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Miles Sanders productive in Week 1, but can the Eagles stop the 49ers rushing attack? | KC Joyner

The stats show that the Eagles had a questionable performance with its rush defense. With the offense, there are good fantasy football implications if you like to start Eagles players.

Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders runs against the Falcons. Eagles play the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Sunday, September 12, 2021. .
Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders runs against the Falcons. Eagles play the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. on Sunday, September 12, 2021. .Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

The Eagles faithful are rightfully basking in a 32-6 win that was the largest season-opening margin of victory by a new Philadelphia head coach in the Super Bowl era. As enjoyable as that triumph was, Nick Sirianni and Co. know that fortunes can change in the NFL in a hurry, so they will want to immediately address the issues that showed up in the Atlanta contest.

Rush defense is at the top of this list. Philadelphia allowed 116 rushing yards to Falcons running backs, a mark that was tied for eighth highest in the league, but ground volume isn’t as much of an issue as the consistency with which Atlanta was able to move the ball. Falcons running backs gained seven or more yards on eight of 26 planned rushing plays and tallied four or five yards on three other planned rushing plays.

As daunting as this trend might sound when headed into a matchup against the powerhouse 49ers rushing attack, the situation does improve when noting that this occurred in part because of the changes that new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon made to this platoon.

For many years prior to Gannon’s arrival, the Eagles’ defensive approach on rush defense was to attack with an aggressive one-gap system. This put defensive linemen in the proper alignment to charge offensive linemen and get up the field quickly at the snap.

The benefit of this showed up in Philadelphia’s rankings in my good blocking rate (GBR) metric that measures how often a platoon generates good blocking for its ballcarriers. Defenses obviously want this number to be as low as possible and over the past four years the Eagles fared incredibly well, ranking first in GBR allowed in 2017 (33.0 percent), first in 2018 (37.1 percent), third in 2019 (35.5 percent), and fifth in 2020 (32.2 percent).

The problem with this method is that when the front seven don’t disrupt the offensive blocking scheme, those players are so far up field due to their attack postures that the only defenders left to prevent a big gain are cornerbacks and safeties. This led to terrible numbers in my good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) metric that measures how productive a platoon is when it provides quality run blocking for its backs. Philadelphia placed 30th in GBYPA allowed in 2017 (9.2), 32nd (last) in 2018 (10.6), 30th in 2019 (9.0), and 29th in 2020 (10.0).

Gannon has said repeatedly that his system will be more multiple than it was last year, meaning that the Eagles will mix in more two-gapping systems that are designed to occupy offensive blockers and give the back seven more time to read, react, and close in for tackles.

That certainly helped Philadelphia stop the long gains in Week 1, as they held the Falcons to a 7.8 GBYPA mark. A 2.2-yard difference in GBYPA over last year’s total might not seem like a significant improvement, but it is, as a 7.8 GBYPA would have placed sixth in the league last season.

Where this method didn’t work against Atlanta was in the GBR department, as the Falcons posted a 50% total in that metric. That is an unacceptable number over the course of a season, but if the Eagles can just drop this number by about 10 percentage points, which may be a matter of converting just a few good blocking plays into bad ones, Gannon’s new setup will give the Eagles much more consistent rush defense than it had under Jim Schwartz.

There is also a potential silver lining in that the 49ers run blocking in Week 1 was nowhere near as good as their 131 rushing yards would indicate, as San Francisco’s offense tallied a meager 24.0 percent GBR against a terrible Lions rush defense.

Eagles fantasy football report

Coming into Week 1, the Eagles didn’t look to have the best of prospects in the fantasy football world. Jalen Hurts was trending toward being a matchup-dependent QB1. Miles Sanders was viewed as a low-end RB2 who might fall to flex status depending on how the offensive snaps were split among the Eagles running backs. DeVonta Smith had all the hallmarks of a boom-or-bust WR3 candidate. Dallas Goedert’s fantasy managers were understandably worried about the prospects of Zach Ertz’s return moving Goedert back to a blocking role and limiting his target volume.

It’s never a good idea to judge fantasy performance after only one week, but there are many facets of the Eagles’ showing against the Falcons that should give any fantasy manager confidence if they want to put more Eagles players into their lineups.

Let’s start with Hurts. It was thought that rushing value would drive his fantasy numbers, but only 6.2 of his 28.7 fantasy points (ESPN standard scoring) were generated via ground gains against Atlanta. According to the NFL gamebook for this contest, only one of Hurts’ 35 pass attempts was a deep pass (defined as an aerial traveling 15 or more yards downfield). If this passing tendency ends up being anywhere near the usual for Hurts, it means that fantasy managers will be able to rely on both high-percentage short passes and rush attempts for his points. That will vault Hurts into the QB1 discussion every week.

Sanders’ fantasy managers also received good news in this past week’s matchup. The biggest concern was having Boston Scott turn this backfield into a lead/alternate setup with Sanders as the lead and Scott as the alternate. This was far from the case in Week 1, as Scott’s only 12 snaps in the contest occurred on special teams. Kenneth Gainwell did tally 25 offensive snaps, but that was a far cry from Sanders’ 47 snaps and indicates that Gainwell is going to be the third-down back. Add this to the Eagles incredible 63.3% GBR on offense last week, and it shows that Sanders is going to be at least at an RB2 on a weekly basis.

Smith was on the field for 87% of the Eagles’ offensive snaps, a pace that was the highest among Philadelphia’s skill position players and indicates Smith’s primary role in this offense. Smith was also the targeted receiver on Hurts’ only deep pass of the contest, showing that he is far from reliant on dink-and-dunk throws to post his numbers. He will at the very least be a weekly flex candidate and could be considered a strong WR2 in a short amount of time if this trend continues.

Goedert outpaced Ertz five to two in targets and had four receptions to Ertz’s two, but there is even better news for Goedert’s fantasy managers when noting some of the specifics of those catches. Two of Goedert’s receptions occurred in the red zone and one of those resulted in a touchdown. Both of Ertz’s catches took place on plays that started inside Philadelphia territory, and his 28-yard reception was due to what looked like a blown coverage by the Falcons. Fantasy managers would much rather rely on a player who is used in the red zone and is not dependent on blown coverages to tally receptions, so Goedert can still be relied upon as a low-tier TE1 in fantasy.