Five on the Falcons
PHILADELPHIA - It's time to finally switch gears and jump into regular-season mode. Each week at 973espn.com, we will be taking a look at the Eagles upcoming opponent and the five areas you should be keeping an eye on. Without further ado, here's the Week 1 edition of "Five on the Falcons."
THE PASSING GAME
The one undeniable strength in the ATL is the passing game led by three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Ryan. The Exton native may not reach into the top-tier of NFL quarterbacks with names like Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady but it's fair to say he's right beneath them and one of the truly elite passers in the game.
Having perhaps the best combination of receivers also doesn't hurt as Julio Jones is top five in all of football and veteran Roddy White remains one of the best second options in the league despite being 32 and two weeks removed from arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow.
"You know it depends on how their protection can hold up versus our rush and then how does our coverage holds up against some really talented receivers, and especially Julio and Roddy," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "Those are two of the tops and a really good pair. So it's not like you can just single one guy out. We feel like they have a couple guys there that you have to really put a lot of attention on."
Other key contributors in Atlanta's passing game figure to be former Denver tight end Jacob Tamme and ex-Redskins receiver Leonard Hankerson, a sharp step down from the glory days when the Falcons were a serious Super Bowl contender with Tony Gonzalez and Harry Douglas serving as the lesser options behind the great outside receivers.
"Roddy White and Tamme and there's a lot of good players down there," Kelly admitted. "So that's going to be a big matchup."
The Falcons are sure to target whomever the Eagles' nickel back is in that matchup, be it struggling rookie Eric Rowe or veteran journeyman E.J. Biggers.
"I think Eric can have a significant role right out of the chute," Kelly claimed. "We are confident in Eric going into this game."
When pressed on who would line up in the slot, however, Kelly was demur.
"Whatever is best for us to win is what we are going to go with," the coach stated.
On the plus side for Philadelphia is the fact that the Falcons have one of the worst offensive lines in football, recently reaching for former Titans bust Andy Levitre, a guard, in a trade, and bringing in former Ravens and Broncos washout Gino Gradkowski at center. Veteran tackle Jake Long could also be in the mix at tackle by Monday.
"Obviously pass defense consists of pass rush and pass coverage," said Kelly. "So try to get to Matt (Ryan) so we can get the ball out of his hands a little bit quicker than probably he hopes to get it out."
WHAT TO EXPECT?
This is no longer Mike Smith running the Falcons so there is a little bit of the unknown with first-year head coach Dan Quinn, the former defensive coordinator in Seattle. The Seahawks played a ton of cover-3 but had two of the best safeties in the game in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, as well as perhaps the best corner in Richard Sherman. The cupboard is obviously not the same in Atlanta.
"You've just got some preseason games, and obviously I don't think Dan used everything in the preseason, both offensively and defensively, just because of how preseason expresses itself," Kelly admitted. "So you've got to kind of look at the coordinators and where they came from and kind of match up what you think is going to happen, but there will have to be some in-game adjustments both offensively and defensively in terms of what we are preparing for."
Kyle Shanahan is handling the offense while ex-Denver assistant Richard Smith is helping Quinn with the defense.
"He did," Kelly answered when asked if Quinn used a lot of the same stuff he did in Seattle during the preseason, "but also their coordinator came from Denver. So I think you have to look at where they all came from. Same thing offensively; Kyle is there, but it's not exactly what he did at Washington, because obviously Matt Ryan is a little different than RG3. But you have an understanding of what they are going to do. But there will be things that they show in the first game that they didn't show in the preseason."
ISSUES UP FRONT
The Falcons' biggest issues from last season remain in that they are weak on both fronts although the chance for improvement is on the defensive side thanks to Quinn's presence, along with first-round pick Vic Beasley, an athletic marvel off the edge.
"I think they have got a good rush," Kelly said. "The front four (Beasley, fellow end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackles Ra'Shede Hageman and Paul Soliai), can get after the quarterback just in a four-man rush. ... (Beasley is a ) good, dynamic pass rusher. I think they try to always get him to the open side, so he's not always lined up on one side, so that will be a good test for both JP (LT Jason Peters) and Lane (RT Lane Johnson)."
DON'T FEAR THE RUNNING GAME
Perhaps the biggest help against the Falcons' passing game is the fact that the Eagles have a very good chance of making Atlanta one-dimensional. The main backs for Shanahan will be rookie third-round pick Tevin Coleman, who was banged up for much of the preseason, and scat back Devonta Freeman, sort of a poor man's Darren Sproles.
"You look at Tevin Coleman and what he did at Indiana; you kind of look at that," Kelly said when asked about getting ready for the freshman. "He didn't play a ton of snaps, but he did play in the last preseason game. So you get a chance to see him a little bit and he's a big, physical back. Runs down hill, plays behind his pads. Got a pretty good feel just off of what anybody would have with any type of rookie playing in his first game. But he's a tough, hard-nosed physical running back."
WHO CAN BEAT YOU?
If there is one potential X-factor who could project very well into Quinn's philosophy, it's lengthy cornerback Desmond Trufant, who could be on the verge of being a top 10 coverage guy. The Eagles have talent at the receiver position but a lot of it is young and Trufant might be able to bait Sam Bradford a time or two.
"Coverage-wise, Trufant (Falcons CB Desmond Trufant) is a kid -- I know him really well, and played against him when he was at Washington," Kelly said. "He did not play in the preseason, but has had an outstanding career so far now in Atlanta."
973espn.com prediction: Eagles - 34, Falcons 27
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JFMcMullen.