There are a lot of factors at play when the Eagles host the Falcons Saturday evening in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. The weather figures to have a big impact, and for once Philadelphians will be hoping for a colder messier day when the dome team comes to town. With Carson Wentz’ absence the Eagles running game figures to feature heavily. Here are five of the key matchups in the run game and the game in general:
When the Eagles have the ball:
Jay Ajayi against Deion Jones
The Eagles run game, a strength all season, became a necessity when Wentz went down against the Rams. A season ago, the Eagles used their running attack to beat the eventual conference champions in one of 2016’s few balanced offensive performances. That day they ran for 207 yards. If a repeat performance is in the cards it’s going to have to come from different sources.
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Ryan Mathews and Wendell Smallwood accounted for 179 of those 207 yards, but Mathews is gone and Smallwood just saw his first action since the team acquired Jay Ajayi in the meaningless regular season finale against Dallas. It’s almost as unlikely he’ll feature heavily in Saturday’s game as it is Mathews will. Ajayi on the other hand, is primed for a featured role against the Falcons.
He’s faced Atlanta more recently than the rest of the Eagles, and had his best performance of 2017 against them in a Week 6 win with the Dolphins, rushing for a season high 130 yards on 26 carries. The Eagles’ leading rusher, Legarrette Blount, did not fare as well the last time he faced the Falcons: in Super Bowl LI. Blount was largely sidelined as the Patriots fell behind by 25 points, and finished with 31 yards on 2.8 yards per carry with a fumble lost.
When it comes to stopping Ajayi and co. Deion Jones is the main player for the Falcons. He finished fourth in the NFL with 138 total tackles and had a team-high ten stops in their Wild Card victory over the Rams. Jones, the Falcons’ first round selection in 2016, was the Eagles’ Jalen Mills’ college roommate at LSU.
Jason Kelce against Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe
A huge reason the Eagles rank third in the NFL in rushing is the performance of the offensive line. For once, without a featured running back to steal the credit, plenty of plaudits have come their way. Center Jason Kelce and Right Tackle Lane Johnson were named First-Team All Pro selections and Johnson and Right Guard Brandon Brooks were voted into the Pro Bowl, while Kelce was regarded as one of the highest profile snubs from the all-star event.
For Kelce, 2017 has been a rebound year after the previous two featured inconsistent performances against bigger and stronger defensive lineman and some adventurous snaps of the football. It culminated in off-season speculation the team envisioned second-year guard Isaac Seumalo at the center spot and trade rumors for Kelce, but the veteran center has proven indispensable since the season began.
He and the Eagles guards will face one of their toughest challenges this season against the Falcons’ talented interior linemen: Dontari Poe and Grady Jarrett. Poe had two-and-a-half sacks in his first season with Atlanta after signing a one year deal worth eight million dollars this off-season. After bursting onto the national scene with a three-sack performance in Super Bowl LI, Jarrett had a career high four sacks in 2017. Both contribute heavily to an Atlanta run defense that ranks ninth in the country.
When the Falcons have the ball:
Jalen Mills against Julio Jones
Jones is the Falcons most dangerous weapon and one of the top receiving threats in all the NFL. In seven career playoff appearances he is averaging 105 yards per game and has found his way to the endzone six times. He scores in the postseason at a much higher rate than the regular season. At 6-foot-3 Jones regularly muscles the ball away from defenders but has rare speed to beat them deep as well.
You can expect the Eagles to match him up with their most physical cornerback on the outside, Jalen Mills. Mills covered Jones for part of the Eagles victory over the Falcons in 2016, a game Jones finished with 10 catches for 135 yards but that included some costly drops. His production dipped slightly once Mills was given the assignment.
Then Mills was a seventh round rookie working his way into the starting lineup. Now he's winding up a sophomore campaign that may have seen him make the biggest leap forward of any player on the defense. Both players may be slightly banged up when they meet again. Jones has missed practice this week, and Mills finished the regular season nursing an ankle injury.
Dannell Ellerbe against Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman
Seahawks 101, Rams 109, Raiders 137, Cowboys 126. Those are the rushing yard totals allowed in four of the Eagles last five games, and they are four of the six highest tallies this season against the NFL’s best run defense. The other thing those games have in common? The Eagles played without middle linebacker Joe Walker. Walker himself replaced star linebacker Jordan Hicks midway through the season, but was placed on injured reserve prior to the season finale.
Ellerbe is the next man up, and even though he only joined the Eagles midway through the 2017 season, he has more playoff experience than most of the roster. He's played in ten playoff games with Baltimore and started for the entirety of their 2012 Super Bowl playoff run, making 32 tackles. For the Eagles, he's seen action only in the last two games, but, along with Mychal Kendricks and Nigel Bradham, he'll have the task of stopping Atlanta's dynamic duo at running back.
That duo is Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, and while they've both starred at times, 2017 has seen their production drop off from a season ago. In the Falcons last five games, Coleman has just 129 rushing yards at 2.7 yards per carry, and Freeman, the lead back, has been held below four yards per carry in four of the last six.
That's the aberration for this pair however, and not the norm, and they haven't been nearly as quiet through the air. Both backs are weapons in the passing game that will keep all the Eagles linebackers busy Saturday.
When the ball is changing hands:
Kenjon Barner against Falcons Kick Coverage
The Eagles special teams have received plenty of coverage in recent seasons, deservedly so. One place they haven't stood out in 2017 is on kick returns. They haven't had a ton of opportunities, due to a combination of the defense allowing few scores and touchbacks being as common as ever, but they haven't made the most of those chances either
Saturday's matchup offers an opportunity to change that. The Falcons allow their opponents the highest average kick return yardage in the NFL: 26.9. If the Eagles are to take advantage of that, it will likely be done by Kenjon Barner, who has fielded the majority of returns since Darren Sproles was injured in Week 3.
Barner has had a quiet year returning kicks, averaging just 19.4 yards on an admittedly small sample size of 10 returns. But he has a 76 yard punt return this season and averaged 30.8 yards per kick return a season ago, so the game breaking ability is there. If nothing else, solid field position could swing what figures to be a slugfest.