The NFL Divisional round is set. The high-flying Atlanta Falcons will attempt to soar over the Eagles Nest next week as they seek vengeance for what happened one year ago in the Super Bowl. For a Philadelphia team without Carson Wentz, relying on the run will be crucial, but how will the backfield look against Atlanta?
The most prominent thing to note is that Atlanta are very much a prideful run defense. Keanu Neal (The safety who dealt Jordan Matthews a horrifying blow one season ago) captains the single-safety back end, allowing the Falcons to stack the box with eight defenders including the likes of linebacker Deion Jones. As a result, the team give up on average just over 100 yards on the ground each game, good enough to rank just inside the top 10. So how can the Eagles combat this?
Last time out:
Ryan Mathews dominated the day with 19 carries for 109 yards and 2 scores, while Smallwood and Sproles each contributed in different capacities. While the 208 total yards on the ground stand out, what really turns heads is the attention Sproles received. The veteran back was targeted 10 times, just as many as leading receiver that game Jordan Matthews, catching 8 passes for 57 yards. This brings us very neatly onto our next point.
While Jay Ajayi could very well see just as much attention as Mathews did that day, it is unlikely. No back has carried the ball more than 16 times this season, with the Eagles finding the optimal number to rotate backs with durability and fatigue in mind. What has changed however is how Ajayi has been used in the receiving game since joining the Eagles.
During the 2016 season, Ajayi amassed 151 receiving yards for Miami. He has 91 yards since joining the Eagles midway through a season in which he had to pick up the offense, learn the playbook and filter into what was already a very congested backfield.
Below is a graph that shows Ajayis carries in each game since his debut against Denver (Green line) and his receiving yards in each matchup (blue line).
Don’t expect Ajayi to decimate carries and leave other backs sidelined. But instead, look forward to seeing the former Dolphin used in some creative new ways.
The other reason why Ajayi may not see a tremendous amount of carries comes down to ball security. Whether it’s the durability questions surrounding his knee or the fumbling problems that continue to arise, the Eagles cannot afford offensive setbacks, especially considering how sporadic the passing attack has been recently. Enter LeGarrette Blount. If the Birds need dirty yards, they won’t have to look far.
A 2x Super Bowl champion and someone who torched the Colts for a career high 4 touchdowns and 166 yards in the 2013 playoffs, before notching 148 more the next time they met in the postseason one year later, Blount is one of the most instrumental veterans in the locker room. In the cold, harsh environment that the playoffs will provide, Blount should be able to get going far quicker and more efficiently than Ajayi if given the time. The Eagles may well flip between the two backs when it comes to that dominant downhill attack they’ve deployed this season.
Don’t write off Corey Clement either. The Eagles have been lethal in the red zone all season long and the undrafted rookie out of Wisconsin has been a huge part of that, with all six of his touchdowns coming from inside the 20-yard line. His usage has dropped in recent weeks, but Clement has often been relied on to run down the clock and keep the offense on the field. The most versatile back of the trio, Clement may also have a big role to play against an Atlanta defense that stacks the box.
Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports