Behind Enemy Lines: Can Falcons stop Wentz?

Garrett Chapman
September 12, 2019 - 11:58 am
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The Philadelphia Eagles head to Atlanta at 1-0, but it looked like they had to shake off mountains of rust in the early parts of their matchup with the Washington Redskins on Sunday. The offense stalled and the defense gave up chunk plays. Before long, the team was in a 17-point hole at home.

Lucky for them, Philadelphia fans are known for their forgiveness, right?

Their fortunes changed with one perfect play to their prodigal son. Carson Wentz dropped back and threw a 51-yard laser to DeSean Jackson to trim the deficit to 10.

They didn’t look back.

In a game in which the Eagles trailed much of the first half, the second half provided a much clearer picture of what this team can be. With a suffocating defense and a powerful offense to match, the Eagles scored on every second-half possession, finishing the day on a dominant 25-7 run.

Offense

The offensive success begins and ends with quarterback Carson Wentz. As the lynchpin of this unit, it goes where he does. He started slow on Sunday and the effect on both sides of the ball was evident. After kicking the rust, he finished the day throwing for 313 yards, with a 71.8 percent completion percentage, and three touchdowns. Considering that was his first action following his back injury in Week 11 of last season that is pretty exceptional. If the second half of Sunday’s matchup is any indication, he looks to be returning to his 2017 form when he was a frontrunner for MVP. The Redskins were unable to get any real pressure on him throughout the day and the Falcons must be better here. If he is allowed time in the pocket, he can unleash the full wrath of the Eagles’ weapons.

Speaking of offensive weapons, Carson Wentz has plenty. To start, he has an all-world tight end in Zach Ertz for the Falcons’ linebackers to sweat about all week. In speaking about Ertz with the Morning Show on Wednesday, Dan Quinn called Ertz “as good as it gets,” and he’s right. The ability for a tight end to run any route that a receiver can run is not common, but he makes it look easy. The Falcons are unlikely to shut him down, but they must slow him down if they want to get off the field. The Redskins actually did this very well in the first half, but Wentz began to find him later on and drives extended. If you’re wondering why the Eagles scored on every possession in the second half, this is probably it.

On the outside, the offense returns Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, but the true weapon to watch is the aforementioned Jackson. The speedy veteran had a homecoming that dreams are made of. He finished with eight receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns of 50-plus yards out of the slot. Familiarity will help after seeing Jackson the past two years in Tampa Bay, but Damontae Kazee will have his work cut out for him. In fact, all three of these wideouts can beat you if you let them. The Falcons’ defensive backs will need to be sound in communication, especially if Wentz is returning to his 2017 form.

Behind one of the more dominant offensive lines in the NFL, the Eagles boast a three-headed monster to complement their electric passing attack. All of the talk from Sunday surrounded the passing attack, but don’t let that fool you. New acquisition Jordan Howard is one of only three running backs that have 3,000-plus yards rushing since 2016 and he runs like a freight train (see Dalvin Cook). Miles Sanders is a rookie, but if it weren’t for a penalty, he would’ve been the only Eagles back to find the end zone. Even at age 36, Darren Sproles finds a way to beat defenses in the passing game. All three of these backs can burn a defense.         

The Eagles have the personnel to attack you in a plethora of ways. This was evident in their third-down offense that finished over the 60 percent mark with many third-and-longs thrown in. Wentz was 12 for 13 for 197 with three touchdowns on the money down. The Falcons have to stay ahead of the chains and finish drives on defense. If they don’t, they will be in for a long, punishing day.       

Defense

The Eagles match their dynamic offense with a suffocating defense that plays hard. That mentality starts in the trenches. The unit did lose Chris Long and Michael Bennett to retirement and trade, respectively, but this is still a very good unit. They boast a four-time Pro Bowler in the middle in Fletcher Cox and a budding star at pass rusher in Derek Barnett. This unit absolutely crushed the Redskins’ running backs on Sunday. They allowed a mere 2.2 yards per carry and didn’t allow a single first-down run, much less a touchdown. The Falcons cannot afford to get pushed around like they did in Minnesota. With Jamon Brown and Kaleb McGary named new starters on the right side, this is a critical area for Atlanta to show progress. They must establish the running game and give Matt Ryan time to throw if they want to have any success.

However, injuries will be something to follow here. Both of the aforementioned players have been limited in practice this week. The depth will be hindered after marquee free agency acquisition, Malik Jefferson, was placed on the IR following a foot injury on Sunday.

When you look at this Eagles defensive unit, it begins in the trenches, but it ends in the secondary and that view isn’t as pretty. After losing Patrick Robinson in free agency to the Saints and with Jalen Mills still on the PUP list, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is on the search for his starting duo. The only solidified starter, Ronald Darby, is coming off an ACL tear that ended his 2018 season.

This “cornerback-by-committee” approach burned them on Sunday. While the running game for the Redskins was suffocated, Case Keenum picked the secondary apart. Their struggles were evident with the uninspired attempts to tackle 35-year-old Vernon Davis on the 48-yard touchdown that should have never happened. They were exposed again five minutes into the second quarter when rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin torched them for a 69-yard score. In a unit that boasts one of the best safeties in the NFL in Malcolm Jenkins, this sort of production is unacceptable. Jim Schwartz clearly doesn’t trust the back end of his defense and the Falcons must take advantage of any blitzes he draws up that would expose them. If (and that’s a bigger if than I’d like it to be) the offensive line can hold, Matt Ryan and company could feast on this secondary.

Projection

The Falcons will be eager to put Week 1 behind them. Minnesota is not an easy place to get a win, but the Falcons made it harder on themselves. The slow start matched with three turnovers and a blocked punt that amounted to all 28 of the opposition’s points doesn’t help. Unfortunately, it doesn’t get any easier in the home opener with the Eagles coming to town riding a three-game winning streak in the series.

Between opening up running lanes and keeping Ryan upright, the key for the Falcons begins and ends on the offensive line. On the 32 plays that Ryan was kept clean on Sunday, he completed 83.3 percent of his passes for 210 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. On the 20 drops where he was pressured, those numbers plummeted to 50 percent for 94 yards, zero touchdowns, and two interceptions. With glaring holes in the secondary, this battle will be pivotal. If the line holds long enough, this Falcons offense can run with any team in the NFL.

I expect a different Falcons team to show up on Sunday. In an interview with The Morning Show on Wednesday, Dan Quinn was determined to “channel the anger” from their poor performance in Minnesota. Atlanta will look to get rid of the ball quickly to mitigate any defensive line pressure. If the Falcons begin to pick up steam, I expect for Malik Jefferson’s absence to rear its ugly head. With nobody to shut down Atlanta’s explosive wide receivers, the secondary’s poor tackling will be exposed if the ball gets outside.

Falcons – 31

Eagles – 27