As a Falcons fan, I hate playing the Eagles. They have eliminated my favorite team from the playoffs the only times they've gotten there since their Super Bowl runner-up finish. The only win I remember was three years ago on Monday Night Football when DeAngelo Hall and Terrell Owens were getting into it all game. The Eagles are taking on a fast-rising Atlanta team, but the Eagles should be able to beat them.
I can't talk Eagles specific players and schemes since I'm a Falcons fan, but in the interest of this being an Eagles blog I'll explain how to beat them from my point of view.
When Eagles are on Offense:
Use Westbrook To Set Up the Pass
The Falcons run defense has been solid to this point (ranked 16th by FootballOutsiders/Prospectus). They use offense's fears of fast-rising linebacker Michael Boley to free up lanes for Curtis Lofton and Keith Brooking to flow to the ball. Boley is the star, Brooking is fading, and Lofton is a terrific run-stopper but still leaves something to be desired in pass coverage. The Eagles will need to make sure to pay attention to John Abraham who is leading the league in sacks. He has been a monster disruptor this year. The Falcons have changed the way they use him this year, using him on around 47% of defensive snaps to keep him fresh so that he can go all-out on every snap he's in. So he is only out there on half of the defensive snaps, don't let him beat you on those. Pay attention to when he's out there.
Brian Westbrook and a healthy offensive line should be able to have their way with the Falcons defensive line. Correll Buckhalter can really do some damage when spelling Westbrook with his aggressive running style. The Falcons have Grady Jackson and Jonathan Babineaux leading the defensive tackle rotation and they are both solid but not outstanding. Teams that run the ball well on the Falcons tend to blow the doors open (e.g. the Falcons 2 losses to Tampa Bay and Carolina). However, this is all a set up to the passing game.
The Falcons rank 28th in defensive passing efficiency. Their starting cornerbacks, Chris Houston and Brent Grimes, are too young and mediocre at best respectively. The safety tandem of Lawyer Malloy and Erik Coleman have performed better than expected and have avoided giving up the deep pass, but that is more of a product of a good D-line protecting them. If the Eagles O-line can hold up against John Abraham in particular, expect a career day from DeSean Jackson. McNabb SHOULD be able to pick this unit apart, Kyle Orton went down the field on the Bears last drive with relative ease. The youth of the Falcons DBs are still very susceptible to play fakes.
When the Eagles are on Defense:
Two weeks ago I would've said stack 8 in the box on every play and let Matt Ryan try to beat you. I don't think that applies for two reasons: the first being that the Eagles have a better blitzing team than the Bears and won't need that money, the second being that Matt Ryan has shown competency and that he will beat a team that dares him. The Bears were missing their best cover corners but Matt still picked them apart (22-30 for 301 yds, 1 TD 0 INT). The strategy for the Eagles should not change too much.
The biggest key is stopping the run. Michael Turner is currently #2 in the league in rushing and has proven to be a great FA sign for the Falcons. In all of the Falcons 4 wins, they have shown commitment to the run. This even applies to the loss to the Bears when Turner was held to 54 yards on 25 carries. Though ineffective, Turner kept the Bears honest enough that Matt Ryan was able to stand back and pick apart the Bears defense on passing plays. Michael Turner is spelled by Jerious Norwood who is a very speedy back who is capable of hitting a home run on any play, it is your classic case of thunder and lightning.
Now onto passing, this one is very simple. BLANKET RODDY WHITE! After looking like a breakout candidate last year, he has continued the rise this year and is still building a great relationship with Matt Ryan as his go-to guy. On the year Roddy White has 35 catches for 556 yards and 3 TDs (#3 in the NFL). The next most catches on the team is 13 by Michael Jenkins, the tight ends are hardly useful at all. If Asante Samuel/Sheldon Brown can lock down Roddy White the Eagles chances of winning will go up exponentially. However, that has been easier said than done. If Roddy White is allowed to run wild through the secondary, opening things up for Turner and Norwood, the problems will multiply. The Eagles defensive focus should be on stopping the run and constantly double-covering Roddy White. Force Matt Ryan to throw to one of the many other receivers with a penchant for dropping the ball (keep an eye on rookie Harry Douglas out of the slot, though).
Blitz Matt Ryan like a Jim Johnson defense should. He holds up well against the blitz but if you can leave Samuel/Brown on an island against Roddy White the Eagles should be able to try to rattle him. This worked in the Falcons only losses to the Panthers and Buccaneers. Matt Ryan has shown he will pick a defense apart given time and he has the strength and ability to make every kind of throw needed. Don't let him get comfortable.
The Falcons are also not converting in the red zone. They have 2 passing TDs on 20 red zone appearances this season. If the Falcons get in the red zone, stack against the run and make Matt Ryan try to find holes in a condensed field.
On Special Teams:
I don't even know who returns for the Eagles so I won't bother, the Falcons have had good kickoff and solid punt coverage on the year.
As for stopping the Falcons, their punt returner, Adam Jennings, has really sucked this year. He's young and has not been doing much by way of punt return (focus of the Falcons bye week so he may not be returning), but he should not be too much of a concern, boom the ball down the field.
As for kickoff returns, the Falcons use Jerious Norwood. As stated above, he's a home-run threat. He had an 85-yard return late against the Bears (averages 29 yd/return, very good) and scared them into a squib kick with 11 seconds left. The Eagles coverage will have to stay disciplined in their lanes or he can take one to the house.
The kickers between the teams are pretty similar though Akers has battled injury more recently. Jason Elam has been great for the Falcons so far (minus a 33-yard snafu last week that he made up for). This game will probably not come down to kickers.
Matchup to Watch: Asante Samuel CB vs. Roddy White WR
Roddy White has been burning every CB he has faced this season that wasn't donning a Tampa Bay jersey and he seems to be getting better weekly, but he hasn't faced a corner like Asante Samuel yet. This matchup will be a huge factor in the game. White has top-end speed so if Samuel is going to try to jam him, the aging Dawkins will probably not be able to keep up with White over the top. Roddy has also shown he'll go across the middle and take the hit, that's when Dawkins/Mikkel will need to drop the hammer on him. If Asante can lock down Roddy (assuming Eagles D is at least solid against the run), expect a huge win for the Eagles.
This will probably be my only NFL involvement on this board ever. I come here for the awesome Yankees blogging but I read the Eagles posts. The Eagles should beat the Falcons as long as they use Westbrook to set up the long bomb on a porous passing defense and combine that with stopping the run and blanketing Roddy White. The Eagles have all the personnel needed to stop the Falcons and will have a home field advantage. At this point the Falcons shouldn't be sneaking up on anyone either.
I think the Eagles win this one and deflate my beloved Falcons balloon. Though I'll be screaming obscenities if the Falcons lose, they probably should lose this one. Mind you, I thought they'd lose to the Packers and Bears too.
Eagles 30 – Falcons 14
Thanks again, Alex, for picking up some of the slack around here and giving us a look at the game from the enemy fan's perspective.