The Atlanta Falcons booked their trip to Lincoln Financial Field to face the Philadelphia Eagles on Saturday, January 13 with their win over the Los Angeles Rams this past Saturday. The Eagles are the first team in NFL history to be a one seed underdog to a six seed, with Atlanta being favored by two and a half points. How do the Eagles stack up versus the Falcons? I take a look position by position throughout the week in a five-part series leading up to Saturday’s game. Today’s focus: defense and special teams
The Eagles go into Saturday’s game against the Falcons boasting the fourth ranked defense in yards allowed per game at 306.5, second in the league in rush defense at 79.2 rushing yards allowed, and 17th in the league in passing defense at 227.3 passing yards allowed. They also finished fourth in the league in points allowed per game with 18.4, however they only allowed 13.4 points per game at home.
The Eagles’ defensive line is stacked with dominant edge defenders. Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Chris Long, and rookie Derek Barnett have been terrorizing quarterbacks all season, accounting for 22.5 of the team’s 40 sacks. In addition to the edge rushers, Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan did their part in bringing down the quarterback, finishing with 5.5 and 2.5 respectively. Cox finished sixth in the NFL among defensive tackles in sacks. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Graham ranked eight among 109 eligible defensive ends while Curry ranked 21st in that group. Cox and Jernigan raked fifth and 29th out of 125 eligible defensive lineman.
The Eagles’ linebacker corps lost their star middle linebacker in week eight when Jordan Hicks ruptured his Achilles. Despite the huge loss, linebacker Nigel Bradham stepped into the role and filled in admirably as the defense’s leader, although he played outside linebacker. Going into the week 16 game versus the Raiders, Bradham ranked second among linebackers allowing 0.61 yards per cover snap, according to PFF. Mychal Kendricks was the subject of trade rumors throughout the offseason. Kendricks even went as far as to request a trade from the team, however his request was denied. In an interview with TIm McManus of ESPN, Kendricks shared the team’s response to his request: “You’re young, you’re talented and we’re not into that.” The talent definitely showed this season, as he finished with 51 tackles, 22 assisted tackles, two sacks and six passes deflected. Pedestrian numbers when compared to the Luke Kuechley’s and Bobby Wagner’s of the world, but Kendrick’s impact was valued with a grade of 86.0, ninth overall for linebackers. He also posted an 8.7 run stopping grade, per PFF, best among Eagles’ linebackers. The middle linebacker position, vacated by Hicks, was a rotation between Joe Walker, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nathan Gerry, and Dannell Ellerbe. The rotation has worked pretty well so far, although they will have their hands full containing the Atlanta offense.
The Eagles’ secondary underwent an overhaul just like the wide receivers. In the off-season, the Eagles let go of cornerback Leodis McKelvin, decided not to resign Nolan Carroll and Ron Brooks, and traded away Terrence Brooks, leaving Jalen Mills, Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins as the main holdovers from the 2016 team. In an effort to revamp the secondary, the Eagles drafted Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas, signed Patrick Robinson, and traded away wide receiver Jordan Matthews to the Buffalo Bills for cornerback Ronald Darby. The changed paid dividends for the team as Robinson ended the season with a 90.7 grade from PFF and ended the season with four interceptions, Mills and Darby tied for second on the team with three interceptions (despite Darby missing eight games due to injury), and Douglas had two interceptions. Highly touted rookie Jones did not make his team debut until week 17 against the Cowboys, missing time due to a ruptured Achilles suffered in March, and his presence was immediately felt, as he finished with two tackles and drew the tough task of guarding wide receiver Dez Bryant. Safety Rodney McLeod was impressed by the debut, telling reporters “I saw a guy who obviously battled back from a pretty big injury, that’s hard to come back from. He’s recovered well. It was good to see him get an opportunity today to finally showcase what he can do. I thought he handled himself well. He got in on a few tackles. He showed good technique in the scheme. The future looks bright for him.”
Eagles’ rookie kicker Jake Elliot burst onto the scene with a 61 yard field goal to beat the Giants in week three, filling in for the injured Caleb Sturgis. Elliot never relinquished the job and finished the season with 26 made field goals out of 31 attempted for 83.9% and converted 39 extra points out of 42 attempted. When Elliot was injured during a game versus the Cowboys in November, linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill filled in on a couple of kickoffs, kicking one to the to the opposite goal-line that was returned to the Cowboys’ 29 yard line and kicking a touchback in his second attempt. Longtime Eagles’ punter Donnie Jones had another strong year, punting 67 times for an average of 45.3 yards and a long of 62. Running back Kenjon Barner was brought back to the team after the injury to Darren Sproles and functioned as the main return specialist. On kick returns, Barner had ten returns for 194 yards and on punt returns he had 27 returns for 240 yards.
The Falcons go into Saturday’s game boasting the ninth best defense in yards allowed per game with 318.4 yards allowed, the ninth best rush defense with 104.1 rushing yards allowed, the 12th best passing defense with 214.3 passing yards allowed, and the eighth best defense in points allowed per game with 19.7 points allowed. The 2017 Falcons’ defense is much improved over the 2016 team that blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, having allowed 56 fewer yards and six fewer points per game.
The Falcons starters on the defensive line consist of Brooks Reed, Dontari Poe, Grady Jarrett, and Derrick Shelby, with key reserves Adrian Clayborn and Takkarist McKinley. Clayborn led the team with nine and a half sacks, although six of them came in one game versus the Cowboys, and McKinley came in second with six.
The Falcons deploy an extremely impressive young linebacker. Second year linebacker Deion Jones finished the year with 138 tackles, fourth in the league, and is widely regarded as the best coverage linebacker in the league. As good as Jones was, fellow linebacker Vic Beasley wasn’t nearly as good, finishing with 29 tackles and five sacks. De’Vondre Campbell rounds out the Falcons starters at linebacker and finished the year with 61 tackles.
The Falcons’ secondary is highlighted by safety Keanu Neal. Neal was virtually in on every play, amassing 113 tackles, one interception and three forced fumbles. Other than Neal, the Falcons’ secondary was average, with all other players combining for only four interceptions. According to PFF, cornerback Desmond Trufant has allowed the most touchdowns this season than he ever has with six, although he has only allowed two since week nine. Trufant also allows either a first-down or touchdown on 37% of passes thrown his direction.
The Falcons’ defense as a whole hopes to stop running back Jay Ajayi, who ran for 130 yards on them in week six when he was a member of the Miami Dolphins. However, Atlanta’s rush defense, according to PFF, ended the season tied for seventh in missed tackles with 120 and tied for sixth in missed tackle percentage at 13.9, so containing the Eagles’ rush attack will not be easy.
Ageless wonder Matt Bryant finished strongly in his 16th season in the NFL. Bryant converted 34 of 39 field goals, with a long of 57, and converted all 35 extra point attempts. Punter Matt Bosher completed his seventh season in the NFL, punting 53 times for a 44.9 average and a long of 62. Wide receiver Andre Roberts was the returner for the Falcons. Roberts had 38 kick returns for 860 yards and 27 punt returns for 198 yards.
Stay tuned for predictions in the final installment!
If you missed the last article previewing the wide receivers, tight ends and offensive line, click here