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September 15, 2015

5 reasons - other than Parkey's missed FG - why Eagles lost to Falcons

Eagles NFL
091515_jonesmaxwell_ap John Bazemore/AP

Julio Jones beats Byron Maxwell for the touchdown.

Much of the conversation following the Eagles' 26-24 loss to the Falcons has been centered around Chip Kelly's decision to kick on 4th and 1 late in the game. 

Was it the right call? Hard to say. Could the outcome have been different if they went for it? Absolutely, but that's hardly a guarantee. And playing the result is never really fair. Not to Kelly. Not to Cody Parkey. Not to anyone on the Eagles. 

By ripping Kelly, his kicker or both, one is assuming that Eagles would've picked up the first down, scored a go-ahead field goal or touchdown and won the game. But that's hardly the only possible outcome. They could've picked up the first down and turned the ball over on the very next play. Then we'd all be ripping Chip for not kicking and taking the "easy points" -- and knowing what we do now, those points weren't so easy.

The point is, whenever we decide to single out a coach's decision for potentially changing the outcome of a game, we automatically assume that things would have worked out perfectly had he just picked the other option. (Pete Carroll knows what I'm talking about.)

Worse yet, we often try to isolate the play in question, making it the sole reason for why the game was won or lost. Basically, we ignore everything that came before and after. Kelly's decision to kick on 4th and 1 -- no matter the outcome -- isn't the reason the Eagles lost their season opener. Far from it.

Here are five other reasons the Eagles are now 0-1, all of which contributed to the loss as much as -- if not more than -- Kelly's decision and Parkey's ensuing miss:

Falling behind early

To say the Eagles got off to a slow start against the Falcons would be an understatement. After Sam Bradford and the offense torched the Packers first-team defense in the third preseason game, many were expecting much of the same against an Atlanta D that allowed more yards than any other team last season.

Instead, the Eagles managed just two first downs on their four first-quarter drives. Bradford and his receivers looked out of sync, something Chip chalked up to "wrong routes" and "timing issues" -- none of which he blamed on his QB. Newly acquired and highly-paid running back DeMarco Murray had four carries for negative-seven yards after the first 15 minutes. And had it not been for a ridiculous, one-handed interception from Kiko Alonso, the Eagles could have found themselves in an even deeper hole.

Then, trailing 13-3 late in the first half, Bradford threw an interception that gave the Falcons the ball inside the Eagles' 30-yard line. They'd go up 20-3 on Julio Jones' second TD of the quarter (more on him in a bit).

Playing from behind has not been a strength of the Eagles in Kelly's two-plus seasons at the helm, although they did trail Jacksonville by 17 points at halftime of last season's opener.

But unlike last season, this was a road game. And the Falcons, despite their sub-.500 record the last two seasons, are not the Jacksonville Jaguars.

On Tuesday, Kelly said he didn't think his team came out flat, but rather it was little mistakes here and there that added up quickly in the first half.

"I think our mental attitude was there," Kelly said. "It breaks down on each individual play as a missed block. We had a sweep, missed a down block, got a holding call. Had a screen pass – we're supposed to cloud the coverage over there, didn't do it. Just one or two guys just making a mistake on a play puts you where you end up just short. 

"We complete a pass, but it's a gain of five [when we needed six]. So it's 4th and 1 and we've got to punt the ball because we're on the negative side of the field. So it's just kind of a combination of just trying to hit our stride and get going on a few things."

If they start Sunday's game against the Cowboys the same way, you can be sure the sellout crowd at the Linc will let the Eagles coach know just how unhappy they are.

Too many penalties

Every time the Eagles seemed to make a big play in a spot when they needed it, it seemed like a yellow flag wasn't far behind. 

At times, they were able to score in spite of this, like on their 95-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. On that drive alone, the Eagles overcame four penalties that cost them 30 yards and negated another 60 yards gained on the penalized plays. In essence, it was a 185-yard touchdown drive.

"If you break that game down very simply, we look at it as a coaching staff, first and foremost the thing that jumps out is penalties," Kelly said when asked what jumped out to him on film. "We had seven penalties on the offensive side of the ball that negated – not only did we lose 60 yards, but we negated 98 yards gained. We had a 29 yarder called back, a 25 yarder called back, a 14 yarder called back, a 7 yarder called back, a 9 yarder called back.  

"You can't do that, especially when you're the away team. A team that plays that well at home and you hurt yourself so you negate 98 yards gained. I mean, [if] we don't have a penalty on the screen pass, the ball is on the 10‑yard line."

So why all the penalties?

"It was different things," Kelly said. "We had an offensive pass interference. We had a hold inside on a screen pass.  We had another on a down block. So it wasn't a consistent pattern. It's not always one penalty that's coming up, but again it's everybody doing their job. Some of the penalties in the holding standpoint, we're in proper position, but we stop our feet.  We stop our feet and then we have to grab and hold on. So we have to run through blocks whether it's at the perimeter or on the inside."

But it wasn't just offensive penalties that hurt the Eagles. 

Remember that Bradford interception that I mentioned earlier? The one deep in Eagles' territory that set up a Matt-Ryan-to-Julio-Jones TD just before halftime? On the play before that, the Eagles line, specifically Fletcher Cox, got to Ryan and forced him to fumble the football, which was recovered by the Eagles. It didn't count, however, as Alonso was hit with an illegal contact penalty -- one that likely didn't impact the outcome of the play. 

