1. The Falcons are averaging 28.5 points per game, sixth-best in the league. In the offseason, they brought in Dirk Koetter as their new offensive coordinator. Matt Ryan runs a lot of no-huddle and is completing 67.8 percent of his passes, tied for fourth-best in the league. He’s thrown 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Atlanta is a high-efficiency passing team. Football Outsiders ranks their offense 10th overall – ninth through the air and 24th on the ground. Even though the Falcons are 6-0, the offense is not clicking on all cylinders just yet.
“We definitely have not played our best football on offense yet,” Koetter told reporters recently. “We studied ourselves across the board in every situation. We need to get better across the board and I’m confident that they guys will try to do that.”
Before the bye, the offense turned in a shaky outing against the Raiders. The scoreboard showed 23 points, but one of those touchdowns was courtesy of an Asante Samuel pick-six, and a field goal was the result of a fumble return to the Raiders’ 2. Ryan threw three interceptions in that game, and Michael Turner averaged just 3.0 yards per carry. Koetter, Ryan and the rest of the Falcons’ offense will try to get on track against the Eagles’ defense and new coordinator Todd Bowles.
2. Let’s talk about Ryan. While the Falcons’ offense is more prolific than past seasons, Ryan still does not throw the ball downfield a lot. According to Pro Football Focus, just 10.2 percent of Ryan’s passes have gone 20 yards or more downfield. That ranks 20th in the league. Overall, the Falcons have 17 pass plays of 20+ yards; that’s tied for 24th. Atlanta chooses its spots with the deep ball, but relies on completing a high percentage of the short and intermediate throws. Ryan has completed 69.2 percent of his throws under 10 yards, according to Stats.com. He gets to the line of scrimmage, checks out the defense and has the ability to call the play. The Eagles, meanwhile, are holding opponents to a league-low 52.7 percent completion percentage. Quarterbacks are averaging just 6.2 yards per attempt against the Birds, tied for the second-lowest mark in the league. Overall, Football Outsiders has the Eagles’ defense ranked eighth – eighth against the pass and 11th against the run.
3. Ryan distributes the ball pretty evenly to his top three weapons: wide receivers Roddy White (53 targets) and Julio Jones (54), along with tight end Tony Gonzalez (54). White leads the Falcons with 553 receiving yards. In his eighth season, the veteran is averaging a career-high 92.2 yards per game. Known as more of a possession receiver, White is stretching the field more this year with a team-high seven catches of 20+ yards. He’s also averaging a team-high 14.9 yards per reception. White is good at adjusting to the ball in the air, and Ryan trusts him to make plays even when he’s not open. This will be Bowles’ first game calling the defense so it’s difficult to predict how he’ll use Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha against the Falcons’ receivers. More on that below.
4. “They definitely have two outstanding corners,” Koetter told reporters this week. “Unless they are going to play three corners, they can’t put a corner on all three of our guys. Matchups are one of the key parts of this game. Every game has some plus and minus matchups for both sides. They have two awesome corners and they’ve been matching them on wideouts. I haven’t seen them matching them on tight ends this year, but anything is possible.”
Which brings us to Gonzalez, who leads the Falcons with 43 catches. He’s caught 79.6 percent of the balls thrown his way, a ridiculous number. At the age of 36, Gonzalez is on pace for a career-high in receptions and is averaging 71.7 yards per game. He had seven catches for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Eagles last year. On the Falcons’ game-winning drive vs. the Raiders a couple weeks ago, Ryan targeted Gonzalez on three straight attempts, completing two for 23 yards and setting Matt Bryant up for the game-winning 55-yard field goal. The Eagles have been OK against opposing tight ends this year, ranking 13th, per Football Outsiders. They’ve used a mix of coverages that has included linebackers and safeties. Last year, we saw the Eagles use Asomugha on tight ends in certain situations, but that hasn’t happened yet in 2012. One key here will be how the Eagles use rookie Brandon Boykin. Will he shift outside in certain spots and allow Asomugha to cover Gonzalez? Boykin played outside for the first time all season vs. Detroit. Will Boykin (5-9) be on Gonzalez (6-5)? Will Brandon Hughes or Curtis Marsh get a shot? That didn’t work out so well against the Lions. Keep in mind that Gonzalez almost never stays in to block. On pass plays, he’s used as a receiver 90.6 percent of the time, per PFF.
5. Jones was the deep threat last year, averaging 17.8 yards per reception, but that number is down to 12.5 this season. He still has six catches of 25+ yards though. Jones (6-3) is a well-rounded receiver, capable of hitting on plays downfield, picking up yards after the catch and coming down with the ball in traffic. He has six red-zone receptions, including four touchdowns. If he’s healthy Harry Douglas (23 catches for 149 yards) will line up in the slot. Douglas has been on the field for 58.1 percent of the snaps, per PFF. He didn’t practice Wednesday because of a knee/ankle injury. Jacquizz Rodgers (15 catches for 117 yards) will catch the ball out of the backfield.
