The Philadelphia Eagles' convincing Week 1 victory against the St. Louis Rams created as many questions as it answered. Their resounding 31-13 rout of the Rams came after St. Louis lost many key starters to injury, including Steven Jackson and Danny Amendola. Several of the Eagles' weaknesses were magnified by their play throughout the game. In short, the Eagles have no lack of talent, but they still haven't proved to the rest of the league that they can put it altogether for a run at the ultimate prize.
This week's Sunday night matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, a fellow prospective Super Bowl contender, should give us a much better idea of what the Eagles' ceiling is. Coming off a disheartening 30-12 rout at the hands of the Chicago Bears, the Falcons are intent on turning around their season, beginning at home, where quarterback Matt Ryan has excelled over the past few years. A loss here would be devastating for them, especially with more difficult games coming up on the schedule, in Tampa Bay and Green Bay. This will be a well-fought game on both sides' part—look for a very good football game Sunday night.
I expect to see the following things from Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles at the Georgia Dome.
In 2010, the Eagles were perhaps the most explosive offensive team in the NFL, with the potential to score touchdowns anywhere, anytime. Bad news for the rest of the league: they've only gotten better. In their season opener in St. Louis, the Eagles showed more of that ability, with LeSean McCoy running for a 47-yard score and DeSean Jackson making a ridiculous 41-yard catch (and dropping a potential 80-plus-yard touchdown pass). And that doesn't even begin to cover their playmaking ability; the Eagles can easily turn potential sacks and tackles for losses into 20-yard plays and touchdowns.
Last year, the Eagles had perhaps their finest game of the season against the Falcons, notching a 31-17 victory in Philadelphia with Kevin Kolb under center. The game was full of huge plays, as the Eagles scored three touchdowns from beyond the 30-yard line, in addition to a monster 83-yard score by Jeremy Maclin. Despite being without their starting quarterback and left tackle, fielding a patchwork offensive line and losing DeSean Jackson to a concussion suffered on a monster hit from Dunta Robinson, the Eagles still gained nearly 500 yards of offense.
Consider that for a moment—since then, the Eagles have revamped and improved the offensive line dramatically (more on that in a little bit), added new playmakers in Ronnie Brown and Steve Smith, and seen most of their skill-position players, including Michael Vick, continue to improve and mature as playmakers. You can't look at this roster without asking why the Eagles can't take shots downfield all day, or break open modest plays for huge gains.
Last week, Jay Cutler picked apart the Atlanta secondary, embarrassing what was believed to be a fairly competent unit. Although KC Joyner may consider the Falcons cornerbacks best in the NFL, they may very well be overwhelmed by an Eagles team that torched them last season, before only getting better.
According to Sheil Kapadia of Philly.com's Moving the Chains, the Eagles played in the nickel defense only 20-of-66 snaps against the Rams. Don't expect that to happen on Sunday, as the Falcons receivers are far more talented than the Rams receivers.
In addition to All-Pro Roddy White, the Falcons feature the highly touted rookie Julio Jones and talented slot man Harry Douglas, not to mention future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. The odds are that the Falcons will play three- and four-receiver sets a good deal of the time. The Eagles will play a lot more in the nickel and dime defenses, to counteract Atlanta's offense. This means that Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie should see more playing time this week.
Dominique struggled as the nickel back last week, as he was new to covering slot receivers. His skill set is not exactly tailored to playing inside, so expect the Eagles to shift around their cornerbacks a bit. Don't be surprised to see Nnamdi Asomugha or Asante Samuel playing as a deep safety, or any of the three to be blitzing from the slot. With all the talent the Eagles have in their secondary, they can mix up their defensive packages fairly effectively, creating offensive confusion and hopefully leading to sacks or turnovers.
Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo also hinted that Asomugha might cover Gonzalez in certain packages, an additional wrinkle that would be an interesting look for the Eagles defense: Dominique and Asante covering White and Jones, Asomugha on Gonzalez, and the underrated Joselio Hanson on Douglas.
We'll have to see how exactly Castillo plays his talented corners on Sunday night, but we can remain secure, knowing that the Eagles will definitely not be outmatched by the Falcons receivers.
