Falcons’ defense has chance to establish its presence early

Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate (84) is chased donw by Atlanta Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley Jr. (44) and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (59) during an NFL football game Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (Jeff Haynes/AP Images for Panini)

Khadrice Rollins

krollins@ajc.com

The Atlanta Falcons have surrendered a first quarter touchdown in four consecutive games. The Philadelphia Eagles haven’t reached the end zone in the first quarter since Week 1. Something’s got to give Sunday.

The Falcons (6-3) travel to Philadelphia (4-4) this week having won two straight games wins to take on an Eagles squad that has dropped two consecutive contests. If Atlanta is going to keep those trends going, getting Philadelphia’s offense off balance early will be a big help.

Eagles’ quarterback Carson Wentz has been at his worst in the game’s opening period. Of his five interceptions this season, four have come in the first quarter. Last week a pair of early picks helped put Philadelphia behind 14-0 just more than five minutes into the game.

“The two turnovers, getting down 14 points last game, some of these other turnovers early in games, they’re frustrating,” Wentz said.

Wentz added that although his team has put itself in these poor situations recently, they have bounced back to make the games close. Each of Philadelphia’s four losses have been one possession games where it had a chance to tie or take the lead late in the fourth quarter.

Part of the reason the Eagles have been able to respond after the slow starts is their running game. In the first quarter they average just 3.5 yards per carry and have no rushing touchdowns. The platoon of Darren Sproles, Ryan Mathews and Wendell Smallwood improves as the game goes on though as their yardage totals rise with each quarter.

Falcons’ defensive coordinator Richard Smith pointed out how key Sproles is in this offense and how the defense needs to be prepared to stop him.

“He’s really explosive,” Smith said. “He’s a very instinctive runner. He does a great job of timing up to be able to hit the holes — to let his blocks develop — that’s the most impressive thing. Any time he gets his hands on the ball, if it’s running, it’s catching or if it’s in the return game, he has the chance to be a difference maker.”

The last two weeks Sproles has been utilized more in the Philadelphia backfield, getting 28 rushes and eight catches in those games.

The Falcons have had a solid rush defense this year though, ranking 15th in the NFL. In their most recent victories they have held Green Bay and Tampa Bay to a combined 181 rushing yards.

However, Atlanta is 29th in total defense and 28th in scoring defense. And although the Eagles’ opponents have had success slowing them down early and the Falcons have given up a touchdown on the opening drive in each of their last three games, Smith said he is not planning to take anything from what those other teams did.

“We look at what we need to do to be successful against every team that we play,” Smith said. “What we do is what we do and what we what we find out is what are they good at, and what do we need to take away.”

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