Eyes on the rivals: Have Atlanta handed the Eagles a blueprint on how to beat Washington?

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Early in the week, this article was to be an outline of the Eagles’ path to the 2018 playoffs. It quickly became obvious that the road to the repeat goes through Washington. After the Saints’ convincing win against a previously-undefeated Rams team, who put up quite the fight, it seems unlikely that Philadelphia can count on stealing wins in New Orleans or Los Angeles.

A devastating loss to the Carolina Panthers all but squandered a shot at a wild card position. The Birds’ other remaining games include two bouts with the Cowboys and Redskins, a rematch with the Giants at home, and a late-season game at the Linc versus the Texans. It being Sunday night, the ‘Boys could show up to play Monday night with a point to prove. They are not out of the race, but will have to right the ship in a hurry to remain contenders. Next week’s match up with Dallas will be a bigger game than most expect. Still, in all likelihood, the Eagles’ main competition for the NFC East title hails in burgundy and gold.

The Redskins’ remaining contest are as follows: at Tampa Bay; Houston; at Dallas; at Philadelphia; New York Giants; at Jacksonville; at Tennessee; Philadelphia. Considering current record, they have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the NFL. Sitting at 5-3, they are still atop the NFC East, but still have a lot to prove to the rest of the league. Atlanta was the first mid-season test of fortuity for Washington and they got hammered.

The ‘Skins modus operandi for the 2018 season has been: play defence, run the football, don’t make mistakes. Heading into Sunday’s contest the Redskins claimed the second best total defence (fourth in yards per game), eighth best total passing defence (13th in yards per game), and 2nd best run defence. They have the league’s 5th best running back in the great Adrian Peterson. The team was also tied for 2nd with only 6 giveaways and tied for 9th in the league with 13 takeaways. Someone must have told Jay Gruden it was opposite day, because Washington was dreadful in all those categories this Sunday. The Redskins allowed 491 total yards — 337 through the air and 154 on the ground; AP ran for 17 yards on nine carries; and Alex Smith threw a costly interception late in the game. He likely would have thrown more if Desmond Trufant could wash the stone off his hands.

While good teams are afforded bad games from time to time, the Falcons deserve a lot of credit establishing their game plan early and sticking to it throughout the game. The plan, put forth by embattled Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian, will look eerily familiar for Eagles fans. My only guess is that he was taking notes instead of calling plays the last two times Atlanta came to Philly. From top to bottom, the Falcons roster includes many similarities to the Eagles’ own — especially on the offensive side of the ball. Julio Jones is essentially a more athletic version of Alshon Jeffery; Nelson Agholor is a lesser mix of Calvin Ridley and Mohammed Sanu and Tevin Coleman has a very similar skill set to our own Corey Clement. The Eagles get the edge in the quarterback department, although some might debate that point, and in the tight end group. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense that what works for the Falcons offence will work for the Eagles.

The Falcons did three things in the passing game really well against Washington: screens, and short to intermediate passes over the middle and dump off to the running backs. Atlanta scored two big touchdowns and added some significant chunk plays on screens. They also gashed the Redskins over the middle with Austin Hooper and Julio Jones. Tevin Coleman had five receptions for 68 yards and two touchdowns (one being the aforementioned screen). These three play calls have been bread and butter for the Eagles pass offence in 2018. My latest article highlights the former.

Get used to the screen game: What the Golden Tate trade means for the Eagles offense

The trade for Golden Tate makes even more sense when considering the division. He already toasted the Cowboys’ defence to the tune of 132 yards and two touchdowns on eight receptions as a member of the Detroit Lions. He will get two more chances to do the same in the coming weeks. Tate should also have success along with the other Eagles’ receivers playing the screen game against the Redskins. Since entering the league in 2010, he leads the NFL with 142 receptions, 1,265 yards and 981 yards after catch on screen plays. The Eagles have already had notable success on running back screens with Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement. Both players are able to naturally find blocking lanes on screens and short passes. The Redskins were seemingly unable to cover Atlanta’s runningbacks out of the backfield.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8o4vYIFUSg

Compare the play above which Smallwood scored against the Jaguars last week to the one below scored by Coleman against the Redskins yesterday.

https://twitter.com/SlopingGiraffe/status/1059147407362007040

Call me crazy, but add a few broken tackles and that’s a mirror image. Julio added another touchdown on a WR screen late in the game. If the Redskins aren’t able to tighten it up in the coming weeks, the Philly screen game could have a field day in four weeks time. The other two facets of the Atlanta passing game that were clicking, the Eagles should be able to mimic with a one-two punch of Zach Ertz and emerging tight end Dallas “Pay Dirt” Goedert. Ertz has been predictably unstoppable to start the season and Goedert has come into his own the last few weeks with two touchdowns in as many games. Tate should add another facet to the short crossing routes that have already proven successful against the Washington defence. Jones was also able to beat well-known corner Josh Norman down the field repeatedly, resulting in a few important receptions and a huge DPI call. For the most part, Jones just ran past him. So far this season, he has allowed a 124.3 passer rating when targeted. Despite his reputation, Carson Wentz should not shy away from taking shots with Norman in coverage.

Against the run, the Redskins boast two of the better young run-stoppers in the league in former Alabama teammates Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne. Atlanta solved that racket pretty easily. Sarkisian dialled up multiple draw plays to slow the downfield pursuit of the defensive line. He also included a ton of play action passes and run-pass options to keep the ‘Skins’ linemen guessing. When that didn’t work, he kept it simple: run away from Allen and Payne. Countless times Coleman found room on the edges of the defence and the Redskins’ tackling — which was significantly worse than it has been — did little to stop the bleeding.

Defensively, the Falcons did everything they could to force quarterback Alex Smith to win the game. They sold out to stop the run early, holding Peterson to 1.9 yards per tote. This is despite coming into the game as one of the league’s worst run defending teams. Atlanta is last in the league in both yards allowed before first contact and tackles for loss or no gain. The key was to prevent Adrian Peterson from getting outside. One of the Redskins go-to run plays is an off-tackle power run with a pulling guard and a seal from the tight end. The video below outlines just how they like to do it.

With the speed of Atlanta’s linebackers, getting outside on this defence can be a tall task. The Eagles also house their own pair of speedy ‘backers in Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham. Moreover, backups Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill, if nothing else, have speed. This is without considering the concept of asking TE Jeremy Sprinkle to man-block Brandon Graham, Chris Long or Michael Bennett. While the Eagles run defence hasn’t been as good as expected so far this season — make no mistake, they are still a premier run-stopping group. When the Philly d has struggled, it has been against quicker, more versatile backs such as Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley. These backs are also major factors in the pass game. With Chris Thompson sidelined, the Washington roster seems devoid of any running backs that can make a significant impact in the pass game. AD will have his work cut out for him.

The second solution to solving the Redskins’ offence is getting ahead early. This has not been a problem for the Eagles in 2018. In their last three games, the team has jumped out to an 11 point lead in London against the Jaguars, a 17 point lead against the Panthers, and an 18 point lead against the Giants. Keeping that lead has been the issue. Nevertheless, I myself would be worried if my team was counting on Alex Smith to put up 10 or more second half points — a feat Washington has accomplished only twice all season.

A boon to their chances, the Eagles have a clearly defined path to the playoffs in 2018, and it runs through Washington. It won’t be easy, but it may be simple.

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