Of all the positions that the Eagles did not upgrade over the summer, one gets the feeling that it is the fullback, rather than the linebackers, they would most like to replace. During final cuts, the Eagles reportedly attempted to pick up both Jerome Felton and Chris Gronkowski off waivers (formerly starters for the Lions and Cowboys, they went to the Panthers and Colts, respectively).
That doesn't seem to indicate that they have much faith in their starter Owen Schmitt, who filled in last season after Leonard Weaver went down with a career-threatening injury. The game stats seem to support that theory, as Schmitt was only on the field for 10 snaps last Sunday. Though he was able to block effectively for tailback LeSean McCoy, he was targeted three times by Vick, resulting in zero catches. With all the offensive talent the Eagles have, expect the trend to continue, with Schmitt only being used situationally.
The Eagles would be far better suited to run two-tailback sets featuring both McCoy and Ronnie Brown, which adds more dynamism and potential to their offense. Don't expect to see too much of Schmitt on Sunday night.
I'll say this outright, with a straight face: The Eagles linemen are more than a match for the Falcons linemen, and I don't expect my opinion to be different come Monday morning.
Let me qualify my feelings a little, starting with the Philadelphia defensive line. It definitely should rank with the better units in the league, especially when you consider the depth the Eagles possess. You have three above-average players at both tackle and guard, not to mention some promising young backups as well.
Match that with Atlanta's sketchy offensive line, a unit with two new starters that allowed five sacks last week, and you have a situation swinging heavily in the Eagles' favor. Though the Eagles won't blitz that much (do they even have any proven blitzers?), the defensive line can generate enough pressure to put Matt Ryan on the ground a few times.
On the other side, we have the Eagles' much-maligned offensive line—a group that actually played pretty well against the Rams, except when St. Louis brought in heavy blitzes. Many people have clung to the notion that the offensive line will hold back the Eagles/get Michael Vick killed. Nonsense. While they won't be the Eagles' best group on the field, they certainly won't be the weakest link, either.
They'll be going up against a somewhat overrated Falcons defensive line, missing one of its starting defensive tackles, Jonathan Babineaux, and returning another, Corey Peters, from injury. The defensive ends, John Abraham and Ray Edwards, are fairly talented, particularly Abraham. However, there's no precedent to suggest that he'll run roughshod over the Eagles line, especially when you consider that Philadelphia bottled him up last year with their backup tackle, King Dunlap.
Edwards, an offseason acquisition from the Minnesota Vikings, was heralded as a big-name signing by Atlanta, and is a talented player. However, his stats (8.5 sacks in each of the previous two seasons) were inflated, mostly by the fact that he played on a talented Vikings defensive line, alongside Kevin and Pat Williams, and opposite Jared Allen.
In other words, the Eagles play in the trenches will be pretty good.
If there ever was a time for Michael Vick to prove that he is indeed for real (again), it would be this night. Not because it's against his former team, but because he wants to silence the critics. What better way to do so than in the nationally televised Sunday night game, against an elite team? Unfortunately for the Falcons, they just happen to be the team standing in his path, and perhaps an added bonus for Vick. He, and by extension, the offense, will have a monster night.
Why do I say this? One, simply because he's due. Everyone (including me) has felt a big game coming on for a while now—why not this week? His best playmakers, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson, played significantly better on turf last year, and there's no reason for them to slow down now. Jackson in particular was on pace for a monster game last year versus the Falcons, before Dunta Robinson knocked him out of the game. The Atlanta secondary is troubled, and lacks the depth necessary to deal with all the Eagles receivers. Add McCoy and backfield mate Ronnie Brown to the mix, not to mention Vick himself, and Philadelphia looks poised for a huge offensive night. Can the Falcons reasonably slow down the Eagles?
Of course, you could have made the same argument for last Sunday's Falcons-Bears tilt, but unlike then, we now know what each team is, and can be. And the Eagles can be pretty good.
If all goes accordingly, there won't be any doubters by this time tomorrow. Vick will be back, and Philly will be a force to be reckoned with.
Eagles in a blowout. Book it.