6:55 PM ET, ESPN – Line: Philadelphia -3
A wild opening weekend to the 2015 Regular Season comes to a close tonight at the Georgia Dome, as the Atlanta Falcons host the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football. It was quite the offseason for the Eagles, who underwent yet another metamorphosis under the guidance of Chip Kelly, now in his third campaign in the City of Brotherly Love. Despite missing the postseason, Kelly managed to parlay his success into even more power in the Front Office, absorbing full control of personnel decisions from former Genreal Manager Howie Roseman. Radical would be an appropriate way of describing the changes made by the innovative coach, the most being jettisoning starting Quarterback Nick Foles in favor of Sam Bradford. After surprising everyone and leading the Eagles to a division title in 2013, Foles apparently regressed enough last season for Kelly to deal him to the Rams for Bradford, the former Heisman and No. One Overall Pick in 2010, whose lengthy injury history had made him expendable in St. Louis. Over the last five years, Bradford has started forty-nine games, amassing an 18-30-1 record on some truly poor Rams teams, completing 58.6% of his passes for an average of 225.8 yards per game on 6.3 yards per attempt, while tossing a respectable fifty-nine touchdowns to thirty-eight interceptions. However, the problem is staying on the field, which ultimately sealed his fate this past summer; the five-year veteran has missed a total of thirty-one contests in his career including all of the 2014 campaign due to his second ACL tear in a year’s time. With that said though, there has been plenty of room for optimism; Bradford has looked revitalized in Kelly’s up-tempo offense, evidenced by his sterling performance in the Preseason, highlighted by a 10-of-10, 121-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Packers. And by the way, there is a precedent set here in the form of Mark Sanchez, another high-profile draft choice who resurrected his career in what is quickly becoming the City of Second Chances. The former Jets’ Quarterback stepped in for an injured and ineffective Foles last season to post career-highs in completion percentage (64.1%), yards per game (268.7), yards per attempt (7.8), passer rating (88.4), and Total QBR (53.86). Obviously, Kelly thinks he can do the same thing with Bradford, but even if he does, the question remains: will he manage to stay off the injury report long enough to make a difference?
A change under Center isn’t the only noteworthy shift for Philadelphia, who experienced sweeping change throughout their roster. Last season’s leading receiver Jeremy Maclin and his eighty-five catches, 1,318 yards and ten touchdowns were allowed to leave in Free Agency, marking the second consecutive Offseason in which the Eagles bid farewell to their top pass-catcher. Perennial Pro Bowl Tailback LeSean McCoy was curiously traded weeks before the Draft to the Buffalo Bills for Linebacker Kiko Alonso, who after an impressive rookie campaign suffered a nasty knee injury and missed his entire sophomore campaign. And then there are veteran Guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, stalwarts of the Offensive Line for years, who were swept up in the exodus as well. Indeed, this can be classified as dramatic turnover for an offensive unit that ranked among the league’s best, placing third in scoring (29.6), fifth in total offense (410.8), sixth in passing offense (286.3), and ninth in rushing offense (124.5). However, Kelly did pull a major coup by convincing the reigning Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray to leave division rival Dallas, in favor of becoming the crown jewel of his offense. After three injury-plagued campaigns in which he showed flashes of his serious potential, Murray finally put it all together in 2014; the fifth-year veteran led the NFL in rushing yards (1,845) and rushing touchdowns (13), the former representing the largest total in franchise history, which is truly saying something when you consider the caliber of Tailbacks that have come through that organization. Indeed, it should be interesting to see if he is afforded as much space to run behind the Eagles’ rebuilt Offensive Line as he did in North Texas, where what is widely regarded as the top offensive front in the league helped him turn into a star. But with all that said, it was the defense that was in dire need of turnover, particularly in the secondary where they ranked next-to-last in pass defense (264.9) a year ago. While everyone stands in awe at the sheer volume of plays that Kelly’s offense runs per game (70.4), the opposing team is afforded a ton of plays too; Philadelphia’s opponents ran a stunning 69.6 plays per game against them a year ago, by far and away the most in the league, which only further exposed their already shaky defense. In addition to giving up an alarming amount of yards through the air, the Eagles permitted 25.0 points per game, tenth-most in the league, punctuated by a whopping thirty passing touchdowns, fourth-most overall. Needless to say, reinforcements were required, and Kelly and Co. went shopping this summer. Most notably, Cornerback Byron Maxwell was signed to a lucrative contract in an effort to bring a physical presence to the boundaries. A return to form from both Alonso and veteran Linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who are both coming off serious knee injuries, should also go a long way towards improving the pass defense. Alonso in particular was a stud in coverage as rookie in Buffalo two years ago, racking up 172 tackles, a pair of sacks, four interceptions, and five deflected passes. Unfortunately, there won’t be much time for this unit to gel, for you can bet that Atlanta’s high-octane passing attack will test them early and often in what should be quite the shootout tonight.