6. Veteran Michael Turner is averaging 4.3 yards per carry. But he got a big boost from running all over the Panthers (13 carries, 103 yards) in Week 4. Take that game away, and Turner is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry. In the past two games, he’s got 100 yards on 29 attempts (3.4 YPC). The workhorse days appear to be over for the 30-year-old. Turner averaged 19.8 carries per game from 2010-2011, but that number is down to 14.0 this year. The Eagles will still have to pay attention to him though. Turner gashed them for 114 yards on 21 carries in last year’s meeting. The Birds’ defense has not been great against the run the past couple weeks. The Lions piled up 138 yards and averaged 4.9 yards per carry against them. And Rashard Mendenhall averaged 5.2 yards per carry the previous week. The Eagles’ defensive tackles have under-performed as a unit, and while DeMeco Ryans has been great (eight tackles for loss), the other linebackers have had some issues against the run. Scheme has played a role at times as well. Turner’s complement is Rodgers, but he hasn’t been a great option, averaging just 2.5 yards per carry with a long run of 9.
7. The Falcons have experience on the offensive line – a unit that is middle-of-the-pack. Left tackle Sam Baker had a a rough 2011 and has battled back issues. Trent Cole abused him in last year’s meeting with a sack and season-high eight hurries. Cole has not had a great year, but is tied for the team lead with 23 hurries. He has not been as good as usual against the run.
Justin Blalock gets the nod at left guard. He’s started every game for the Falcons since 2008. Derek Landri and Cedric Thornton have combined for just five hurries in the last four games. Center Todd McClure is in his 13th season as the Falcons’ starter. Cullen Jenkins and Fletcher Cox will match up with right guard Garrett Reynolds (limited practice participant Wednesday). Jenkins had a pair of sacks in last year’s meeting. Cox has been the team’s best defensive tackle. The rookie has excelled against the run and shown flashes as a pass-rusher. His 14 hurries are the most among Eagles’ DTs.
Jason Babin and Brandon Graham will match up against right tackle Tyson Clabo. Clabo has started every game for the Falcons since 2008 and made he Pro Bowl in 2010. According to Pro Football Focus, Clabo has allowed five sacks, tied for fourth-most in the league this season. Babin is tied with Cole for the team-lead in hurries (23), and he leads the Eagles with 2.5 sacks. He had a sack and four hurries against Atlanta last year. Graham has made the most of his opportunities with 13 hurries and half-a-sack, but hasn’t seen a real bump in playing time. The same five guys have started all six games for the Falcons this season. Atlanta has been called for the fewest offensive holding penalties (five) and fewest false start penalties (three) in the league.
8. The key to the game could very well be how Bowles manages to get the Eagles’ pass-rushers free. And that won’t be easy when you consider some of the things the Falcons do up front. Atlanta often spreads it out and relies on Ryan to get rid of the ball quickly. According to Stats, Inc., 77 percent of Ryan’s pass attempts have come on plays with at least three receivers out wide, and 53 percent have come with four receivers (note: one of those is usually Gonzalez). In other words, the Eagles’ backup corners and safeties are going to have to cover a lot in this game. On the play below, the Falcons go with an empty backfield and five wide receivers (including Gonzalez) against the Raiders.
You’ll notice four of the five receivers run short-to-intermediate routes that are 11 yards or less from the line of scrimmage. The only guy going downfield is Gonzalez (yellow circle).
Ryan hits Douglas for an 8-yard completion. By my unofficial count, the ball was out in 1.8 seconds. In Week 6, the Eagles did a really good job on the short throws against Matthew Stafford. Going into the game, he was completing 77.1 percent of his passes between 0 and 10 yards. Against the Eagles, he completed just 12 of 22 (54.5 percent). Look for Bowles to be even more aggressive on those passes. Finding a way to force Ryan to hold onto the ball will help the front four get to him.
One of the sacks Ryan took against the Raiders was the direct result of the Raiders aggressively shutting down those shorter routes. Here, he looks for Gonzalez (top of the screen), but the tight end is covered so he has to hitch once.
He may have had to a shot to hit White over the middle (other red circle), but didn’t pull the trigger. Unofficially, Ryan held on to the ball for four seconds here and took a sack.
9. While the Falcons will spread it out quite a bit, they’ll also show a variety of looks. For example, take a look at how they set up on this first-quarter play against the Raiders.
You see 10 of the 11 offensive players in this shot. The only person missing is White, who’s lined up out wide to the left. The Falcons have an extra lineman and two tight ends. Typically, this is not the kind of formation you’d be throwing downfield out of, but that’s exactly what the Falcons do. Ryan hits White down the sideline for a 25-yard gain. The blocking actually wasn’t great, as Baker, the left tackle, and Blalock, the left guard, had trouble, but you can see that the Falcons have certain looks in their back pocket if they’re worried about the Eagles’ pass rush.
10. It’ll be interesting to see how much Bowles dials up the blitz vs. the Falcons. In last year’s meeting, the Eagles only blitzed twice. Ryan is completing 62.5 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and one interception against the blitz, according to Stats, Inc. Only two of his 13 sacks have come on plays where the defense sent extra pressure. In other words, there’s evidence that you can get to Ryan with a four-man rush. The message from the Eagles seems to be that the defense might not blitz a lot more, but it will choose its spots better and be more effective when it does send extra pressure.
Leftovers: The Falcons excel at a lot of the little things. They’re fourth in red-zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns 64 percent of the time. They’re fourth in starting field position, beginning drives on average at their own 30.03-yard-line. They’re averaging just 1.2 turnovers per game, tied for sixth-fewest. And Atlanta leads the league in fewest penalties (three) and penalty yards (25.3) per game… The Eagles have the third-best red-zone defense in the league, allowing touchdowns 35 percent of the time. …This is a different offense, but the Falcons max-protected 15 percent of the time last year, fourth-most in the league, per Football Outsiders.
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