Last season, Jim Schwartz’s defense held the high-flying Falcons to their lowest output in points and yards (303) in the Eagles’ 24-15 win at Lincoln Financial Field. It was the defensive coordinator’s finest moment from 2016 and it came against a team that was a historic Patriots comeback from winning the Super Bowl.
Schwartz: We were just trying to win each series. Try to find a way to force a stop. They came in as a really high-scoring offense. They were No. 1 in the NFL in scoring. That was really our only focus, is try to limit scoring.
The Falcons lost coordinator Kyle Shanahan to the 49ers in the offseason and have struggled to match their production from a year ago with Steve Sarkisian running the offense. But the scheme and the players are relatively the same. The Eagles’ defensive objective, as Schwartz often repeats, remains unchanged: Limit points. But there are many ways to accomplish that goal.
A year ago, the defense was aided by a ball control offense that gained over 208 yards on the ground and controlled the clock (38:10 to 21:50). But Schwartz’s unit ultimately carried the day. It kept running back Devonta Freeman in check, wide receiver Julio Jones from exploding and quarterback Matt Ryan from converting on third down.
The mission remains the same. If the Eagles are to beat Atlanta in Saturday’s divisional round, they will likely need to check off each box again.
STOPPING THE RUN
The Falcons trailed throughout last year’s game. Freeman ripped off a few long runs, but he finished with only 12 carries for 49 yards. Atlanta was also without multipurpose running back Tevin Coleman. On backup Terron Ward’s lone rush, the Eagles dropped him for a loss.
Ex-Eagles defensive tackle Bennie Logan and linebacker Jordan Hicks had big days against the run, and neither will be on the field this Saturday, for various reasons, but the Eagles’ run defense has been stout for consecutive seasons because each player consistently fulfills his run-gap responsibility.
The Falcons faced nine third downs of seven yards or longer. They didn’t convert one.
Schwartz: It does benefit us to have teams third-and-long. I think you’ve seen that a few times this year. When we put teams behind the chains, we can make it tough for them. We’re a good pass rush team. We’re a good tackling team. When we do those things, it’s going to be hard to convert third-and-long.
There’s almost no stopping Jones. He caught ten passes for 135 yards. But he only got behind an Eagles cornerback once. Schwartz didn’t double Jones much. He also didn’t have one guy shadow the perennial all pro.
Schwartz: If Julio Jones has 350 yards receiving and we win the game, that’s what it took to win the game. If he has 10 yards receiving for the game-winning touchdown, then that wasn’t enough. … It’s not just a one-man team.
Jalen Mills, in only his second career start, saw Jones the most. He allowed only five catches for 56 yards. On this second quarter third down, Mills played off, but he rallied to the ball and teamed up with safety Malcolm Jenkins to tackle Jones short of the marker.
Schwartz: Our confidence in Jalen started in OTAs and rookie camp and training camp, just seeing how competitive he was and knowing that there weren’t situations that were too big. And when you had a marquee receiver and marquee team come here to Philly last year, he was ready for that challenge.
But it was a team effort. On this late fourth down, Jenkins had Jones in the slot and he broke up a fade pass.
Mills: The key is knowing the type of guy [Jones] is and also when they’re trying to get him the ball. Crunch time, of course, they’re trying to give it to him. He’s one of the best players over there.
Could Schwartz have either Mills or Ronald Darby follow Jones this Saturday? Except for the first Giants game this season, when Mills shadowed Odell Beckham Jr., Schwartz has kept his corners to their respective sides. But the Eagles also haven’t faced a receiver of Beckham’s caliber until now.
Mills had a few setbacks in last year’s game. Jones toasted him for 29 yards on this play.
But every corner is going to get beat. Mills’ No. 1 job was to limit Jones’ big-play ability and the receiver was held to just 3.8 yards after the catch.
Mills: It’s definitely crazy starting as a rookie in that game and then going against a guy like that. You’ve seen him throughout high school and then while I’m in college. … It was pretty big for me last year.
