Eagles-Falcons Preview Q&A With D. Orlando Ledbetter

Discussing keys to the game with a Falcons beat reporter.

Darren Sproles. (USA Today Sports)

Darren Sproles. (USA Today Sports)

In this week’s installment of Opposition Research, we talked to Falcons beat reporter D. Orlando Ledbetter. We discussed why Atlanta’s offense has been so good, why their defense is shaky and who will win on Sunday.

The Falcons rank first in the NFL in points per game (33.9) and second in yards per game (429.2). What makes them so good? 

“The main key is there was a meeting of the minds between the players and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Last year, they didn’t really understand how the offense worked and questioned whether it suited all of their skill sets. They probably cost [free agent wide receiver] Roddy White whatever time he had left in the league. They figured out how to best utilize Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman last year and this year, they’re pretty locked in on what Matt Ryan can and can’t do within the scheme of the offense.

“The big thing is the tight ends and the running backs. They wanted [running back] Tevin Coleman to work on his pass-catching, and then [tight ends] Jacob Tamme and Austin Hooper have blocked a little bit better. Then, Levine Toilolo, his thing to work on was catching the ball because he was more of a blocking tight end. With those guys operating in those different spots at different times, Freeman and Coleman became interchangeable as pass-catcher and running backs. And the tight ends became more of a package out of 13 [personnel] where they could power the ball at people or sneak out and catch some balls down the field.”

What’s the key to slowing this offense down?

“The turnovers have been the problem. They haven’t had a lot of them, but when they have them, it’s untimely. They were driving late against Seattle to win, and Ryan threw an interception. Then, he did the same thing against San Diego. They were trying to run the clock out, but he threw another pick. Those untimely turnovers is what’s keeping them from being 8-1.”

On the other hand, the Falcons rank 28th in the league in points per game allowed (28.8) and 26th in yards per game allowed (381.1). Why have they struggled?

“They made a conscious decision to go with a very, very young defense. You got four rookies playing out there at any given time in nickel — Brian Poole at nickel corner, Keanu Neal at strong safety, middle linebacker Deion Jones and weak side linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. Those guys are seeing things for the first time and may be hesitating a little bit. But they like their speed, aggressiveness and tackling ability, so they’re going to live through the growing pains because they think it will bode well down the stretch or certainly in the future. But on top of the four rookies, you still got three second-year guys. Grady Jarrett at tackle, Vic Beasley at outside linebacker and Ricardo Allen is a second-year free safety after converting from cornerback.

“The run numbers look good; I think only three teams have run for more than 100 yards against them. It’s been against the pass that’s hurt them — rallying to the pass-catcher in their three-deep zone or passing people off. Philip Rivers put on a crossing route clinic when the Chargers were able to come back from 17 points down and steal that game. They weren’t passing people off through the zones on the crossing routes, so that’s something they’ve tried to fix. But it’s mostly in coverage and getting their zone principles down. When they get beat in man-to-man, it’s usually [cornerback] Robert Alford. He has nine penalties and six defensive pass interference penalties. He likes to grab and hold.”

Are the Falcons battling any injuries or suspensions?

“Injury-wise, Dwight Freeney (thigh) didn’t practice Wednesday and Tamme (shoulder) didn’t practice Wednesday, but Desmond Trufant is the biggest one. He’s their lead cover corner, and he suffered a shoulder injury down in Tampa Bay. Tevin Coleman is also still out from a hamstring injury he suffered against San Diego, so he’s missed two games already.”

How are the Falcons different than last year when the Eagles played them?

“The main thing offensively is the diversification of the attack. Certainly, it all starts with Julio and Freeman, but now you have guys around them who can make plays and do make plays. Coleman, [wide receiver] Taylor Gabriel, the tight ends, even Aldrick Robinson, [wide receiver] Justin Hardy and then the biggest thing money-wise was getting Mohamed Sanu as a second receiver — he’s on pace to break his career-highs. They’ve got weapons that make it really hard to say, ‘I’m taking Julio away,’ because then you let all of the other guys out loose.”

Who do you think will win?

“I’m going to pick the Falcons, probably about 30-21. They’ll get their points and then they’ll just have to hold on. That’s been their formula: Their offense opens up a lead, and then they just try to hold on because their defense is so young and shaky.”