It's plays like these that Kelly is going to focus his team ahead of the Cowboys game.

"You go out and you have 10 penalties against Dallas, and you're probably going to end up on the wrong side of the stick," he admitted. "We've got to clean up things that we can control. We didn't do a very good job from that standpoint. We also had a turnover that we created that was called back because of a penalty on the defensive side of the ball ...

"If you're going to be a good football team, you can't be a highly penalized team."

Julio Jones

Julio Jones is really good. And he's a matchup nightmare for almost any cornerback in the league, including Byron Maxwell.

Here's what Chip Kelly said the gameplan was against Jones, who finished with nine catches, 141 yards and a pair of touchdowns:

"As I said last night, the plan with dealing with Julio is very difficult because he lines up in so many different spots.  So if you try to double him where he's going to be, he's going to be the outside right receiver, he's going to be the outside left receiver. He’s going to be the inside third receiver. He's going to be the second receiver, and then he's going to go in motion, so we had some doubles on him.  We had safeties leaning towards him. I thought obviously in the first half, a couple of those he got were actually slant plays off of the run game. It was actually a designed run where [Falcons QB] Matt [Ryan] pulled up and fired the ball back side to him twice. We had press coverage on him, but he got inside leverage on him. Then they made a couple adjustments at halftime. I thought they did a good job.  He only had one catch in the second half but that was a huge catch for him and extended that drive where they went down and got points on it."

But didn't they just pay Maxwell $63 million to cover guys like that? There was talk in the preseason about the former Seahawks corner shadowing the opponent's top receiver. But Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis opted not to against the Falcons, in large because of how much Jones bounces back and forth between being in the slot vs. on the outside.

"No," Kelly said when asked if they thought about having Maxwell shadow Jones. "When you do that, now Max is playing inside at number three. So if the ball is run, where are his fits and all those other things? And then you're exclusively playing man coverage the entire game. So when you do that, it's not interchangeable where you can take a corner and then put him inside and say if it is a zone call now you're actually playing linebacker on this play. So that's where it becomes a difficult deal. They do a nice job scheming that so that you can't do that to him."

Luckily for the Eagles' secondary, which allowed 298 passing yards against Atlanta, they'll catch a break next week against Cowboys, as Dez Bryant will be out for a few weeks with a broken bone in his foot. In his two games against the Eagles last season, Bryant caught 10 passes for 187 yards and three touchdowns -- all three of which came in their second meeting.

As for Maxwell...

Nothing on the ground

The Eagles didn't run the ball much at all Monday night, which was surprising considering two of their biggest free-agent acquisitions -- DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews -- were both healthy and accounted for all three of the Eagles touchdowns.

However, they combined for just 13 yards on 11 carries when they did run it. And because of how successful they were throwing the ball to start the second half, Kelly wanted to stick with what was working.

"Yeah, again, in the second half we were moving the ball so well throwing it, it was really – I don't think moving the ball in the second half was an issue," Kelly explained. "So we're going to stick with what they gave us.  Obviously what we were able to exploit with [RB] Darren [Sproles], what we were able to exploit with Jordan [Matthews] and with Zach [Ertz], we took advantage of that."

Furthermore, Kelly said he doesn't care which players get the yards, or even how they get them. As long as the offense is moving -- something it struggled to do in the first half -- he's happy.

"We're concerned with moving the ball down the field," he added. "So at the end of the day whether we rush it for 399 yards or pass it for 399 yards, whatever, that's not my concern, 'What’s the distribution?' 

"It’s are we moving the football and getting the ball into the end zone is what we’re concerned with. How we get it there isn't a concern for us."

Whether it's a concern or not, Kelly has to keep an eye on it. Because when the Eagles -- or any team, for that matter -- fails to establish a run threat, they struggle in other areas, such as ...

Lack of big plays

The Eagles longest play from scrimmage on Monday night was a 27-yard run by Darren Sproles, who finished with 50 yards on five carries and seven receptions for another 76 yards. 

As far as pass plays go, the Eagles' longest play was a 25-yard reception from Jordan Matthews. He was the team's leading receiver with 10 catches for 102 yards, much of which came after the catch.

In all, Bradford connected with 10 different receivers in the game, eight of whom had multiple receptions. But the big play was just not there for the Eagles, partially because of how the Falcons defense covers and partially because the Eagles were trailing for almost the entire game. This allowed Atlanta to play off the receivers slightly more than usual, opening up the underneath passes.

"They're not going to let you get behind him," Kelly said of the Falcons defense. "They're going to keep the ball in front of them. Look at the Super Bowl, that's what Tom Brady did all game to Seattle. You’ve got to throw the ball down and get the ball down the field. That's what their scheme is meant to do. They do a good job of it. And if you do do that you have to be able to convert and make plays."

At times, the Eagles were able to convert, but their inability to do so in the first half -- coupled with their struggles running the ball -- left them being early and playing catch-up late.

And no matter how quickly your offense can put up points, playing from behind on the road isn't going to result in too many wins. Had they not put themselves in such a deep hole, Parkey's missed field goal may have been the difference between a 10-point and 13-point victory instead of winning and losing.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin