A Tale of Two Halves in Atlanta

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Two highly anticipated debuts occurred during the first game of Monday night’s doubleheader, and while many of us have been waiting to see what the new-look Eagles offense and Falcons defense would look like, what we saw was just about what any of us could have expected. Both personnel groups are flawed but fascinating, and their success both swung upon the power of the Atlanta pass rush. It was a late surge from the Atlanta defense that caused Chip Kelly to make a curious fourth-down decision, one that probably ended up costing his team the ballgame.

The early returns on the Philadelphia offense, naturally, depend on which half of football you want to believe. The first half was an unmitigated disaster, as the Eagles seemed to disintegrate at the slightest touch without even vaguely resembling the dominant unit from the preseason. In the second half, against a gassed Atlanta defense, they looked virtually unstoppable, with Sam Bradford playing pitch-and-catch on a seemingly endless series of shallow crosses and wheel routes.

Bradford was as advertised. The difference between the quarterback who struggled to make an impact during his time with the Rams and the guy who appeared to be throwing against air in the second half yesterday boiled down to the amount of time he had to throw. Under pressure more often than expected from Vic Beasley & Co. during the first half, Bradford wasn’t able to progress through his options and seemed to struggle with his accuracy.

Once the rush slowed down after halftime, he was precise and in rhythm, going 21-of-25 for 219 yards with a touchdown and an unlucky, game-sealing interception that bounced off Jordan Matthews’s hands. Philly averaged 3.4 yards on first down before halftime and 8.0 yards on first down after the break. My concern about Bradford within the Kelly scheme has always been his struggles throwing deep and how important that’s been to the Philadelphia offense, but it didn’t really come up Monday. Bradford attempted a Week 1–high 52 passes but didn’t throw a single pass more than 20 yards downfield. His longest throw was a pass up the seam to a streaking Miles Austin that Jon Gruden identified on the broadcast as a possible touchdown if it had been completed, only for Austin to misjudge/drop the throw.

Kelly’s solution to his team’s offensive struggles early last season was to up the dosage of Darren Sproles, and that salve worked again. The diminutive halfback was the team’s leading rusher and second-leading receiver, bringing in a team-high 15 touches while averaging 9 yards per touch. He became a matchup nightmare for Atlanta, which seemed to throw Kroy Biermann in Sproles’s direction in the hopes that the utility defender would figure out a way to suddenly get much faster. It didn’t work, and when the Falcons went to heavy zone coverage in an attempt to squeeze Philadelphia’s success throwing to the middle of the field, Sproles torched them on the edges.

Last year, Sproles’s success came at the expense of LeSean McCoy, beginning a process that eventually led to the Eagles trading Shady to the Bills this offseason. Here, his reps came ahead of Philadelphia’s most notable offseason additions. While Sproles played only 24 snaps, those came at the expense of DeMarco Murray (31 snaps, less than half of Philadelphia’s total) and Ryan Mathews (13 snaps). Sproles out-touched Murray and Mathews during Philadelphia’s second-half comeback attempt.

It makes sense that Kelly went to a heavier dose of Sproles; not only was he having more success than his more expensive brethren, but the Eagles virtually abandoned the running game. For a team that is supposed to be built around a power-running attack, the 2015 Eagles played a lot like some WIP caller’s nightmare of an Andy Reid dystopia.

They threw the ball 52 times against just 16 running plays, and while some of that was due to the game situation of being down double-digits at the start of the second half, the truth is that Philadelphia’s running game simply wasn’t effective against 2014’s third-worst run defense. And when the rushing attack did get going, it was driven by Sproles, who had success running Philadelphia’s sweep and finished with five carries for 50 yards. Murray and Mathews combined for just 13 rushing yards on 11 carries. Mathews had an unfortunate drop in the first half before chipping in as a receiver after the break, but Murray never got going; his fantasy owners surely enjoyed two touchdowns, but he touched the ball 12 times and managed only 20 yards.

Kelly abandoned the run, as Grantland’s Chris Brown noted on Twitter, because his offensive linemen were getting their asses handed to them. That has to be the most disconcerting part of Week 1 if you’re an Eagles fan. Beasley gave Jason Peters fits during a twitchy first half before Peters restored the order of the universe after halftime. The Eagles offense committed six holding penalties, admittedly in a game in which the referees needed to chill.

The biggest problem with the line was how awful the guards looked, and in an offseason that seemed dedicated to reshaping the Eagles to run the football, it remains the most curious of Kelly’s decisions. It was one thing for Philadelphia to cut Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans from what had been the league’s best line in 2013; it was another to not obtain any replacement offensive linemen in free agency or the draft.1 The combination of Allen Barbre and Andrew Gardner, backups who were forced into the lineup by injuries last year, simply couldn’t hold up against Atlanta’s front four. It’s one thing for Peters to have a bad half; he’s earned the benefit of the doubt by now. It’s another for Barbre and Gardner to look totally ineffectual. There’s plenty more season to come, but it’s not a promising start for Philadelphia’s most obvious offensive weakness.

Their issues may have ended up costing the Eagles the game. Down 26-24 with 6:27 to go, Bradford marched the Eagles downfield with little hint of any resistance. A hold on center Jason Kelce wiped away a 25-yard screen to Mathews, leaving the Eagles in first-and-16. They made it back to third-and-1 but weren’t able to convert; the Falcons flooded the B-gap to the right of Gardner, with the right guard getting shoved inside and linebacker Paul Worrilow shooting through to meet Mathews at the line for no gain.

