Three thoughts on the Eagles-Falcons matchup | Early Birds

Good morning, Eagles fans. The Eagles return to work Monday to begin preparing for Saturday’s divisional round playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and offensive coordinator Frank Reich will hold news conferences at 1:30 p.m. The players will meet with reporters this afternoon, too.

  • Before the Eagles knew their opponent, it was clear that Jay Ajayi would need to be a big part of the Eagles winning in the playoffs. That’s especially the case against the Falcons, who threaten with a fast, swarming defense. The Falcons allowed only 104.1 rushing yards per games this season, which ranked No. 9 in the NFL. But in the Falcons’ October loss to Miami, Ajayi rushed for 126 yards on 25 carries. It was the most rushing yards the Falcons allowed all season. It was the only 100-yard rusher the Falcons allowed until Los Angeles’ Todd Gurley reached 101 yards on Saturday. When the Eagles beat the Falcons last season, they rushed for 208 yards against the same defensive scheme that the Falcons still use. The game situation always dictates what the Eagles do — if they’re trailing early, they’ll be more inclined to pass — but it would make sense to try to establish the run and make Ajayi the workhorse running back. That could be their best shot against the Falcons.
  • The Eagles will probably play the nobody-believes-in-us card this week, although it has some validity because they’re home underdogs as the No. 1 seed — the first time a No. 1 seed has been underdogs in the divisional round. The Falcons are the defending NFC champions and have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. This will be a tough game. But it’s a game the Eagles can win, even with Nick Foles at quarterback. The Falcons have been vulnerable this season — they failed to score more than 24 points in their last five games of the regular season and they scored fewer than 20 points six times.  The formula for the Eagles with Foles isn’t winning games in the 30s (even though they beat the Giants that way); it’s outlasting opponents in ugly games, like they did against Oakland. A game like the one the Falcons played against the Rams could favor the Eagles because it was a time-of-possession battle that required capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes. The Eagles can emphasize limiting turnovers with Foles, running the ball effectively, and trusting their defense. It’s a tough matchup and I liked the Falcons this year more than most, but it’s a better matchup for the Eagles than it would have been if New Orleans visited.
  • You’ll likely hear much about the Eagles’ 24-15 win over the Falcons last season. It was Atlanta’s lowest scoring output on their way to the Super Bowl. The Falcons have a new offensive coordinator and it’s a different season, but Schwartz’s strategy that day will receive attention this week and it’s one the Eagles would be wise to try to replicate. The Eagles pressured Matt Ryan (two sacks, six hits) and tried to keep Julio Jones in front of them. They allowed 10 catches for 135 yards to Jones, but it was his third lowest yards per catch average last season. They also emphasized putting the Falcons in third-and-long situations by getting negative plays on early downs. Atlanta went 2 of 11 on third downs in that game with an average distance of 9.9 yards to go.

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— Zach Berman

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The Eagles put pressure on Matt Ryan last season. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

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It was poor execution more than anything else. I asked Doug Pederson about his play-calling in the season finale, and he admitted it was pretty vanilla by the time the deep reserves entered the game. But that doesn’t explain the Raiders game, and he didn’t hold much back then. It’s been well documented that third downs have been the biggest problem during the past two games. The Eagles are 3 of 25 (12 percent) in the past two games. The Eagles were 45 percent in their first 14 games. So that explains why the Eagles struggled. They won’t win on Saturday if they’re that bad on third downs again. Nick Foles needs to get into a rhythm, and he’ll do that by sustaining drives. I don’t think this will be a big-play offense with Foles; they’ll need to play smart situational football on third downs and in the red zone.