The Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons are set to face off for the fourth time since 2016 on this week’s edition of Sunday Night Football. In order to preview this Week 2 game, I reached out to our familiar associates over at The Falcoholic. The dauntless Dave Choate (@WordsandBeer) kindly took the time to answer my questions about the upcoming matchup. Let’s take a look at his answers. (Also don’t forget to check out my side of the Q&A exchange over at TF.)
1 - The Eagles are 3-0 in their last three games against the Falcons, dating back to 2016. Why do you think the Eagles have had the Falcons’ number?
It’s an excellent question. There may not be any one factor here--the Eagles have just frustratingly outclassed the Falcons on those last three visits--but the common thread in all three has definitely been the Philadelphia defense. Atlanta’s one of the better offenses in the league, personnel-wise and results-wise over the last three seasons, but they have only managed a pitiful 37 combined points against the Eagles over those last three meetings.
As we saw just a week ago with Atlanta’s inert performance against the Vikings, the Falcons struggle mightily against very good, very physical fronts. The Falcons are reliant on mobile, athletic offensive linemen who tend to have very real weaknesses against strong, savvy defensive linemen. The bottling up of a solid ground game tends to lead to more passing, and as those linemen are bullied and Matt Ryan finds himself under pressure, the rhythm and success of the passing game suffers. It’s gotten worse in the red zone, where the Eagles have done a masterful job of clamping down hard and forcing Ryan to make tough throws. Simply put, the defense has been very good, and the Falcons have made their own unforced errors and made things even worse.
I think the single biggest question heading into this game is whether the Eagles can replicate their defensive success in recent years. I don’t expect the Falcons to be able to hold Philly in check offensively the way they have in recent years, so the question becomes whether they can turn this into a shootout, which at least gives them a fighting chance. If the Eagles are anywhere near as good at slowing this offense as they have been in recent years, Atlanta’s probably screwed.
2 - To what extent are Falcons fans concerned about the 2019 team after that loss to the Vikings? What went wrong in that game and are the problems fixable?
Those alarm bells are definitely ringing. You never want to let the first week of the season define the rest of your year--the Falcons lost a dispiriting game to the Buccaneers in Week 1 back in 2016, and before this season the fairly successful Saints had lost like five straight openers--but the Falcons looked absolutely pitiful against the Vikings.
A lot of that can be hung on the fact that the team found themselves unexpectedly down big in no time whatsoever. That nightmare start with turnovers took the wind out of their commitment to the run, and it allowed the Vikings to barely throw the ball the rest of the game, which let Dalvin Cook and Alex Mattison just rip off huge runs to the outside, where the Falcons admittedly did very little to stop them. If the punt isn’t blocked--heck, if the first play of the game isn’t a sack--maybe things go differently.
That said, of course I have some concerns, as do most Falcons fans. Atlanta poured resources into improving their offensive line and Matt Ryan got rocked all day, with Devonta Freeman finding very little running room on his opportunities as well. The Falcons invested heavily in their run defense, as well, and the Vikings simply declined to run at their high-priced, quite effective defensive interior and take it outside, where their defensive ends and linebackers were just as bad at slowing things down as they were a year ago. Couple those concerns with injuries--starting right guard Chris Lindstrom is already out for a good chunk of the year--and players returning from injury or stepping into expanded roles in the secondary and there are plenty of uncertainties going forward for the Falcons.
The talent ought to win out here, but there’s a real chance they’re going to go 0-2, and that makes their margin of error tiny the rest of the way. I just have to wonder if they’ve improved enough to overcome a bad start.
3 - What is the Falcons’ biggest strength? Where do they have the biggest edge in this game?
It’s the passing game by a wide margin. They weren’t great there against the Vikings, but Minnesota’s defense is stellar, Xavier Rhodes is as good against Julio Jones as any man on earth, and Ryan made two uncharacteristically poor decisions on his interceptions. Against even a good secondary and good pass rush, the Falcons have the firepower--Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Austin Hooper, and to a lesser extent Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith--and the quarterback to pour it on, and that’s still going to be what carries them to success in 2019, if indeed they achieve any.
I’m wary of making any sweeping proclamations about this one given how effectively the Eagles have shut down the Falcons in recent years, but on paper at least (and especially after that Washington game), it’s also Atlanta’s biggest edge heading into the game. I worry how that already-banged-up offensive line is going to fare, but they really should enjoy more success through the air this week, which will hopefully key a win.
4 - What is the Falcons’ biggest weakness? What concerns you the most about the Eagles?
The pass defense wasn’t tested, really, so I can’t call them the biggest weakness just yet. I do expect the Eagles to be able to pass pretty effectively against them, but it’s not their biggest problem.
That’s the run defense, still. The Falcons got stouter on the interior, with Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison looking great against Minnesota, but the Vikings found a ton of success running outside. Once Dalvin Cook got to the second level, there just wasn’t a bunch of quality tackling happen, and this defense showed zero ability to set the edge on Sunday. I’m legitimately concerned that Darren Sproles, Miles Sanders, and Jordan Howard will get to the edge and just take off, and a successful effort from the Eagles ground game is going to wear them down and lead to scoring.
5 - Who wins this game and why? Score prediction? And what are your expectations for the rest of this Falcons season?
The Eagles, I think, and I’ll say 31-27. I expect this to be a bit of a shootout because I think the Falcons offense will rebound, but Philadelphia has had their number for a little while now, Atlanta didn’t look quite prepared for the season a week ago, and there are too many question marks for me to feel confident in this team pushing their way past you guys, even at home. I hope I’m wrong — a 0-2 start is not ideal — but it’s hard for me to envision the Falcons running away with it this week. I hang my hopes on a turnover or two from this defense and a stellar day from the passing attack, and as we both know, neither of those have been in abundant supply over the last three meetings.
I do think the Falcons still have the talent to be contenders in the NFC this season. My preseason prediction was 11-5, so I’ll stick with that until I can’t stick to it no more. It’s clear they’re going to have to rebound quickly and address issues with both lines before they can put us at ease, but I’ll hope against hope it starts this Sunday night.