One of the biggest story lines heading into Sunday’s matchup between the Eagles and Falcons was Jonathan Gannon’s defense vs. Atlanta’s explosive offense.
Matt Ryan and Co. finished last season with the fifth-best passing offense in football, totaling 4,363 yards for 27 touchdowns along with 243 first downs through the air, second-most in the league. Asking a first year coordinator to contain this kind of passing attack is a tall order, especially with a handful of new faces in the secondary and no Rodney McLeod on the field.
After the first two Atlanta drives that netted 144 total yards, Gannon made the necessary adjustments and held the Falcons to 116 total yards on the following 8 drives. Overall, the Eagles held Atlanta to 3-for-14 on third down, 1-for-3 on fourth down, 260 total yards, and they sacked Ryan three times in the fourth quarter to close out the victory.
This was a true test for Gannon’s group, and they passed with flying colors.
The defensive line was as advertised. They finished the game with a 41 percent pressure rate, and five different lineman had a win rate north of 15 percent. Javon Hargrave and Hassan Ridgeway led the way, combining for 8 sacks + quarterback hits. Per Pro Football Focus, both players finished the game with pass-rushing grades of 85 or better.
While this defensive line played like we all expected them too, the secondary exceeded expectations — even though I believed they were an improved position group heading into the year. They were tasked with slowing down one of the best wideouts in the game in Calvin Ridley and arguably the best offensive prospect in this year’s NFL Draft, Kyle Pitts.
The cornerback duo of Darius Slay and Steven Nelson was lights out. They were targeted a combined 12 times on the outside and they only allowed one first down, totaled three passing stops, and one forced incompletion. Ridley was the leading receiver for Atlanta, but he didn’t have any splash plays and his impact on the outcome was kept to a minimum.
As for the rookie, Gannon mixed up his coverages on Pitts all day. Avonte Maddox, K’Von Wallace, and Eric Wilson all had their cracks at him, and Pitts was unable to find any sustained success. This defense as a whole didn’t allow one play over 20 yards, the only team in Week 1 to accomplish that feat.
The linebackers — probably the weakest link of this defense — held their own as well. Although they are the weakest position group on the defense, they were not a weakness on Sunday. The top two backers, Alex Singleton and Eric Wilson, combined for 17 total tackles. They also both did fine in coverage. Singleton in particular, played 35 coverage snaps and not one of them ended in a first down.
From top to bottom, the Eagles have a very stout defense. Gannon clearly knows how to utilize his talent and he’s not afraid to adjust on the fly to mitigate mistakes. He’s not married to his game plan, which can be an Achilles heal for some coaches around the league.
With McLeod set to be back in the lineup with in a couple weeks, this defense should get even better moving forward. Next week will be another test facing the 49ers, but this defense has the pieces to be able to contain Kyle Shanahan’s attack.
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