Melting Matty Ice
All season long, the focus of the Eagles’ pass defense has been to keep the ball in front of them, limit yards after the catch, and not give up the deep ball. During the regular season, they gave up just 40 completions of 20 or more yards, fifth fewest in the league.
They did another excellent job of that Saturday against Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Co. Ryan had three completions of 20-plus yards, but none longer than 24. And that one – to Mohamed Sanu in the second quarter – would’ve gained no more than 12 or 13 but for a missed tackle by cornerback Ronald Darby.
Ryan averaged just 5.83 yards per attempt, his second-lowest YPA average of the season.
The Eagles turned up the pressure on him in the second half. Jim Schwartz, who blitzed just once on 18 first-half pass plays, sent extra rushers on eight of 21 dropbacks in the second half. Ryan was just 2 for 6 for 22 yards and was sacked twice on those eight blitzes. He completed just 10 of 19 passes and averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt in the second quarter.
A big hand for the big sloppies
The Eagles offensive linemen had an excellent overall game. They protected Nick Foles well. He was sacked just once and felt pressure on just seven of 31 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus.
While the Eagles’ overall rushing numbers – 96 yards on 32 carries, and just 19 yards on 16 carries in the second half – don’t knock your socks off, their eight rushing first downs were the most by the offense in five games. LeGarrette Blount’s 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was the Eagles’ first rushing TD since Week 11.
Blount, who is basically an inside runner, got outside on his scoring run thanks to key blocks by right guard Brandon Brooks and tight end Trey Burton. The Eagles lined up in a “jumbo’’ formation with Burton at fullback.
The 350-pound Brooks showed his athleticism by pulling and sealing off the edge, while Burton, who, at 235 pounds isn’t exactly a big sloppy, erased Falcons linebacker LaRoy Reynolds and allowed Blount to reach the end zone for the Eagles’ only touchdown of the game.
Center Jason Kelce and left guard Stefen Wisniewski had big blocks on Foles’ 32-yard screen pass to Jay Ajayi on a third-and-7 play in the fourth quarter on the Eagles’ final scoring drive.
Wisniewski and right tackle Lane Johnson also had nice blocks on a 7-yard run by Blount later in the same drive.
Pushing all the right buttons
Carson Wentz’s Week 14 injury shook the Eagles’ locker room to its core. It was as if someone had died. But coach Doug Pederson did a masterful job of not allowing the players to feel sorry for themselves and getting them to believe they could still win the Super Bowl with Nick Foles at quarterback.
He had them confident going into Saturday’s game and played up the whole nobody-believes-in-us-but-the-guys-in-this-room thing.
Along with offensive coordinator Frank Reich, he put together an effective offensive game plan featuring a lot of RPOs (run-pass options) and short high-percentage passes that helped Foles gain confidence as the game went on. He averaged 8.2 yards per attempt against a Falcons defense that had held opponents to 6.7 this year.
Pederson maintained run-pass balance (31 pass plays, 32 run plays), even when his run game was struggling in the second half.
And he made the smart move in the fourth quarter when he kicked the field goal rather than go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Atlanta 3 with a two-point lead.
Yes, it took a timeout to talk him down off the ledge. But he eventually sent out Jake Elliott to kick his third field goal of the game, which forced the Falcons into needing a touchdown on their final possession to win the game.
With the exception of the second Giants game, the Eagles’ defense has shut teams down on third down all season, and the unit continued that Saturday. The Falcons, the league’s No. 1-ranked third-down offense in the regular season, converted just 4 of 13 third-down opportunities.
Matt Ryan was 7 for 10 on third down, but just three of those seven completions produced first downs.
But the big story on Action News was the impressive play of the Eagles offense on third down. In the 10 regular-season quarters that Nick Foles had played after Wentz got hurt, the Eagles converted just 8 of 35 third-down opportunities. Against the Falcons, they were 6 for 13.
Foles, who had completed just 11 of 27 third-down passes since replacing Wentz, was 5 for 7 for 70 yards and four first downs against the Falcons.
Fletch earns his money
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox is one of the highest-paid linemen in the league. His $17.9 million salary-cap number is the highest on the Eagles.
The postseason is where the great ones earn their big money, and Cox earned his Saturday. He was on the field for 90 percent of the defensive snaps. Despite being constantly double-teamed, he had a season-high seven tackles, including two for losses, plus a sack and two hurries. Not a bad day’s work.
He took the air out of the Falcons’ first scoring drive, dropping Devonta Freeman for a 1-yard loss on a first-down run at the Philadelphia 17. The Falcons ended up having to settle for a Matt Bryant field goal.
On another first-quarter drive, he held Freeman to a 2-yard gain on a third-and-4 run.
His second-quarter sack of Ryan forced the Matt Bosher punt that was blocked by Bryan Braman and that led to Jake Elliott’s 53-yard field goal as time expired in the first half.