Thursday night’s opener against the Atlanta Falcons had a different feel to it. That was because a Super Bowl banner was being raised for the first time in Eagles history. Coincidentally along the path to the NFL glory, the Eagles hosted the Falcons in the 2017 NFC Divisional round, and they were first team they played along that journey. Coming into that game and this one, public opinion swayed towards Atlanta’s side, and rightfully so.
On both occasions the Eagles were without several key contributors, but being successful in the NFL often means making the most of what you have.
Although success came in spurts for the Eagles offense, they were able to do just enough to take advantage of what the Falcons gave them.
One of the ways to attack the Falcons’ Cover 3 shell is to flood areas of the field and force a defender to pick where he wants to cover. In the past I’ve discussed two concepts Eagles head coach Doug Pederson uses to scheme receivers open against single high coverages — flood and levels. In a surprising development, Pederson rarely used either of these concepts in the season opener, instead electing to keep most of quarterback Nick Foles’ throws short. Part of this may have been in an effort to get Foles into an early rhythm, as in the past that has been a key to his success.
Unfortunately for the Eagles, Foles still struggled as Atlanta’s defense played tight coverage within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. This coupled with the effort to get Foles going early impacted the offense’s ability to move the ball as the receivers were unable to secure yards after the catch. Something to take into account with the offense’s performance is the absence of Alshon Jeffery and Mack Hollins, two receivers the Eagles count on to make plays down the field. Their absence likely impacted Atlanta’s decision to suffocate the Eagles’ receivers early in their routes.
Without utilizing route combinations that stress defenders in a single-high shell, the typical way to attack the alignment is hitting shorter throws toward the sideline in the flats, patiently picking up yardage. Without a consistent downfield threat, that’s what Pederson did, scheming receivers open to the flat when the Eagles were moving the ball.
On both sides of the play above, the Eagles are using their outside receivers to take the outside cornerbacks deeper, clearing the underneath zones. This ensures that Foles will have his pick of which sideline he wants to go to, although given the speed of the defense and hash proximity, he’s likely made up his mind pre-snap that he’s going to his right. He takes the easy throw and the Eagles pick up a cheap six yards on first down. Unfortunately a drop and an errant pass halted the drive.
While Nick Foles didn’t look good, a lot of credit for that should go to the Falcons’ defense. They closed in on tight windows, rarely giving up any separation in the intermediate levels of the field. Nearly every catch was contested or there was a defender there to make the tackle. There were still some poor decisions on Foles’ part that nearly cost the team, but there weren’t many plays left on the field.
When the Eagles offense had success, it came when they mixed in more runs. Dating back to 2016 when Atlanta won the NFC, its weakness was the size on the defense. The Falcons traded size for speed and aggressiveness, but that left them vulnerable to teams with size. For example, Eagles running back Jay Ajayi is approximately 6-feet tall, and 225 pounds. Falcons linebacker Deion Jones is 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds. Eagles linebackers Nigel Bradham and Jordan Hicks range from 235-240 pounds for comparison. In 2016 the power rushing attack with Ryan Mathews was able to keep the ball out of the hands of the Falcons’ explosive offense. While the 2017 playoff matchup didn’t yield the same level of success, the running game and size advantage were key in the win.
My colleagues Benjamin Solak and Michael Kist talked about this at length, but some of the Eagles most successful runs incorporated what’s known as a split zone concept. These concepts are typically utilized with tight ends coming across the formation to block a defender, but Pederson utilized Nelson Agholor, sending him in motion and using him as a blocker.
Above you’ll notice Agholor (13) coming across the formation and chipping Falcons linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (59), not allowing him to crash down on running back Corey Clement (30) in what appears to be a bear front with five defenders at the line. Pederson’s play calling and willingness to manufacture touches in various ways for Agholor may have been playing out in the defense’s mind as the middle of the field was vacated for Clement.
The drive resulted in a touchdown for the Eagles as they rode their backs into the end zone. Kist did an excellent job breaking down the red zone runs, an aspect the eagles struggled with in 2017.
Usually I show more clips, but there wasn’t a lot to show on the offensive side of the ball. The Eagles primarily kept their throws within 10 yards, rarely taking shots down field. The running game was much of the same, relying on inside runs that picked up four and five yards at a time. That may have been the preference over outside runs due to the Falcons’ speed and ability to effectively play sideline to sideline.
Up next: a breakdown of the defense.