That left the Eagles with a reasonably difficult decision. They faced a fourth-and-1 on the Atlanta 26-yard line with 2:32 left, knowing that a successful field goal would give them the lead, but that it would simultaneously leave the Falcons and their high-powered offense with a shot to win the game by kicking a field goal. A successful fourth-and-1 conversion would have forced the Falcons to start taking their timeouts, made for an easier field goal, provided for the possibility of a touchdown, and left Matt Ryan with less time if he did get the ball again.

As it ended up, the decision was so tough that it took Kelly 17 seconds to decide. The cameras depicted him debating the call before eventually sending his field goal unit onto the field with about 23 seconds to go on the play clock; while it didn’t seem like kicker Cody Parkey was too rushed from how he jogged onto the field, he sent the subsequent 44-yard field goal attempt wide right. Afterward, Kelly said the Eagles hadn’t gotten much movement up front on the previous play as justification for the decision to kick.

Here’s the part I don’t understand. It’s true the Eagles had been stuffed on third-and-1, and that was hardly an isolated incident on the evening. I wouldn’t have had much faith in the offensive line’s ability to carve out a hole in short-yardage, either. But why wasn’t throwing the ball an option? Bradford had completed his last 12 passes leading into that fourth down, and those were hardly even contested throws. The Eagles were two first downs (and a much shorter field goal) away from ending the game. They’d picked up 18 yards throwing the ball on a fourth-and-1 earlier in the game. Even if Kelly didn’t have faith in his expensively assembled rushing attack to pick up a yard, would anybody in the stadium have bet on the Falcons coming up with a stop on a lone pass attempt?

Kelly’s team did end up getting the ball back when the Falcons went hyper-conservative, running the ball twice before seeing rookie Tevin Coleman stuffed by Malcolm Jenkins in the backfield on a third-and-1 try. And the Falcons did get a final stop, although it required a generous bounce. Matthews came over the middle for what looked like yet another easy completion on third-and-8, and while Bradford’s throw was a little high, it was eminently catchable. The ball bounced off of Matthews’s hands and into the waiting arms of converted safety Ricardo Allen for the game-sealing pick.

Matthews was disconsolate after the loss, but it shouldn’t have ever gotten to that point. Even without the benefit of hindsight, Kelly should have gone for it on the earlier fourth down. The numbers suggested the decision was a wash, but I’m skeptical. Coaches often use the game situation and the context of how their players are performing as an excuse to be more conservative than the numbers would suggest they should be in fourth-down situations; given how his passing game was slicing the Falcons apart, here was a place where Kelly should have been more aggressive than the numbers wanted him to be.

As much as the focus has been on the Eagles for what they did or did not do, this was a promising start for the Falcons, especially in a game in which Ryan didn’t do his best work. Atlanta’s star quarterback would likely admit he played a sloppy game, throwing two picks — including one in the end zone by debuting Eagles inside linebacker Kiko Alonso — and having a couple more dropped. Ryan also underthrew a would-be touchdown pass on a wheel route in the second half, hitting Connor Barwin in the helmet.

Otherwise, Ryan was generally effective, if in part because he was playing with an advanced being at receiver. Preseason speculation has suggested that Julio Jones is in line for an Offensive Player of the Year–caliber campaign, and he absolutely destroyed the Eagles on Monday night, catching nine of the 11 passes thrown to him for 141 yards and two touchdowns. There’s still plenty of pages left in Byron Maxwell’s book as a no. 1 cornerback, but Jones torched the first chapter. It’s one thing for Jones to beat Philadelphia’s new starter, but it’s another altogether when Roddy White was getting in front of Maxwell for receptions on slants and deep crosses. Maxwell will get a breather over the next few weeks, with both Dez Bryant and DeSean Jackson likely to miss their matchups against the Eagles with injuries, but he was pretty mediocre in his Philly debut.

The Falcons also have to feel some semblance of hope for their running game after years of seeing the dying embers of Michael Turner and Steven Jackson plow into the line. They finished with a very mediocre 3.0-yard rushing average, but much of that was Devonta Freeman and Ryan, who ran for a combined 25 yards on 15 carries. Coleman is likely going to be the featured back in this offense, and he was a far more exciting weapon Monday night, carrying the ball 20 times for 80 yards while consistently making the right cuts upfield at the right time. For a back who was regarded as a north-south runner with little nuance or patience heading into the draft, he looked like an excellent running back for Kyle Shanahan’s stretch-intensive scheme.

I think fans of both teams have something to hold on to after this game, actually. Eagles fans will write off the first half as an irrelevant nightmare, much as was the case when Philadelphia went down 17-0 to the Jaguars at halftime in Week 1 a year ago, and they might not be wrong. And the Falcons can hang their hat on the defensive improvements they showed in the first half with an upgraded running game to boot, knowing that Ryan probably isn’t going to throw two picks a game the rest of the way. This was a narrow game that came down to one fourth-quarter call. And in what must be a strange feeling for Falcons fans, the coach on the wrong end of a late-game decision in the Georgia Dome was somebody besides Mike Smith.

Filed Under: NFL, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell