When: Sunday Night Football, 8:20 p.m. EST
Where: The Georgia Dome, Atlanta, Georgia
The obvious story of this game is Michael Vick's second return to the Georgia Dome since his release from prison (his first as a starter), but as the season goes along, Vick may not be the quarterback under the microscope.
Atlanta's offense vs. Philadelphia's defense
Current Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan had a revelatory rookie season in 2008, helping to heal some of the wounds that Vick left behind when he was a very different person, doing very different things. Since then, Ryan has settled into his role as the team's signal-caller, though there have to be concerns about his ability to take things to the proverbial next level — as we will see, the team's front office has provided him with weapons all over the place, and he's basically out of excuses when it comes to leading the franchise and becoming the face of the offense.
Most often, Ryan is a conservative, measured quarterback who fits in well with what offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey wants to do. However, as Ryan showed in the opener against the Bears when he threw a pick right to Brian Urlacher, he doesn't always do well when things fall apart. There are quarterbacks who are great improvisers — great thinkers on their feet — but I wouldn't say that Ryan is one of them. He's a caretaker for the most part, and there's nothing wrong with that, except that so many Falcons fans (and teammates, and coaches, and executives) are expecting a bit more. Efficient is no longer good enough, because the Falcons have sold out to go for it this season.
Atlanta runs a balanced, run-dependent offense with a below-average percentage of three-receiver sets, and with all the weapons they now have in the receiving game, it's still about establishing the run with lead back Michael Turner. Atlanta also runs a lot of I- and offset I-formation with fullback Ovie Mughelli. To switch the power plays up, they'll also run a bunch of two-tight end sets (only the Patriots ran more than the Falcons did in 2010), though Tony Gonzalez is not there to block. Not only is Gonzo still capable of stretching the field, he's also become an interesting red zone threat as a fullback, running little up and side routes and upsetting goal line coverages.
The receivers are a versatile group, though the amount of trade value they put out there to move up and get Alabama's Julio Jones shows that they knew a gamebreaker was necessary. Jones doesn't have the pure terrifying downfield speed of A.J. Green, but he can do just about everything else. He's a tough receiver with a lot to offer. Roddy White, the NFL's most targeted receiver in 2010, stabs defenses with quicker short and intermediate routes. He can run the occasional burner, but it's really his job to establish consistent possessions in the passing game. Slot speedster Harry Douglas is back to full speed after a 2009 ACL injury limited his 2010 production, and if he stays healthy, it's really his job to take the hat off the defense -- though Jones has some of those same capabilities, asking him to play burner all the time would be a waste of his versatility.
Obviously, the cornerback combination of Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is the marquee section of the Eagles' defense, but there are still adjustment issues with the new guys. Asomugha was burned for a long penalty in the season opener against the St. Louis Rams, and Rodgers-Cromartie might not be as much of a factor if the Falcons don't force more nickel coverage with multi-receiver sets.
More disconcerting for the Eagles is a run defense that game up serious yards to the Rams even after Steven Jackson left the game with an injury. The Falcons have great faith in their running game, and that could be one way to force the Eagles to abandon their blitz-happy ways and play it straighter up front. Oftentimes, and especially this year with a rookie middle linebacker in Casey Matthews, the Eagles are prone to losing gap control to the pass rush. That can't happen against Turner, Mughelli, and the Falcons' above-average offensive line. They need to force Matt Ryan to put the game on his shoulders.
Philadelphia's offense vs. Atlanta's defense
The Falcons will stack their line with pre-snap blitz looks, but they're not going to bring it a lot with six or more rushers — much of the time, they'll have linebackers or situational ends drop back to facilitate Mike Smith's spacing concepts in pass coverage. The 2010 Falcons led the league in zone blitzes at 13.4 percent, and they ranked in the low 20s in both linebacker and DB sacks. Defensive end John Abraham is the one most likely to drop into coverage; through the Falcons have other options there.
Defensive end Kroy Biermann is the line's (and maybe the team's) most underrated player — he only had three sacks in 2010, but racked up 20.5 quarterback hurries, and that kind of low sack/high hurry ratio generally portends higher sack totals in the future. Biermann also scored Atlanta's only touchdown against the Bears on a fourth-quarter interception return for a touchdown. New DE acquisition Ray Edwards gives the Falcons the consistent and versatile end rotation they've wanted for years — both Biermann and Edwards can kick inside in various fronts if need be.
Philly may want to run the ball more than they originally expected against the Falcons, because defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux, the team's best interior defender over the last several years, will be out for this game with an MCL injury. The idea right now is for Corey Peters to replace him, but no matter how that goes, it will be a major downgrade — Babineaux is stout against the run and very active on passing downs, and difference-making three-down tackles don't grow on trees in this league.
Atlanta's backfield coverage schemes tend to be more tight zone, especially in nick, which most defenses seem to be playing these days. In the secondary, cornerback Brent Grimes is the main man; he has the speed to lock on to Philly's superior receivers, though he's better in situations where he can keep an eye on the quarterback. Those spacing ideas, where every parcel of real estate is covered by a defender eventually, should be able to neutralize Philadelphia's intermediate passing game.
The Eagles like to get teams thinking about the underneath stuff by moving receiver Jason Avant and tight end Brent Celek into the slant and seam routes, and sending LeSean McCoy (one of the NFL's best receiving backs) into the flats to take a linebacker or safety out of the picture. Once that game plan is established, it's bombs away to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. When the Falcons' defense is aware of those deep threats, though, they will open up those intermediate throws, and the Eagles could prove unsolvable if that happens.
One thing that came up in the Rams game that could prove advantageous to the Falcons, though the Eagles coaching staff has no doubt addressed it through the week — Vick has a tendency to revert back to his old days as a more simple option quarterback. Against the Rams, he was missing reads, holding the ball too long, and generally failing to get consistent drives going with his arm. The big plays were still there, but when Vick dials his sick athleticism into a more complex series of schemes, he's a quarterback nobody wants to face. Look for the Falcons' front seven to be a bit less vanilla than usual — they may run some zone and fake blitzes, and bring spies on Vick from unexpected places. They also need to contend with McCoy as a major pass target; he's become Vick's real security blanket.
The most dangerous aspect of Vick's game isn't his mobility anymore, though that's still a nice add. The real problem in defending him these days is that he can make absolutely every throw, and he's got tough, aggressive receivers who will get their noses in traffic and bring those passes in. Making him revert to a runner with the right kinds of coverage is easier said than done, but it's absolutely necessary if the Falcons hope to avoid an 0-2 start.
Prediction: Eagles 27, Falcons 17. The Falcons get their running game going against Philly's front seven, but their blitzes give Ryan fits, and too many turnovers could very well be the result. Atlanta has some nice players in their defensive back seven, and some real talent up front, but the Eagles just seem primed to start making defenses pay even more in the passing game.
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