Falcons return to scene of last season’s bitter end

Defending Super Bowl champion Eagles stopped Falcons when it mattered most

After playing lip-service to the exhibition season and electing to do most of their work in closed practices, the Atlanta Falcons are set to open the 2018 regular season on the road against the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles at 8:20 p.m. Thursday Lincoln Financial Field. 

The game opens the NFL’s 99th season and is where the Falcons’ 2017 season ended with a 15-10 loss as they stalled on the 2-yard line in the final minute of the game. 

The RPO plan

The Eagles won the franchise’s fourth title (1948, 1949 and 1960) by riding the hot-hand of backup quarterback Nick Foles, who flawlessly operated the read-pass option (RPOs) portion of their play book.

Foles threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns to guide the Eagles to victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.

RPOs are plays in which the quarterback has the option of handing the ball off to the running back or pulling it away and throwing a pass, based on the defense’s alignment and how the linebackers and defensive ends react. 

“You kind of just have to play what you play,” Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said. “I equate it to when teams were playing a lot of zone-read option stuff. Everybody has to do their job and if they do their job it takes care of itself.”

The Eagles ran RPOs on 18 percent of their plays last season, second only to Kansas City’s 18.1 percent. The Falcons’ secondary can’t sneak up and try to help against the run because Foles can pull the ball back and threw deep. 

“When you’re back, you’re back,” Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel said. “You’ve got to defend the pass. When you’re up, you’re have to defend the run. It’s a combination of our guys doing what they’ve been coached when they are out there.”

McKinley has daunting task

Falcons second-year defensive end Takkarist McKinley is set to make his first NFL start. He was drafted in the first round in 2017 and played over 400 snaps in a reserve role last season.

McKinley will play right end and face Eagles left tackle Jason Peters, a nine-time Pro Bowler.

“He’s excited for the opportunity,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “At practice is where I’ve really seen his game take over. The physical style that he brings. The effort. The intensity.”

McKinley was slowed at the outset of training camp after offseason shoulder surgery. 

“Over this past week, I’ve almost seen another jump take place,” Quinn said. “I thought he had a good camp and then he took a shift again this week…. I’m anxious to see him in an increased load because he’s really equipped and ready to get rocking on that.” 

Right end Vic Beasley will primarily go against Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season.

Stopping Zach Ertz 

Eagles tight end Zach Ertz will attract a crowd, but primarily will be covered by strongside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. 

Ertz was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season after catching 74 passes for 824 yards and eight touchdowns. Former teammate Mychal Kendricks, then a linebacker with the Browns, gave a scouting report of Ertz on Hard Knocks.

“86 (Ertz's number) is the best receiver on the team,” Kendricks said. “Notice I said receiver. When it comes to blocking, you (expletive) hit his (butt) over and over. He doesn't want no smoke.”

Strong safety Keanu Neal and nickel back Brian Poole will also spend some time with Ertz, who’s a big part of the Eagles’ RPO package on third downs.

NBC analyst Rodney Harrison, who was a nominee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2018 and will likely be on the 2019 list, believes Neal can be exploited in coverage.

“I think Neal is a tremendous young safety,” Harrison said. “I think the biggest weakness — if I’m Philadelphia, I’m looking at exposing him in coverage. 

“He’s a very big guy, he’s very physical, but at times you can see he has some stiffness in his hips, and he struggles to cover. 

“And if one of my athletic tight ends — one-on-one opportunities, and really exposing his weakness, and that’s his biggest weakness as a safety is his inability to cover those tight ends one-on-one.”

Three key matchups

Falcons MLB Deion Jones vs. Eagle RB Jay Ajayi: In the playoff matchup, Ajayi rushed for 54 yards on 11 carries and Jones had three tackles. Earlier in the regular season, before he was traded, Ajayi helped lead the Dolphins to a victory over the Falcons with his hard-charging running style. Early in the season, backs like Ajayi have an advantage over defenders, who have not tackled in practice. Jones must flow to the ball and stop Ajayi from gaining yards after contact.

Falcons WR Julio Jones vs. Eagles CB Jalen Mills: Jones did not play a down in the exhibition season and Mills will certainly have a lot of help, mostly from safety Malcolm Jenkins. It was Mills who diagnosed the Falcons’ play from the 2-yard line in the playoffs. If Jones hadn’t slipped he still would have been beaten. 

Falcons Gs Andy Levitre and Brandon Fusco vs. Eagles DTs Haloti Ngata and Fetcher Cox: The Falcons started Ben Garland and Wes Schweitzer in the playoffs last season. They had trouble with Cox. The massive Ngata came over from the Lions in free agency and will replace Tim Jernigan in the lineup. The Falcons had trouble running the ball and had to toss outside to Tevin Coleman to create space and make Jernigan and Cox chase the play. Fusco and Levitre should hold up much better, while Schweitzer will be the backup swing guard. Garland has a calf injury and will be inactive. 

QB Corner with Matt Ryan

Here are three questions with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on the Eagles: 

On the Eagles’ defensive front: “Obviously a very good front, front four. The defensive line rotation, their stout inside they’ve got good edge rushers. They have Michael Bennett, who we’ve seen a lot in Seattle, I know he’s a talented player. It’ll be a good test for us up front.”

On the last game against the Eagles: “There are definitely some things we take from that game last year. We’re a different football team, they’re a different football team. That’s one of the things as a veteran, I’ve come to realize that teams are different year in and year out. ... There’s certainly things that we can draw on from the last time we played them.”

On offensive line matchup with the Eagles stout front: “Our offensive line is up to the challenge every week. They do such a good job of helping the run game and pass protection. Our staff does such a good job of organizing our game plan to feature our strengths. Our guys up front will do a great job.”

About the Eagles

Doug Pederson is set to enter his third season as the Eagles head coach. 

He went 13-3 to win the NFC East last season and defeated the Falcons and Vikings on the way to Super Bowl LII.

The Eagles led the series with the Falcons, 16-13-1. 

In addition to quarterback Carson Wentz and Jernigan, the Eagles will be without wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (groin), wide receiver Mack Hollins (groin) and Bennett (knee) was added to the injury report on Tuesday.

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