There are, as always, multiple side issues leading up to this week’s Eagles game. Will Michael Vick see action against his old team? How will Kevin Kolb perform? Can King Dunlap protect Kolb’s blind side? Will special teams problems continue?
The real issue, however, is a lot less sexy. The real issue is that the Atlanta Falcons are a very good team.
The Falcons (4-1) are the best team the Eagles have faced since their season opener against Green Bay. How the Eagles fare against the Falcons, who have won four in a row since a season-opening loss to the Steelers, may provide a barometer for the Eagles’ fortunes the rest of the season.
If the Eagles win, they’ll be 4-2 and the playoff talk will heat up. If the Eagles lose, they’ll be 3-3, with tough games against the Titans and (after the bye week) Colts staring them in the face.
Let’s take a closer look at the challenges the Falcons present, and how the Eagles may respond.
CASE FOR THE DEFENSE: When people talk about the Falcons, the discussion almost always starts with quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner. Frequently overlooked, however, is the Falcons defense.
Only one team (New Orleans) has scored more than 15 points against the Falcons, and the Falcons won that game in overtime, 27-24. In fact, the Saints are the only team to score more than one offensive touchdown against the Falcons this season.
With the exception of a 41-7 shellacking of Arizona, the Falcons haven’t dominated opponents. Their defense allows them to stay in the game, then Ryan comes up with a big play or kicker Matt Bryant provides the finishing touch to lift the Falcons to yet another victory.
The Eagles have only been held below 20 points once in their five games. If they can exceed 20 again, their chances of winning will increase dramatically.
KING-SIZED PROBLEM? With Jason Peters out after having arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee, King Dunlap will start at left tackle. After the 6-foot-7-inch Dunlap replaced Peters during the Eagles’ victory last Sunday, the 49ers produced three sacks – by three different players – from Dunlap’s side.
The challenge this week will come from Falcons defensive end John Abraham. That could be bad news for Dunlap, Kolb and the Eagles. The positive news is that Abraham is listed as questionable due to a back injury.
Whether Abraham starts or not, the Eagles would be wise to give Dunlap some help.
Never thought you would miss Peters this much, did you?
KICKING GAME: The Falcons have a reliable weapon in kicker Matt Bryant. He has made 12 of 14 field goal attempts, including game-winners against the Saints (in overtime) and 49ers.
PASSING GRADES: Ryan is developing into a top-notch NFL quarterback. The third-year quarterback from Penn Charter had a terrific rookie season, but came back to earth a little bit during his sophomore campaign. This year Ryan has rebounded with a fast start.
Ryan has completed 61.6 percent of his passes for 1,165 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. Those are good numbers, but they aren’t eye-popping numbers. What has made Ryan so impressive is his ability to manage a game.
Last year Ryan would get in trouble by forcing passes, as if he felt he needed to make a big play. This year he seems content to methodically move down the field, with the running game and short passes, until a big-play opportunity presents itself.
When the big plays are available, the target is usually Roddy White (37 catches, 463 yards, 3 TDs).
PROBLEM AREA: It’s no secret that the Eagles have had difficulty stopping the run. The bad news is that the Falcons average 148.8 yards rushing per game, second-best in the NFL.
Their top rusher is Michael Turner (93 carries, 421 yards, 4.5 yards per rush). When Turner leaves the game, Jason Snelling (53 carries, 244 yards, 4.6 ave.) makes sure there isn’t much of a dropoff in performance.
With defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley sidelined by an elbow injury, the Eagles need tackles Antonio Dixon and Trevor Laws to fill the void alongside Mike Patterson or else the Eagles will see a steady diet of runs up the middle.
PROBLEM AREA II: The Eagles have had difficulty covering tight end for, seemingly, forever. This week’s challenge is stopping former all-pro Tony Gonzalez (24 receptions, 246 yards).
Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley has struggled to cover tight ends this season. There have been hints from the Eagles that Bradley may be replaced by a more mobile linebacker (Akeem Jordan?) in nickel situations this week.
PROBLEM AREA III: Eric Weems and Jerious Norwood are both averaging more than 24 yards per kickoff return. If the Eagles’ porous coverage teams can limit them to their average, it should be considered a minor success.
HOMECOMING WEEKEND: Ryan isn’t the only Falcon with Philadelphia roots. Starting cornerback Brent Grimes, who has a 36-yard interception return this season, attended Northeast High School
Receiver Brian Finneran, who played at Villanova, has carved out a nice career during a decade with the Falcons after breaking into the NFL by playing three games for the Eagles during Andy Reid’s inaugural season as head coach, catching two passes for 21 yards.
INACTION JACKSON: DeSean Jackson has caught just four passes for 37 yards and no touchdowns with Kevin Kolb at quarterback this season. With Michael Vick at quarterback, Jackson caught 14 passes for 324 yards and two touchdowns.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said this past week that Jackson is receiving coverage like Jerry Rice did in his prime. (I’m not making this up.) Do teams only give Jackson the “Jerry Rice treatment” when Kolb is at quarterback?
The Eagles need to find a way to get Jackson the ball. Either other receivers have to do enough damage to force teams to stop cheating their safeties toward Jackson or Kolb has to throw some long balls and let Jackson try to run under them. Even if the throw falls incomplete, the threat of a long pass should loosen up the defense.
The problem this week is that, with Dunlap replacing Peters at left tackle, Kolb might not have time to wait for Jackson to get open downfield.
PREDICTION: Falcons 22, Eagles 16