The Falcons’ revamped defense, which features some 3-4 alignments, struggled mightily in the season opener Sunday at Minnesota.
The Falcons (0-1) will attempt to rebound against the Eagles (1-0) and their vaunted RPOs (run-pass option plays) at 8:20 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The Eagles, during their march to their Super Bowl LII title, were at the forefront of the RPO movement. Now, just about every team in the NFL, including the Falcons, have the plays as a part of their offense.
“Yeah, that’s definitely a part of what they do,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said. “That’s become a bigger part of the game in general.”
In recent years, the Eagles have run RPOs on 18% of their offensive snaps, which in 2017, was second only to Kansas City.
Last season, the Chiefs lead the league with 25 percent, followed by Chicago at 19.2 percent and the Eagles at 14.5 percent.
It goes like this: The offensive team lines up – usually in what looks like a run formation – and after the quarterback makes a pre-snap read of the alignment of the defense, he makes more reads right after the snap, to determine if they will run the ball or throw and quick-hitting pass.
The play must happen quickly because part of the RPO design had some offensive linemen showing run blocking. If the linemen get too far down the field and if the QB throws, the linemen will be penalized for “illegal men downfield.”
So, now the Falcons, who couldn’t stop the Vikings, who were running out of a simple I-formation, have to deal with the Eagles and quarterback Carson Wentz’s sleight-of-hand movements.
“Some of the shotgun runs that have a run alert built into it,” Quinn said. “If there’s certain leverage that defense is playing, you can hand the runoff. If there’s certain leverage that coverage-wise, you can see that, they’ll rip a pass to go.”
After giving up 172 yards rushing to Minnesota, the Falcons have several other concerns.
“Definitely been on our mind,” Quinn said. “Our offense does some as well. It’s getting to where, I’d say, it’s maybe a 10 percent part, 15 percent part of most offenses at this point.”
The Eagles rushed for 123 yards on 31 carries in their 32-27 win over the Redskins on Sunday.
“There is a run element to it that’s difficult to stop,” Falcons linebacker coach Jeff Ubrich said. “Off of all of those runs, you have a pass. At the end of the day defensively, you are trying to eliminate as many run-pass conflicts for your players.”
Some of the defenders must attack, while others have to read and then react, while making sure the speedy Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson hasn’t taken off on a deep pattern.
“If you can eliminate conflicts, you can defend the run and pass well,” Ulbrich said. “It’s hard to call the perfect play every time that they’ve got an RPO in. At the same time, you must execute at a high level.”
Wentz ran four times against Washington. Apparently, just enough to keep them honest.
“It’s a challenge for sure when you have a quarterback, and he’s the third element,” Ulbrich said. “You have your run-pass and then you have the ability to scramble as a quarterback. Wentz is a challenge in that way.”
The element of a speed receiver like Jackson makes it extra tough.
“That’s something that we’ve been missing the last couple of years,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said. “He’s definitely dynamic. We just have to continue to find ways to get him open.”
The Falcons are aware that Jackson caught touchdown passes for 51 and 53 yards against Washington. He now has 31 touchdown passes of 50 yards or more, only the great Jerry Rice has more, at 36.
“He’s a guy that you can’t take for granted,” Ulbrich said. “He can take the top off the defense. It’s impressive that at 32 he can still run. He can still go and he can get behind defenders.”
Falcons defensive tackle Jack Crawford is ready for the Eagles’ RPOs.
“Carson Wentz does a really good job of switching it up, and he can run, too,” Crawford said. “We just really have to be alert and play the odds and play what we know.”
The Falcons want to attack the Eagles.
“Sometimes when you get off the ball you can disrupt a play regardless of the call,” Crawford said.”You can be disruptive and cause an incomplete pass or get a sack. For us, it’s about being mentally and physically prepared. It’s going to be a tough offense.”
Falcons defensive tackle Tyeler Davison just wants to mash it up with the Eagles.
“It’s a bunch of fancy stuff to do the same thing, run the ball and gain yards,” Davison said. “As long as we can own the looks and react the right way, then it won’t be (anything) too difficult to handle.”
Falcons safety Ricardo Allen will match wits with Wentz, but the cornerbacks will have to come up in run support at times and be concerned about Jackson getting open deep at other times.
“They like to go deep,” Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “They do the RPO stuff, and they do the intermediate routes as well. So, they give you a little bit of everything. We just have to stay disciplined when they try to attack us. When they throw it up, we have to go and make a play.”
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