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Eagles’ red zone defense key to early success

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Situational football ruled the day in the opener...

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Fifteen. That’s the number of offensive plays the Atlanta Falcons ran inside the red zone against the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles. Fifteen plays from inside the 20-yard line.

The worst red zone team in the NFL last year, the Denver Broncos, converted 40% of their trips inside the 20 into touchdowns. Last Thursday, the Falcons had one success in five visits. The math is simple; it was a catastrophic display of poor play-calling and execution.

The worst part for the Falcons and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian is nobody that was paying attention was shocked by this result. On The Kist & Solak Show previewing the game, my message was clear: if the Falcons march down the field, remain calm.

“If you see the Falcons moving the ball with ease… don’t panic… their offense with Sark has been a bend, but do not breakthrough offense… Until the Falcons show otherwise, I’m not worried if they move the ball well in the middle of the field and I’m not really too worried if they move it early in the game where they have been their best, because late in the game Sark just hasn’t had the juice.”

FIRST QUARTER VARIATION...

As expected, the Falcons came out with a multiplicitous attack. It worked. In the first quarter they showcased six different personnel groupings, the Eagles responded with five variations of their own. This feeling out process allowed the Falcons to determine how the Eagles would respond and react to Jones in different alignments.

The first three plays showcased Sarkisian’s desire to his star around and force the Eagles to react. Jones lined up outside for a 10-yard gain, picked up 11 yards on a reverse from a nasty split, and flew behind the formation with orbit motion to suck the defense into his gravitational pull on a 20-yard scamper by Devonta Freeman. Three plays, three plays positively impacted by Jones.

Later in the drive Jones would line up in the slot from a trips formation, draw zone coverage, and bust lose on a corner route for 33 yards. Sarkisian was dialing it up, but then he hung the phone on Jones. The next four “and goal” plays featured zero snaps for the Falcons best offensive weapon.

To their credit, and poor coverage by Nate Gerry aside, the Eagles defense answered the call. On 4th & Goal from the 1-yard line, the defense strung out Freeman’s toss and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill shed not one, but two blockers while setting his edge to come up with a huge stop.

It was a superb display of team defense; one that would repeat itself in clutch moments throughout the night.

BIG PACKAGES, BIG RESULTS...

The biggest success in the red zone for the Falcons came from 22 personnel (two tight ends, two running backs), which forced the Eagles into base. With Nigel Bradham out, the Eagles only played with three linebackers 10 times (15%), allowing 5.4 yards per play and a 40% success rate. The Falcons took advantage on a 9-yard touchdown run from Telvin Coleman. On that play, Gerry was washed out of his gap by climbing guard Andy Levitre and Rodney McLeod whiffed on a two-way go in space.

More effective inside the 20 for the Eagles was their three safety sets: big nickel and big dime, which they utilized 55% of the time. While those sets were responsible for giving up gains of 36, 33, and 26 yards from outside the danger zone, their effectiveness with a compressed field paid huge dividends.

*”No play” penalties not included

Rasul Douglas’ interception highlights this group, as defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz showed a massive amount of faith in him and Sidney Jones to cover Julio Jones. The two young cornerbacks worked in conjunction to play a “banjo switch”, with Jones releasing outside into Douglas’ responsibility.

Schwartz brought the house with his trademark cover 0, sending Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod and Jordan Hicks as blitzers. This led to a rushed throw from quarterback Matt Ryan that landed in Douglas’ lap.

THE FINAL STAND...

On the final drive, the Falcons would deploy their 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back) exclusively. The Eagles would answer with their big dime package for all twelve plays.

After allowing the Falcons to once again move fluidly through the middle of the field, Schwartz had seen enough. Madden strategies don’t always work in real life, but any time you can bracket a player like Jones in a key situation, you do it, over and over again.

The Falcons were bailed out on fourth down by an illegal contact penalty that could be described as “soft”. It made no difference, and in a repeat of the 2017 Divisional Round match-up, Jones once again failed to come down with a game winning catch. The coverage by Ronald Darby was superb.

Fifteen plays. You could even say sixteen depending on how you view illegal contact. While Sarkisian will take a lot of the blame for unimaginative red zone play-calling, not enough is being said about the execution by the Eagles defense. Stands like these may be what the team needs to survive this early stretch without Carson Wentz. Jim Schwartz seems up to the task.