Four Downs: Secondary Struggles Lead To Loss

What changed for the Eagles in the second half?

Photo courtesy of USA Today.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports.

ATLANTA, Ga. — The Eagles lost to the Falcons, 26-24, in their first game of the season. Here’s what we saw.


The Eagles rushed the ball only 16 times—compared to 52 pass attempts—but it shouldn’t have been that shocking after seeing what the Falcons were doing. Dan Quinn had one of his safeties creep up closer to the line of scrimmage to help out on run plays, giving Philadelphia a better opportunity to attack Atlanta through the air.

It may not have seemed like it because the Eagles struggled so much in the first half, but their offense had plenty of chances they didn’t take advantage of. Sam Bradford was rusty (more on this below) in the first two quarters, but once he settled in, he was able to exploit this. Quinn made it clear that he was committed to stopping the run and if anyone was going to beat him, it had to be Bradford.

However, even with Atlanta’s alignment, Philadelphia ran the ball better in the second half. In the first two quarters, every offensive lineman—including Jason Kelce and Jason Peters—had their struggles. In the last two quarters, however, the unit as a whole did a better job of walling off the edge to give their running backs cleaner alleys to cut up field. The offensive line also improved their second-level blocking and cut off linebackers who were scraping to fill open holes.


Malcolm Jenkins warned us about Kyle Shanahan’s knack for calling play-action passes while keeping extra defenders into block and sending as little as two receivers out on routes. Well, the Falcons did just that and the Eagles still got burned on those plays. Although the secondary didn’t “bite the cheese,” they still consistently gave up 20-yard completions.

Matt Ryan had a lot of time to throw the ball, but you shouldn’t blame the Eagles’ defensive line. Atlanta consistently kept seven or eight guys in for pass protection while Philadelphia only rushed four defenders. It’s unreasonable to expect the Eagles to get pressure in those situations, but it’s not unreasonable to expect four defensive backs to cover two receivers.

That was the primary problem in the first half, but Bill Davis made a solid adjustment toward the end of the second quarter. He began to send more rushers and although the Falcons still picked up their fair share of passing yards, Davis essentially negated those max-protection, play-action passes. The defensive line also did a good job stopping the run, as Atlanta averaged around three yards per carry.


Bradford played poorly in the first half, and he regained all of that rust he appeared to shake off in the preseason. His timing was way off as he came close to multiple first quarter interceptions—including one that could have easily been a pick-six. Even on his completions, Bradford often delivered the ball late and didn’t give his receivers a chance to pick up yards after the catch.

The Eagles’ offensive line didn’t do a good job of protecting Bradford, so Chip Kelly made a good adjustment by calling quick screens and short swing passes and slants to get his quarterback into a rhythm. However, even on those plays the offense didn’t execute well so Bradford didn’t do much in the first half outside of completing short passes.

In the second half, Bradford did a much better job of hitting his receivers in stride. He wasn’t hesitant during his progressions and seemed much more confident as he pulled the trigger and delivered the ball into tight windows. He showed the touch we saw in the third preseason game and set up his receivers—particularly Jordan Matthews and Darren Sproles—to make big plays after they got open.


Although this game provided some answers, it also brought up more questions. One thing I’m interested to look at while watching the game film is how Davis used his three inside linebackers: Kiko Alonso, Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans.

I was surprised that Alonso didn’t get the start and play more snaps, but the tape may reveal why. He made an incredible one-handed catch when he intercepted the ball in the end zone, but he was also beat on the play and the Falcons could have easily scored if Ryan threw a decent pass.

I’m also curious how the Eagles’ strategy at nickelback will change. Kelly said it would differ from week to week, but how so? It seems unlikely Eric Rowe will get a lot of snaps, so will one of the safeties continue to drop down and play corner? Chris Maragos came in as the fifth defensive back, but did he show enough to play more next week?