Five reasons the Eagles beat the Falcons
In the days leading up to the game, Doug Pederson was pretty transparent about his offensive strategy against the Falcons. Control the football with the run game and keep it out of the Falcons' hands.
Easier said than done, of course. Given how inconsistent the Eagles' ground game has been this season, there was no guarantee they were going to run the ball well enough against the Falcons to sustain time-consuming drives.
But using two- and three-tight end sets that often included an extra offensive lineman (guard Isaac Seumalo), the Eagles expanded the edge and then attacked the Falcons inside with their two biggest backs: Ryan Mathews and rookie Wendell Smallwood.
The Eagles gained 208 yards on a season-high 38 carries. Mathews, who had just nine carries in the previous two games, had his most productive game as an Eagle, rushing for 109 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. Smallwood added 70 yards on 13 carries.
Five of the Eagles' 12 possessions were eight plays or more. Their time of possession, 38:10, was their highest since Week 1. The Falcons had the ball for just 21:50, their lowest time of possession since, incredibly, 2009.
The Eagles' banged-up secondary against Matt Ryan and Julio Jones and the Falcons' powerful passing game looked like a major mismatch going into this game. If anything was going to put a wrench in the Eagles' hopes for a win, it would be their inability to stop Ryan and Jones.
Cornerback Leodis McKelvin's balky hamstring felt so poorly before the game that he stepped aside for seventh-round rookie Jalen Mills. But when the Eagles' other starting corner, Nolan Carroll, went out with a concussion late in the second quarter, in came McKelvin.
But with the exception of a 76-yard touchdown catch by Taylor Gabriel early in the fourth quarter when he fooled McKelvin with a double move, the Eagles did an impressive job of keeping Jones and the Falcons receivers in front of them, limiting their yards after the catch and preventing them from getting first downs.
The Falcons' seven passing first downs equaled the fewest they've had since Nov. 8, 2009, when they managed just six against Washington.
Ryan completed just 54.5 percent of his throws, a season low. Jones had 10 catches for 135 yards. But just five of those 10 receptions picked up first downs. This is a guy who had converted 41 of his previous 51 receptions into first downs.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins, who also played a lot of corner once again Sunday, had one of his best performances of the season. He made one of his many nice plays late in the second quarter when he stopped Jones for a 5-yard gain on a third-and-8 play at the Philadelphia 40. He had several first-down-preventing tackles like that.
The piece de resistance: McKelvin's interception on a pass for Jones with a minute and a half left in the game.
PUTTING HEAT ON MATTY ICE
Because of the pass plays the Falcons like to run, Matt Ryan hangs on to the ball longer than somebody like the Giants' three-step-dropper, Eli Manning.
And that means he's more susceptible to pressure and sacks. The Falcons came into the game ranked 22nd in sacks allowed per pass play.
The Eagles sacked Ryan only twice, but they got pressure on him much of the game, particularly on third down, making him move off his spot or hurry his throw.
Both of the sacks, which came in the second quarter, were important. The first, by Connor Barwin on a second-and-12 play after the Falcons had driven to the Philadelphia 19, foiled a possible touchdown drive and forced Atlanta to settle for a Matt Bryant field goal.
Barwin's sack was set up by the Eagles' other defensive end, Brandon Graham, who beat right tackle Ryan Schraeder around the outside and forced Ryan to step up, right into Barwin's waiting arms.
The second sack, by Graham but set up by up-the-middle pressure from tackle Fletcher Cox on the Falcons' very next possession, killed the momentum Atlanta had seized when Vic Beasley stripped the ball from Carson Wentz at the Philadelphia 42.
Pressure also was critical in forcing an Atlanta three-and-out in the fourth quarter after the Falcons had taken a 15-13 lead and Caleb Sturgis was short on a 55-yard field-goal attempt.
Cox bulldozed his way up the middle and forced a hurried incompletion from Ryan on first down. On third-and-10, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz called a blitz that forced an off-target throw by Ryan to Taylor Gabriel.
The Falcons punted the ball back to the Eagles, who drove 76 yards on eight plays and took the lead for good on Ryan Mathews' second touchdown run of the game.
The biggest problem the Eagles defense had last year under Billy Davis was getting off the field on third down. The Eagles finished 26th in the league in third-down defense (42.9 percent). This year, they're fifth (35.5).
On Sunday, they allowed the Falcons to convert just 2 of 11 third-down opportunities. Eight of those 11 third-down situations were eight yards or more. Atlanta failed to convert any of those eight third-and-longs into first downs.
Matt Ryan entered the game ranked second in the league in third-down passing. He had completed 68.6 percent of his third-down attempts. Against the Eagles, he completed 6 of 10 third-down passes, but just one of those six completions – a 20-yard pass to Julio Jones on a third and 4 – resulted in a first down.
Jones was targeted six times by Ryan on third down. Jones caught three of those passes, but the 20-yard completion was the only first down.
The Linc isn't the Vet. That's a good thing for the most part. But the crowds at the new joint never have been quite as intimidating to the visitors or as inspiring to the home team as they were at the old joint.
Sunday, though, the crowd helped make a difference. Fans were loud and into the game, and for a minute there, it almost looked and sounded like the old days at the Vet, particularly when they became incensed with some of the non-calls by the zebras down the stretch.
The Eagles ran their record at the Linc this year to 4-0 with the win. If you were there, take a bow.