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. This article’s focus: wide receivers, tight ends, and offensive line.
The Eagles underwent an overhaul at the wide receiver position this year. After an underwhelming 2016 season from the wide receiver position, the Eagles parted ways with their leading wide receiver Jordan Matthews, trading him to the Buffalo Bills for corner back Ronald Darby, and released wide receiver Doriel Green-Beckham. The other wide receivers on the roster, with the exception of Nelson Agholor, were either released or left via free agency. To replace the voids left by the departures, the Eagles agreed to a one year deal with former Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, a three year deal with former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith, and drafted wide receiver Mack Hollins. The Eagles also hired former Bears wide receiver coach Mike Groh to replace former Eagles wide receiver coach Greg Lewis.
The new additions and rejuvenated hold over from 2016 certainly made their mark on the 2017 Eagles. Jeffrey, Agholor, Smith and Hollins were first, second, third and fourth respectively in total yards for wide receivers on the team. The new look offensive weapons were a huge part of quarterback Carson Wentz’s breakout season, passing for 3296 yards and 33 touchdowns, with Jeffery and Agholor accounting for 17 of those touchdowns. Agholor is the only wide receiver that played against the Falcons in their 2016 match up, catching two passes for seven yards.
Although very successful in the passing game, all the wide receivers fell behind tight end Zach Ertz for the team lead in yards. Ertz led the Eagles for the second year in a row with 824 yards receiving. Fellow tight ends Trey Burton and longtime Eagle Brent Celek contributed 248 and 130 yards respectively. Despite being the backup to Ertz, Burton showed his worth when Ertz went down with a concussion. In the sole game Ertz missed, Burton caught five of six targets for 71 yards and two touchdowns in the Eagles’ 43-35 win over the Rams. In the 2016 game versus the Falcons, Ertz had six catches for 92 yards and Celek had one catch for nine yards.
The final, and maybe most important, piece of this offense is the offensive line. Out of the five current starters, two were named to the Pro Bowl (Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks) and one was named a first-alternate (Jason Kelce). However, despite the Pro Bowl snub, Kelce joined Johnson on the NFL’s First Team All Pro ballot. To highlight just how dominant Kelce has been all season, according to ProFootballFocus (PFF) Kelce is their highest rated run blocking center since PFF started in 2004. Speaking of dominance, according to Jimmy Kempski of Philly Voice, Johnson allowed one sack all season – to the 49ers’ Leger Douzable. That includes match ups against Ryan Kerrigan, Justin Houston, Joey Bosa, Von Miller, DeMarcus Lawrence, Michael Bennett, and Khalil Mack. The offensive line has been strong all season despite losing former All Pro left tackle Jason Peters to injury in week eight against the Washington Redskins. Since then, second year left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai was tasked with the responsibility of replacing Peters. Vaitai has had his ups and downs since being put into the starting line up. Look for the Falcons to try and exploit the weaker side of the offensive line.
The Falcons return pretty much the same roster as they fielded in 2016. Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu ranked first and second on their team respectively in receiving yards for the second consecutive year. Jones finished second in the league in receiving yards with 1444, yet only managed three receiving touchdowns on the year – as opposed to six in 2016. Despite the lack of touchdowns, he was still PFF’s second rated wide receiver, behind Steelers’ wide receiver Antonio Brown. In last Saturday’s win over the Rams, Jones had nine receptions for 94 yards and one touchdown. In the 2016 versus the Eagles, Jones had ten receptions for 135 yards, but failed to score. Sanu bested his 2016 output of 59 receptions for 653 yards receiving with 67 receptions for 703 yards in 2017. In Saturday’s win over the Rams, Sanu had four receptions for 75 yards and no touchdowns. In the 2016 game versus the Eagles, Sanu had two receptions for 14 yards and no touchdowns.
Austin Hooper is the Falcons’ main tight end and finished the season with 49 receptions for 526 yards and three touchdowns, with 88 of those yards coming on one reception. Hooper finished as PFF’s number 25 tight end in the league, falling in the “average” category on their rankings. In the Falcons win over the Rams, Hooper had three catches for 15 yards and no touchdowns. In the 2016 game versus the Eagles, Hooper was virtually shutdown, catching one pass for eight yards.
The Falcons’ offensive line is coming off a battle with First Team All-Pro and defensive player of the year candidate Aaron Donald. According to PFF, although the Rams lost, Donald finished the game with one sack and ten hurries on 34 pass-rushing snaps, good for a 98.6 overall grade. The Falcons’ offensive line doesn’t get any breaks this coming Saturday as they have to face the elite pass rushers Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan and Vinny Curry. Whereas Falcons’ center Alex Mack, who is one of the best pass-protecting centers in the NFL, had to contain one elite player last week, he will have to find a way to make sure all four Eagles’ starters are accounted for or Matt Ryan will be under duress all game.
Stay tuned for the next installment: Defense and Special Teams
If you missed the last article previewing the running backs, click here