracy wasn't completely terrible in the first half, but a lot of that comes down to play design. Pederson asked his signal-caller to do very little other than dump the ball off to his running backs, masking what was a pretty poor half from the quarterback.

Whenever the Eagles needed him to step up and make a throw on third down, Foles proved incapable of doing so. He took a critical sack on third down in the first quarter, dragging the Eagles far out of field-goal range, and missed an open Trey Burton with time winding down in the first half. Any time he had a chance to make a difference-making throw, he came up small.

And with the Eagles trying to move the ball down the field quickly in the final two minutes of the half, Foles showed all the urgency of a Galapagos tortoise, and nearly threw a ridiculous interception at midfield in the process.

He's had weeks to prepare — and really, a whole season to grasp the playbook — so all the excuses about being a backup quarterback don't cut it for me. Foles needs to come out and actually think about throwing to his outside weapons in the second half, because dinking and dunking won't get it done.

The Ugly

• After the Eagles turned the ball over on their opening possession, Atlanta marched down the field into Philadelphia's red zone. On a pivotal third-down play, they got a stop and forced the Falcons to kick a field goal following a dropped pass. Or was it?

See, NBC never showed a replay of the drop on TV, while many in the stadium believed it was a potential catch-and-fumble, which could have taken points off the board for the Falcons. I would love to weigh in on whether Pederson should have challenged it or not, but since the broadcast crew apparently thought it was more valuable to talk about Matt Bryant than show a game-changing play, there's no way for most of us to know what actually happened.

• The Eagles had two weeks to prepare for this game. Basic mistakes like these should not and cannot happen:

"Lack of preparation" tends to be a thing outsiders will put on the coaching staff, but this isn't a blown assignment, bad playcalling or something the guys with the clipboards can change. It's just a straight-up botch from the backup QB who is supposed to be reliable, and the veteran RB you're supposed to be able to trust.

• I think I'm more concerned about player safety than the vast majority of people who follow football. But this was an absolutely ridiculous call, and if this is going to draw a flag then it's going to be difficult to actually play football moving forward.

Rodney McLeod does absolutely everything you'd ask a defender to do in this situation from both a competitive and player safety perspective, and he still ends up drawing the 15-yard penalty. When you can't avoid being penalized despite making a great effort to make the "right" play, you sort of just have to throw your arms toward the sky and shrug.