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September 04, 2018

Eagles vs. Falcons: Five matchups to watch

The Philadelphia Eagles will kick off their season opener against a familiar conference foe, the Atlanta Falcons, against whom they've had recent success. Here are five matchups to watch.

1) Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman vs. the Eagles' run defense

Let's start off this matchup series by reminding what the Eagles want to do defensively.

  1. Stop the run.
  2. Make the opposing offense one-dimensional.
  3. Get after the quarterback.

In 2017, the Eagles had the top-ranked run defense in the NFL, allowing just 79.2 rushing yards per game. They will have a tough first test of the season against the Falcons' talented duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.

"They're two different skill guys," said Nate Gerry. "One of them (Freeman) likes to run straight at you. One of them (Coleman) likes to make you miss. Both of them are really good runners. They're both capable of catching the ball out of the backfield. For us, first thing we have to do is stop the run." 

Freeman had something of a down year in 2017, and yet, he and Coleman still combined  for over 2100 yards from scrimmage and 16 TDs:

 PlayerYards from scrimmage TD 
 Devonta Freeman1182 
 Tevin Coleman927 
 TOTAL2109 16 

First and foremost, even before worrying about Julio Jones, the Eagles want to stop that duo.

2) Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert vs. the Falcons' linebackers and safeties

With Alshon Jeffery out, it's a pretty good bet that the Eagles will use quite a few two-TE sets, getting Ertz and Goedert involved in the offense. Offensive coordinator Mike Groh even acknowledged that Goedert is going to get his share of snaps early.

"He's going to have to be a major contributor for us throughout the course of the season," said Groh. "As a rookie in his first game, he's done a nice job in the preseason, and we've got to get him in there and get his feet wet a little bit and get him into the game. But I feel comfortable when the ball goes to him he is going to make plays."

Ertz is the Eagles' best and most consistent weapon in the Eagles' offense, while Goedert simply got open and made catches all summer long. The Falcons, meanwhile, have a pair of athletic linebackers in Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell.

Jones is a star player. In 2017, he had 138 tackles, 11 for loss, 9 pass breakups, and 3 INTs. Here's his game-sealing interception against the Saints last season: 

The Falcons are better positioned defensively to cover the Eagles' two talented tight ends with their linebackers then most teams around the league, where that would usually be a heavy mismatch in the Eagles' favor.

3) The Eagles' rushing attack vs. the Falcons' rush defense

In the playoffs last year, the one big play on the ground that the Eagles got was on a well-designed misdirection run with Nelson Agholor.

That run aside, the Falcons did a good job on the Eagles' rushing attack. Take out that Agholor play, and the Eagles ran 31 times for just 75 yards. The Falcons have a number of undersized players on their defense, particularly at linebacker, so logic might dictate that you can run on them. However, on the 2017 season, they were ninth in run defense, at 104.1 rushing yards per game. They also allowed just 6 runs of 20-plus yards, which was tied for second-best in the NFL.

Jay Ajayi was nursing a foot injury this week, but he practiced Monday and is expected to play. If the Eagles' offensive line can open up some holes and get the run game going, that would be a big help to Nick Foles, who had a shaky preseason.

4) Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, and Austin Hooper vs. the Eagles' back seven

The best player on the Falcons' roster is Julio Jones, who some feel is the best wide receiver in the NFL. In the Eagles' win over the Falcons in 2016, Jones had 10 catches for 135 yards on 16 targets. In the playoff game last year, he had 9 catches for 101 yards on 16 targets. And yet, holding him to those totals almost kind of felt like a win for the Eagles' defense, somehow. 

The last two times the Eagles faced Atlanta, Jones was targeted 32 (!) times. He is going to be a huge part of Atlanta's game plan Thursday night, as he always is. 

But he's not the only guy who can beat you. They have a talented rookie in Ridley, who is expected to start, and a big-bodied third receiver in Sanu.

The Falcons were second in the NFL in third-down percentage in 2017, converting on 43.9 percent of their third-down attempts. A big reason for that, in addition to their talented running backs, were the Falcons' 'other' weapons in the passing game, Sanu and Hooper.

The Falcons like to stay on schedule, and not play too far behind the sticks on third down. When they throw to Sanu and Hooper, they complete those pass attempts with a very high frequency.

In 2017, Hooper made a reception on 49 of his 65 targets, or 75.4 percent. That was good for fourth in the NFL. Sanu made a reception on 67 of his 96 targets, or 69.8 percent. That was good for 18th in the NFL. That is outstanding efficiency from your second and third options in the passing game.

If those receptions are on third down, that's an obvious way of keeping the chains moving. If Sanu and Hooper are making shorter receptions on first and second down, that keeps the Falcons on schedule, and in a better position to convert on third down. Either way, Sanu and Hooper are a big part of the Falcons' success on offense in terms of possessing the football.

This is a crucial game for the Eagles' linebackers. In addition to trying to stop the duo of Freeman and Coleman on the ground, they'll have to deal with Hooper and Sanu, in the short-to-intermediate parts of the field in the passing game. Jordan Hicks, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Gerry will have their hands full. 

I'll also note that this is probably more of a "Malcolm Jenkins in the slot" kind of game than it is a Sidney Jones game, as the Eagles like the Jenkins vs. Sanu matchup, which means you'll probably see a fair amount of Corey Graham at safety.

5) Nick Foles vs. himself

Foles looked awful in some games last year, and outstanding in others. Thankfully for the city of Philadelphia, he was outstanding in the two most important ones. Still, he is capable of extreme performances, good or bad.

Alshon Jeffery is going to be out. Mack Hollins hasn't practiced. Nelson Agholor has been banged up and only recently returned to practice. Mike Wallace is new to the team. There could be rustiness and timing issues with the Eagles' routes, particularly on RPO's. 

That could affect Foles, who is at his best when he gets into a rhythm. The Eagles like to take shots early in games, but I imagine they'll try to allow Foles and his receivers to get some easy completions early and gain confidence. 

But obviously, which Nick Foles shows up on Thursday will be kind of a big deal.

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