It comes down to three things, doesn’t it?
1. Run the ball.
2. Stop the run.
3. Don’t turn the ball over.
There are a million ways to look at this thing, and by the time these two weeks of inaction are finally over, we might have covered them all. But the recipe the Eagles need to follow is so elementary that it borders on cliche.
That was the secret in Week 10 last year, wasn’t it? For as much focus as was paid to Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz and Julio Jones during the run-up to the Falcons’ trip to Lincoln Financial Field in mid-November, the story of the Eagles’ 24-15 win was as follows …
Ryan Mathews, Wendell Smallwood, Darren Sproles: 34 carries, 198 yards, two touchdowns.
Devonta Freeman, Terron Ward: 13 carries, 48 yards, zero touchdowns.
In a game where the Eagles did not hold a multi-possession lead until 1:57 remained, that discrepancy is as jarring today as it was last year, when the Eagles pulled out the surprising win and improved to 5-4, reigniting hopes of a playoff berth (at least for a little while).
There were a lot of questions of that game pitched toward members of the team Monday as reporters descended upon the NovaCare Complex for the first time since Atlanta’s win over the Rams on Saturday night. Might it be a lesson? A blueprint? A path forward?
The answers were equivocal, to say the least.
“You certainly look at it,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “But this is playoffs, so like I said, you’re exhausting every resource you have.”
The reality is, this Falcons defense looks much sharper than the one the Eagles gashed last November. That includes a significant improvement against the run: in 2016, Atlanta finished in the bottom quartile of the league with a 4.5 yard-per-carry average allowed. This year, they’ve shaved that down to 4.1, right around league average.
The scary thing about the Falcons’ front seven is that the improvement has been mostly linear. Rather than loading up on free agents this offseason — 346-pound defensive tackle Dontari Poe was their highest-profile addition — they mostly relied on the improvement of a talented group of young players they’d drafted in recent seasons: linebackers Deion Jones (second round, 2016) and De’Vondre Campbell (fourth round, 2016), defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (fifth round, 2015), free safety Keanu Neal (first round, 2016), edge rusher Vic Beasley (first round, 2015).
In other words, there’s every reason to think these guys are getting better each week. And given that Atlanta has played 26 games since last year’s loss at the Linc, last year’s film might tell a vastly different tale.
Factor in, too, the fact that the Falcons were missing Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant by the time they faced the Eagles last season.
“You look back on it and you maybe pick up one or two things,” Reich said, “but I’m focusing honestly more on this film this year. I’m focusing more on their film this year.”
The Falcons’ improvement on defense, particularly against the run, is one of many truths that serve as a bit of inconvenience for the notion that things played out about as well as the Eagles could have hoped on wild-card weekend. If we all agree that they are going to need to run the ball, then it’s difficult to overlook that the Rams were giving up an ugly 4.7 yards per carry, and the Saints are a couple notches back at 4.4 per. Indeed, Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman combined for 106 yards on 32 carries against that Rams defense in their 26-13 wild-card win.
Which brings us to the other side of the ball.
“Their running backs, if you combine the running-back stats, you’re talking about a first-team All-Pro – 1,500 yards, I think 12 touchdowns,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “So we have to look at it that way.”
For precision’s sake, Freeman and Coleman have combined for 1,493 yards and 12 touchdowns on 352 carries. But they are also at the mercy of an offensive coordinator who is in his first season as an NFL play-caller and in just his second as an assistant of any type. In the battle of wits between Schwartz and Steve Sarkisian, Schwartz gets a significant edge.
That, right there, is how you can talk yourself into thinking the Eagles have a chance. For all the improvements the Falcons have made on defense, the Eagles have done so in their own running game. They might not have an all-around back on par with either Freeman or Coleman, but they do have three who have been every bit their equal as a unit, with Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement combining for 1,495 yards on 317 carries.
The Falcons are a different team than they were last year, and so are the Eagles. But the fundamentals are still the fundamentals. And, there, the Eagles could have the kind of advantage that transcends the quarterback position.
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