While their opponent tonight dominated the transaction wire over the summer, the Falcons were busy making all manner of moves as well. Coming off a disappointing 6-10 campaign in which they actually could have won the division at 7-9, Atlanta dismissed Mike Smith after six years on the job. Though formidable in the passing game, the Dirty Birds decayed in virtually every other phase of the game. The running game eroded during Smith’s tenure, flatlining at 93.6 yards per game (24th Overall), while defense completely collapsed, yielding a dreadful 398.3 yards, the most in the NFL. Like Philadelphia, the pass defense was the major factor in their woes; Atlanta relinquished 279.9 yards through the air (32nd Overall) on 7.6 net yards per attempt (32nd Overall), while managing a mere twenty-two sacks, next-to-last in the league. Ironically, their opponents chose to do the majority of their scoring on the ground, as the denizens of the Georgia Dome practiced matador defense allowing a stunning twenty-one rushing touchdowns, also most in the league. So yes, their performance demanded change, and that change has a name: Dan Quinn. Presiding over Seattle’s fearsome defense over the past two seasons will no doubt get you a wealth of Head Coaching Interviews, and Quinn indeed made his rounds, ultimately settling on the Falcons, who are in dire need of his expertise on that side of the ball. Hybrid Defensive End/Outside Linebacker Vic Beasley was chosen with their First Round selection, with hopes that the former Clemson star can translate his insane athleticism to the defense’s fledgling pass rush. Offseason acquisitions Adrian Clayborn, Justin Durant, and TJ Ward should also bring some veteran toughness and physicality to the unit as well, with the rest of the group hopefully finding a return to a base 4/3 front more befitting of their skills. Look for third-year Cornerback Desmond Trufant, their First Round Pick from 2013 to take a major leap in his development; the 25-year old was too often a lone spark in a Secondary that was burned repeatedly, notching three interceptions and sixteen pass deflections.
With change being the operative word for both teams tonight, the Falcons have also made a number of decisions in regards to their offense, which for all intents and purposes, should have a very different look this season. One of the subtler moves that Quinn made was hiring Kyle Shanahan as his Offensive Coordinator. Of course, the name Shanahan is synonymous with many things, with Zone-Blocking Offensive Line Schemes and productive Tailbacks being the most relevant in this case. Or at least, that’s what Quinn and Co. are hoping. Over the past three seasons, Atlanta has been far too dependent on Matt Ryan’s arm to win games, with the passing game accounting for 61.2% of all offensive plays in 2014. Atlanta averaged a stellar 297.4 yards through the air (5th Overall) on 6.9 net yards per attempt (7th Overall), but a deeper look will reveal their over-reliance on the pass. A whopping 233 First Downs can be attributed to the pass, opposed to a mere 75 to the run. That’s 75.6% of the Falcons’ First Downs coming through the air. So for the second consecutive Offseason, Management attempted to improve in the trenches, but injuries once again proving to wreck even the best of intentions; 2014 First Round Pick Jake Matthews is Questionable for tonight’s outing with a back injury, while Jon Asomoah, one of their big Free Agent buys a year ago has already landed on Injured Reserve with an ailing hip. Furthermore, Joe Hawley, who was projected to start at center, was released, while former Titans’ Guard Andy LeVitre was acquired all in the past few weeks. This doesn’t bode well for the Offensive Line as a whole, who are undergoing a pretty massive transition to Shanahan’s signature scheme, which calls for lighter, more athletic Lineman. Needless to say, the results in the Preseason have a lot to be desired. Young Tailbacks Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman will need to step up in a major way this season, for balance is the only true remedy for this unit. Drafted in the Fourth Round last season, Freeman will likely get the majority of the carries to start the season, but Coleman, this year’s Third Round choice out of Indiana, could end up overtaking him by the end of the term.