Falcons’ Cover-3 is Familiar but Daunting
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery in the copycat NFL.
The best defense of this generation has resided in Seattle and Pete Carroll's scheme centers around a Cover-3 mentality with the intent of allowing his defense to play as fast as possible.
The scheme migrated to Jacksonville and now Los Angeles with Gus Bradley, the former defensive coordinator under Carroll, and then to Atlanta with Dan Quinn, Bradley's replacement as DC with the Seahawks before getting the big chair in Dixie.
The Eagles have seen it plenty of times, this season against the Chargers during Week 4 and again when they visited Seattle in Week 13. Last season, which Atlanta ultimately finished as the NFC champions, the Falcons visit Lincoln Financial Field and lost to the Eagles 24-15.
"It's very similar," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said when discussing playing the Chargers. "When the Seahawks are healthy it's very similar, defensive scheme. So we feel like we've kind of played this defense a little bit already this season. But at the same time, [there is a] different set of challenges. These guys are healthy and they are playing good. But having played this scheme already guys are familiar with it, yes."
The thought behind the Cover-3 is to simplify things for the players so they can execute without hesitation while also limiting big plays by getting the football underneath.
"You know where they are going to be," Pederson admitted. "That's the thing with this defense. They are going to line up and show you exactly -- I mean, that's the way they play. They play with a lot of confidence. It's an aggressive style. It's fast flow and they are not going to pull any punches. They are not going to try to trick you or do anything to get in your head or anything like that. It's just line up and try to beat us."
In today's NFL if you are forced to matriculate down the field for 13- or 15-play drives, the thought is a negative play will eventually crop up and short circuit things.
That makes "staying on schedule" offensively, always a goal, even more important against a team content of employing the bend-but-don't-break philosophy.
"We have to do a good job of being productive on first and second down," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich told 973espn.com. "That's been a big part of our formula. ... This defense, they can get after the passer. They have a good pass rush and playing fast and like you said, in that zone defense, you keep everything in front of you. So we have to have better production on first and second down."
The Falcons finished top 10 in scoring defense this season, surrendering 19.7 points per game this season, eighth-best in the NFL. The strength of the unit probably resides in the back seven with a pair of good cornerbacks -- Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford -- as well as hard-hitting safety Keanu Neal.
The pass rush is anchored by the lightning quick Vic Beasley as well as the savvy Adrian Clayborn while the star of the linebacking unit is undersized middle linebacker Deion Jones.
"They are fast," Pederson admitted. "They are flying to the football. Secondary is aggressive. Guys know how to cover. They are going to challenge our receivers and that's what you're seeing on tape. It's a quality defense, but that's what we expect this time of year."
And the way to deal with it, this time of year is by pounding the football in the running back, likely the Eagles' plan considering how they've handled Jay Ajayi in recent weeks.
"I'm not going to obviously give you my game plan today, but [the running game] worked for us last year," Pederson said. "But [this is] a different year, different set of circumstances. Is it something to build off of? Yeah, we can look at it and learn from it."
Ajayi was rested in Week 17 and given a load-management day during the bye week to ensure the dynamic back, who rushed for 130 yards against the Falcons earlier this season while with Miami, is ready.
"I really do feel like he's fresh and that is one of the advantages of what we've done and really managing that situation for him in whatever things he has going on physically [chronic knee pain]," Reich said of Ajayi.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen