Exton-born-and-raised, Penn Charter-educated, and Wildwood-tanned Matt Ryan turned down an interview request from Philadelphia reporters this past week.
Considering Ryan’s excellent history of cooperation with the media and the fact that he’s making his ninth career start against his hometown team Sunday night, this was a bit surprising, even in this age where the NFL and its media relations staffs go out of their way to minimize media access to players and coaches.
Then again, given the fact that Ryan and the Falcons have lost their last three meetings with the Eagles, including that crushing 15-10 defeat in the 2017 playoffs, maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Ryan is one of the league’s top quarterbacks. He has a 94.8 career passer rating. He is going to have a bronze bust in the Hall of Fame one day. He’s 11th all-time in passing yards (47,024), 12th in touchdown passes (297), and sixth in completion percentage (65.4).
But in his last three games against the Eagles – a 24-15 regular-season loss in 2016, the playoff heartbreaker in 2017, and an 18-12 Week 1 loss last year – Ryan has a 73.1 passer rating, including a 54.4 completion percentage and just two touchdown passes.
All three of those games, of course, were played in front of a hostile crowd at the Linc, which won’t be the case Sunday night, when the Eagles visit two-year-old Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We’ve been fortunate to have all of those games here," coach Doug Pederson said. “They’re a different team obviously when they’re playing at home in front of their crowd. [Ryan] is very dynamic and electric and they do some great things in that dome."
Actually, they don’t. Or at least haven’t. In the two-plus seasons since the stadium opened in August 2017, the Falcons are only 9-7 at home.
“The last three times we played them, they’ve been in a hostile environment," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “Now we’re going down to a hostile environment."
How has Schwartz’s defense managed to turn a four-time Pro Bowl quarterback into Ryan Tannehill? Well, it has started on the ground.
One of football’s oldest coaching cliches is you have to stop the run. But it’s true. Especially against a dangerous play-action passer like Ryan. If you can stop the run and make an offense one-dimensional, if you can put it in a lot of third-and-longs, you’ve got a chance to make even the best quarterback look ordinary. At the very least, you give yourself a fighting chance.
The Eagles didn’t exactly shut down the run in their three wins over the Falcons, but they slowed it down enough so that Ryan and the Falcons couldn’t count on it. The Falcons averaged just 17 rushing attempts and 4.1 yards per carry in the three games against the Eagles. Of the 39 third-down situations the Falcons faced in their three losses, a remarkable 28 of them were 6 yards or more.
Ryan had a 71.8 passer rating and 57.6 completion percentage on third down in those three games. That’s 23 points below his career third-down passer rating. Just seven of his 33 third-down pass attempts in the three losses to the Eagles produced first downs. The Falcons converted just 25.6 percent of their third-down opportunities in those games.
“For us, it’s all about stopping the run," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Not creating a situation where they’re balanced and we can’t get into some obvious passing situations and pin our ears back.
“This [Falcons] team makes you earn the right to rush the passer. If you earn it, you can have some fun. If not, it can be a long day."
The Eagles earned the right to rush the passer last week in their win over Washington, holding the Redskins to 28 rushing yards on 13 carries.
But they didn’t do a particularly good job with that right. They sacked Case Keenum just once and had 11 total pressures, which isn’t a particularly impressive number against an offensive line that isn’t very good. And on Sunday they’ll be without defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who injured his foot and probably is lost for the season.
“Our guys just – I don’t want to say they play differently – but they just get after him and they put pressure on him," Pederson said, referring to Ryan. “Any time you do that to quarterbacks and disrupt their timing, you can cause turnovers, incomplete passes, move him off his spot, whatever it is, and we’ve been able to do that."
One other important area in which Schwartz’s defense has stymied Ryan and the Falcons has been in the red zone. The Eagles, who finished first in the NFL in red-zone defense last season with a 44.6 touchdown percentage, allowed just two touchdowns to the Falcons in nine red-zone opportunities in the last three games.
In last year’s 18-12 loss to the Eagles, the Falcons were 1-for-5 in the red zone. In their 2017 playoff loss, they were just 1-for-3. That, of course, includes the fourth-and-2 pass to Julio Jones in the end zone that went through the six-time Pro Bowler’s hands.