Not long after giving up the 29-yard grab, Mills pressed Jones at the line and gave him a slight bump to break up the rhythm on this Ryan fade pass.
Schwartz: [Mills is] an improved player this year. I know that. His technique is better. He’s more consistent. Every corner is going to have to battle through rough spots. It’s just inherent to the position. You’re going to give up a completion. You’re going to get beat. And I really like Jalen’s ability to respond to that.
THE OTHER WEAPONS
Schwartz ran a fair amount of Cover 2 zone in last season’s game, perhaps more than he has in two seasons. But the Falcons had more than just Jones as a game-breaker. Mohammed Sanu, Taylor Gabriel and Coleman were all consistently making plays downfield.
On this early first down, the Eagles took away one of the deep post-crossing route concepts the Falcons love to run.
But the Falcons simply aren’t stretching defenses like they did a year ago. Ryan’s average per pass attempt (9.26 to 7.74) is significantly down.
Schwartz: They do have other players that are threats. Sanu has been a consistently good player for a long period of time. Their tight end [Austin Hooper] is really developed. Both backs can catch the ball out of the backfield. Pro Bowl quarterback. It’s not just a one-man team.
Gabriel scored the Falcons’ lone touchdown in last season’s meeting came when he beat ex-Eagles cornerback Leodis McKelvin with a double move.
McKelvin rebounded and made the game-clinching interception, but he’s gone. The Eagles’ penchant for biting the cheese on double moves is not. Both Mills and Darby have been victimized, but Schwartz will allow some aggressiveness if it pays off in the long run.
Schwartz: You can go overboard either way. You can play too conservative and look terrible. You can play too aggressive and look terrible. I think there’s a lot of experience that goes into it
Schwartz doesn’t blitz a lot, but he sometimes doesn’t get enough credit for how creative he can be when sending extra rushers. On this fourth quarter third down, Fletcher Cox ran a stunt up the middle, while Jenkins blitzed off the edge. Ryan was pressured, missed an open receiver over the middle, and threw errant.
Schwartz: Blitz is not a whole lot different than pass rush. You can’t expect to have guys free. If you’re expecting to get guys free, you’re in the wrong business because the only way you can really get a guy free is to bring more than they can block and there’s some risk inherent to that.
Schwartz rushed five down linemen on several third downs. He’s hasn’t used that personnel grouping much, if at all, this season, but he had great success with the package in last season’s game.
But Schwartz will always favor rushing just four if he can get pressure that way. And he’s consistently gotten it from Cox and Brandon Graham on the left side of the line. Graham has been nursing an ankle sprain, but he is expected to be ready by Saturday.
Mills: Once everyone executes it makes it easier on the back end.
RYAN ON THIRD DOWN
The Falcons’ numbers are down across the board, but of the most cited statistics, they’re gaining fewer yards (249.4 to 415.8) and scoring fewer points (22.1 to 33.8) per game than last season. The one area in which they’ve improved is on third down (44.7 to 42.1). Atlanta finished first in the NFL.
Ryan’s ability to find the open receiver, as he did here in the Falcon’s first-round win over the Rams last week, has been a factor.
Schwartz: I think Matt Ryan goes a little bit under the radar as far as having escape-ability. People really don’t think of him the same way that you would think obviously of some of the more mobile quarterbacks but he’s good at feeling spots in the pocket and being able to step up and slide one way or slide another.
Falcons coach Dan Quinn chose Sarkisian to replace Shanahan because he thought the long-time college coach could effectively run the same system. It’s a wide-zone running scheme that stresses balance and uses three-step drops and play-action to free up receivers.
It was going to be difficult to duplicate last season, but the passing windows, for whatever the reason, have been tighter. Ryan and his receivers have struggled in the red zone (30th in the league). But the quarterback still has Jones, arguably the best in the game, even if he’s been dealing with ankle and rib injuries.
This 8-yard touchdown clinched Atlanta’s win over the Rams.
Schwartz: Every team’s going to be a little bit different from year-to-year. There’s still a lot of challenges with that team.
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