Between covering the national championship game and the Falcons, Jeff made some time to answer a few questions for us.
The entire world is picking the Falcons, will Jeff follow suit?
BM: Jeff, the Falcons have had an up and down season, but after Saturday night, what is the vibe among the team and the city?
JS: Frankly, most of town was focused more on Georgia in the playoffs than the Falcons. Many fans were disappointed in the regular season and somewhat had started to tune out. But the team played impressively against the Rams – albeit some red zone issues remain – and many are looking forward to this game. I think they suddenly realize the NFC is wide open.
BM: There has been a lot of talk about Steve Sarkisian and the loss of Kyle Shannahan. How has the offense progressed throughout the season, and what is different about this Falcons offense in comparison to last time that the Eagles saw them?
JS: The Falcons’ offense actually didn’t play well at Philly last season. It was one of the team’s worst games. But overall the offense isn’t nearly as productive as a year ago. Some of it can be attributed to opposing defensive coordinators having a year of film to study in offseason. Some is simply poor performance: Offensive line play has dropped off, particularly guard play. Receivers, including Julio Jones, have dropped too many passes.Matt Ryan has been off target at times. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian logically came into this less familiar with his personnel than Kyle Shanahan was in his second season. Sark tends to get a lion’s share of the blame but that’s typical of fans who look for an easy target. There have been some play calls that left you scratching your head but overall I wouldn’t attribute most of the problems to play-calling.
BM: The offense gets a lot of the headlines, but how good is the this Falcons defense?
JS: Really good. They were eighth in points against during the season and just held the Rams, who were averaging 29.9, to 13. They’re tackling against the Rams was almost perfect. I honestly can’t remember a missed tackle. They also were in position on most plays and hit hard, preventing the Rams from accomplishing one of their greatest strengths, which is yards-after-catch. They have been prone at times to giving up big plays in the pass or run game. They also haven’t had many takeaways, which is the greatest decline from a year ago. But they’ve developed a nice pass rush. Vic Beasley was moved back to linebacker because they had injuries back there and he also battled an injury, which accounts for most of his drop in sacks. But he’s back at his usual edge rushing spot now and needs to step it up. A core that includes Beasley, rookie Takk McKinley, Adrian Clayborn, Grady Jarrett and others have given the team a solid rush.
BM: What should Eagles fans fear most come Saturday?
JS: I really don’t think Nick Foles is a bad quarterback but it seems safe to say he’s not as productive as Carson Wentz. So my biggest concern as an Eagles’ fans would be simply: Can Philly score enough points to win this game? Can they score 20? I’m not sure about that. The other thing would be the intangible of playoff experience. The Falcons had a lot of ups/downs this season but they looked like a veteran playoff team against a young L.A. team last week. It will be interesting to see if it looks the same this week.
BM: Without Carson Wentz most people have written the Eagles off, what is your opinion on the Eagles now that Wentz is no longer under center?
JS: I wouldn’t write them off, per se, because they’re still a really good team. But they’re going to have to win games mostly with defense, special teams and turnovers. It can happen. The NFC is wide open. The playoffs opened with the conference having a lot of good teams – Vikings, Rams, Saints, Panthers, Eagles, Falcons – but no great ones. They’re all potential “field goal” games. Home field also is key. Miserable weather helps Philly because it slows down the better offensive teams.
BM: In the end, how do you see this game playing out?