If he catches that pass, this story probably isn’t being written and Ryan probably would have been talking to the Philadelphia media this week.
“We’ve been impressed by their red-zone defense," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said this week in a conference call. “We’ve had some chances for some touchdown passes. When we weren’t able to convert on those, we certainly give them credit for it. We had our moments to go nail it and just missed it. They’ve executed in that spot."
After suffering his second straight season-ending injury last year, Carson Wentz has made some adjustments to his playing style, lifestyle, and training style in an attempt to avoid yet another early exit.
But as he showed Sunday, that doesn’t mean he’s never going to leave the pocket or run the ball. Wentz picked up three rushing first downs on quarterback sneaks against Washington. He also made three terrific plays outside the pocket, including his 5-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery in the third quarter. Wentz stepped up to avoid an outside rush by linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, then moved to his right when defensive tackle Darron Payne pushed left guard Isaac Seumalo back into his lap, and threw a strike through a tiny window to Jeffery.
On the Eagles’ 19-play scoring drive in the fourth quarter, he twice extended plays by deftly moving to his left. He completed a 16-yard pass to tight end Zach Ertz on a third-and-15, and later hit Jeffery for 16 yards on a third-and-7 play.
“It’s hard to take that [aggressive] side away from him,’’ Ertz said. “I thought he was very efficient when he moved out of the pocket. When he was moving, he was moving laterally and not toward defenders. Kind of really avoiding hits, which is the recipe for success in this league.
“You can’t be taking on these defenders over and over again in this league as a quarterback if you expect to play a long time. I think he’s learning from it. I thought he played his butt off this week, in and out of the pocket. He wasn’t looking to run. He was looking to distribute the ball."
Wentz hit eight different receivers and posted the fifth-highest passer rating of his career (122.1). For only the sixth time in his career, he threw three or more touchdown passes and no interceptions. He completed 12 of 13 third-down passes for 199 of his 313 total passing yards, including perfectly thrown third-and-10 touchdown bombs to DeSean Jackson.
“We were able to extend some plays," Wentz said. “Ertz and Alshon did a great job of uncovering and getting open. You don’t always want to run around and make plays, but when it’s there to be had and you can move the chains, those are huge plays."
On all three plays out of the pocket, he really had no choice. If he hadn’t moved, he would’ve been sacked.
“I didn’t go looking for it," he said. “It’s just the way the pocket got condensed and I was able to get out. I try not to overthink it. Just let instincts take over. Those were huge plays in that game. But you can’t make a living running around and doing those things."
The coaching staff’s trust in rookie running back Miles Sanders can best be measured by one number: 36. That’s how many snaps the second-round pick out of Penn State played Sunday against Washington. It was 13 more than 15-year veteran Darren Sproles and 19 more than fourth-year running back Jordan Howard.
The key to Sanders’ playing time wasn’t so much his running ability or pass-catching ability. It was his ability to pick up blitzes and pass-block.
Sanders’ rushing and receiving numbers in his NFL debut were modest. He rushed for just 25 yards on 11 carries and had one catch for 2 yards. His rushing total would have been much more impressive if the zebras hadn’t incorrectly called a hold on wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside on what should have been a 21-yard touchdown run by Sanders.
“I knew he didn’t hold," Sanders said. “That was a BS call. But it is what it is. We got the W."
The NFL office acknowledged that it was a bad call by the official, who was suckered by a soccer-like flop by Washington cornerback Josh Norman.
But what really impressed running backs coach Duce Staley were the three successful blitz pickups by Sanders.
“Me picking up blitzes and knowing where they were coming from, I was proud of myself for that," Sanders said. “I want to stay on the field as long as I can, so that I can as much as I can to help the team win.
“I’m making sure I know what I’m doing. For me to pick up three pass-blocks, I’m glad everybody recognized it. Because they kind of questioned my pass-protection when I came into this league. But that was something I was focused in coming in."
Sanders isn’t sure why people had any doubts about his blocking.