Home-field, run game keys versus Falcons
Lost in the recent torrent of turnovers, coaching gaffes and lastminute meltdowns is the dominance the Eagles estabished earlier this season at Lincoln Financial Field, where they oppose the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday (1 p.m., Channel 29, WIP 94.1FM).
Home is where the Eagles have played their best football. They lead the league in fewest points allowed (7.7 per game), point differential (plus-20.3), sacks (4.3) and forced fumbles (2.0) in home games.
Head coach Doug Pederson’s in-game decisions have been above reproach at the Linc. Even the run game has worked, the Eagles going over the 100-yard mark in convincing wins over the Browns, Steelers and Vikings.
At the same time, the Eagles have found it next to impossible to completely move on from what they’ve become. That would be a road team that plays just well enough to lose on the last possession. The Eagles have been beaten by seven or fewer points in four of the last five games, casting doubt on the skills of rookie quarterback Carson Wentz.
The Eagles (4-4) credit their fans for bringing immense energy. They’re glad to be back in their own building. But it’s been a while since they’ve felt invincible.
“The atmosphere at the Linc is second to none,” wide receiver Jordan Matthews said. “But we just have to go out and win. It can’t be a home-away thing. At the end of the day, there’s maybe one game where I felt like OK, when I look back at it, we got outplayed. The other games, we gave them away. We have to detail our work and say we’re not going to give up these games anymore, especially late in games. “We have to focus in.” The Falcons (6-3) are the kind of team that commands attention. From quarterback Matt Ryan, the MVP candidate who leads the league in almost every major passing category, including touchdown passes to all-world receiver Julio Jones and underrated pass rusher Vic Beasley, the Falcons have the talent to not only play but win veritable track meets each week.
The Falcons average a league-leading 33.8 points largely because of Ryan, the native of Exton who has 23 touchdown passes, five to Jones. Ryan has been effective because imported center Alex Mack has made the players around him better, which has translated into a run game fueled by Devonta Freeman (five TDs).
Ryan can expect the Sam Bradford treatment. That is to say, a dedicated pass rush including exotic blitzes.
“We know those guys can take it to the house,” defensive tackle Bennie Logan said. “But at the same time we have to bring the energy. We have to be the ones to step up to the challenge and just embrace it, just run with it. Matt Ryan is a guy that’s going to stay in the pocket. We’ve got to collapse the pocket. We can’t let him step up in it. We’ve got to do a good job of containing him and having our secondary get pressure on him all night.”
The Eagles’ secondary, on the other hand, is a concern as Nolan Carroll is the only healthy starting cornerback. Leodis McKelvin (hamstring) has been gutting it out. Rookie Jalen Mills has hung in. The Eagles hope newly-signed cornerback Aaron Grymes, who has CFL experience, can put his 40-inch vertical jump to use.
Explosive as the Falcons are, the Eagles can prevent them from getting into an offensive rhythm by reestablishing their identity as a run team.
The Eagles are 4-1 when they rush for 100 or more yards, which they’ve done in each of their home games. They’re 0-3 when they don’t.
Offensive coordinator Frank Reich, while conceding it’s been tough moving on from the loss of right tackle Lane Johnson, indicated there’s a magic number coaches dwell on.
“If you can get 125 yards rushing, usually good things are going to happen in a game,” Reich said. “We don’t live and die by that number but it’s a general barometer of where you’re at.”
The Eagles rushed for 133 yards against the Browns and dropped 125 on the Steelers.
“We want to be physical and dominate the game,” running back Wendell Smallwood said. “And that starts with being physical and running it down their throat and getting push off the line and the line being aggressive and us being aggressive and just chewing at the defense. I think it just kind of kills defenses. And the games we have done that it kind of has worked, and we’ve won.”
The Falcons have solid team speed on defense, meaning the Eagles want to run right at, not away from, them.
Then there’s Wentz. The rookie quarterback has thrown 40-plus passes in each of the last two games, both losses. He’s thrown four interceptions in the last three games after being picked off just once in his first five starts.
The next time Wentz leads the Eagles to victory with a fourth-quarter comeback will be, let’s see, the first time he does so.
“Without a doubt, everyone around here is sick to their stomach with where we’re at right now with all these close games,” Wentz said. “It’s frustrating to not finish. We’ve had chances as an offense to go down there and win a ball game or tie it up. It’s frustrating. We all have to do a better job and that starts with me in those key situations.”
It starts with Wentz. But it doesn’t end there.
Defensive tackle Beau Allen echoes teammates when he says “I wouldn’t say Carson Wentz needs to win it.
“I’d say the Philadelphia Eagles need to win it,” Allen said. “It’s never one player. I know that sounds like such a cliché of football but it’s not on one guy. It’s really on everybody. As a team we need to figure out how to close out the close games… especially on the road.”
The Eagles are a good team at the Linc. They cannot afford to forget that when they take on the Falcons.