by Scott Kacsmar
Weather delayed the start of the 2018 NFL season, but Philadelphia's offense also waited two-and-a-half quarters before running a play that gained more than 10 yards. It just happened to be another tricky pass thrown by wide receiver Nelson Agholor to quarterback Nick Foles for 15 yards; shades of the Super Bowl 52 play that the Patriots did not connect on with Tom Brady.
While we are finally in the new season, this first game looked a lot like the Eagles we saw in Weeks 16-17 and in that 15-10 divisional round playoff win over the Falcons. That was when Foles was struggling before playing stellar football in the two championship games. Atlanta had hoped to seek revenge for that playoff loss, but met essentially the same fate in the red zone, unable to score the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of an 18-12 loss.
In a special Friday edition of Clutch Encounters, we'll look at some of the interesting developments from Thursday night's opening game. It wasn't pretty, but neither was the playoff game these teams played in January.
Code Red: Atlanta Stumped Again
Atlanta had almost eight months to fix the red zone offense that ended its 2017 season in Philadelphia, just two yards shy of the NFC Championship Game. While teams have various problems to work on in the offseason, the red zone was much more than just a bad day in the playoffs for the 2017 Falcons. Atlanta ranked 19th in red zone passing DVOA, 26th in red zone running DVOA, and 23rd in total red zone DVOA. Here is a direct excerpt from the Atlanta essay in Football Outsiders Almanac 2018:
What’s even more confusing about Atlanta sputtering in the red zone is the fact that they were a legitimately good offense in every other area of the field. When we split the field by 20-yard sections, the Falcons ranked 11th or better on each portion of the field except the red zone. So they often cruised right down the field, only to struggle when it was time to turn that yardage into seven instead of three. Remove all red zone plays, and Atlanta’s offensive DVOA rises to 12.6%, sixth in the league.
The red zone was quite literally this offense's biggest problem under new coordinator Steve Sarkisian last season. So it had to be disheartening to Atlanta fans to see the team turn five red zone opportunities into just one touchdown on Thursday night. Even the opening drive of the season saw Atlanta get three cracks from the 1-yard line, but nothing worked. Matt Ryan, on an uncharacteristically poor night for him, was off target on a third-down throw to Devonta Freeman that should have worked for a score. The goal-line formation to try running it in with Freeman on fourth down was just a bad idea. The second trip in the first quarter was more of a bad break when Ryan's third-down pass was possibly tipped, and tight end Austin Hooper was contacted on the play. The Falcons blew the potential of a 14-0 lead with the reality of a 3-0 lead.
Ryan threw a very poor interception in the red zone early in the fourth quarter. He was fortunate that his defense got its own interception on the ensuing drive after hitting rookie tight end Dallas Goedert to pop the ball free. That led to Atlanta's only successful red zone trip as Tevin Coleman ripped off a 9-yard touchdown run.
But with Atlanta trailing 18-12 in the final two minutes, the game came down to essentially the same scenario that we saw in January. While Ryan found Julio Jones for a couple of huge plays on the final drive to get into the red zone, the fact is Jones has not been a great touchdown scorer in his career, even dating back to his days at Alabama. In 2017, Jones had the most receiving yards ever (1,444) for a player with fewer than four touchdown catches in a season. On a night where no other Atlanta receiver wanted to step up, you had to figure that Jones was going to have his opportunities once the Falcons had a first down at the 10-yard line with 24 seconds and no timeouts left.
The lack of timeouts also meant that the Falcons couldn't really afford to throw short of the end zone unless someone was wide open to walk in the score. The Eagles also finally wised up and devoted more defenders to covering Jones. On first down, the four-man rush did just enough to get Ryan out of the pocket, but only two of his receivers were running routes into the end zone. He had to throw the ball away after eating up eight seconds. This down was mostly bad design.
On second down, the Falcons sent all five receivers vertically, but Ryan's pass was too tall for Jones (or anyone) to catch. He had a slight window with a great throw, but he didn't deliver. On third down, Ryan really did well just to throw the ball away as Fletcher Cox hit him in motion on a quick pressure. A sack would have ended the game, so that one was really a blocking failure. On fourth-and-ballgame, Ryan threw the ball out of the end zone, but was bailed out by an illegal contact penalty that you would rarely see get called in such a big situation. That gave the Falcons one last crack from the 5-yard line with a second left.
One of the criticisms for the fourth down in the playoff loss was that Jones was really the only viable option Ryan had on the play. The other problem was that the pass was thrown to a spot where Jones wasn't going to be able to come down in bounds. Well, Atlanta kind of had déjà vu here, and to make matters worse Ryan threw a low-arching fade to Jones.
Making Julio your only viable option and not throwing him a pass he can catch in bounds...Take 2 pic.twitter.com/8SzQGR9lqt
— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) September 7, 2018
If you read our studies on route data, you know we hate fades, especially if they're not of the back-shoulder variety. On this particular play, by the time Ryan is releasing the ball, his two receivers to the right are not in a good position to score. His tight end is blanketed over the middle. Mohamed Sanu ran his route into two defenders to help free up Jones in single coverage, but Jones clearly landed out of bounds and the game was over.
The nicest thing we can say about this latest red-zone failure: at least they didn't try a jet sweep from the 1-yard line, or line up a fullback wide left on a sprint-right option. But this offense has to start figuring out some plays that work in the red zone. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Ryan is 1-of-20 since 2017 on throws to Jones in the end zone. I'm not saying that signing Dez Bryant to throw him fades would have been the right move, but maybe this team could have been in the market for a Jimmy Graham to help out. It's not all the fault of one person in Atlanta, but one game into the new season and this is clearly still a big problem.
Philadelphia's Game-Winning Drive
Before the final drama, the Eagles still had to regain the lead after Atlanta had taken a 12-10 lead. Matt Bryant's extra point loomed large at first, but ultimately became a moot point. Still, Atlanta's special teams had a bad fourth quarter. At the end of a 12-yard punt return by Darren Sproles, the Falcons were penalized 15 more yards for a reckless grab of the face mask. That set up Nick Foles at his own 46, only needing a field goal with 4:51 left. Not exactly the stuff of legends, and it ended up being a drive dominated by the running backs.
On a third-and-8 when Atlanta could have forced a three-and-out (or fourth-and-short at midfield), a cutesy scheme failed the Falcons. Vic Beasley is supposed to be the team's best edge rusher, so why was he dropping back so deep into a zone he would have no effect on? Either have him spy Sproles, a proven receiving back, or let him rush the passer on a big third down like you would expect to see. Instead, Beasley tried to make up the ground he lost to tackle Sproles short, but the 35-year-old back broke through his tackle to pick up just enough yards for a huge conversion.
Darren Sproles with that old man strength! pic.twitter.com/SuJDc84OsI
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) September 7, 2018
This was just another one of the key moments in a game where the Falcons continue to come up small. Three plays later, Corey Clement broke through the defense for a 21-yard run that was all too easy. Two plays later, Jay Ajayi had a burst of speed to the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown run, then added a two-point conversion, breaking the plane just before he fumbled in the end zone. Philadelphia led 18-12 with 2:19 left and never had to take the field on offense again.
Wide Receivers: One-Man Army Night
One of the strangest things about this game was how each passing offense relied so heavily on its No. 1 wide receiver. Julio Jones was outstanding with 10 catches on 19 targets for 169 yards. Ryan was just 4-of-8 for 18 yards on passes to Atlanta's other wideouts (Mohamed Sanu and rookie Calvin Ridley). For Philadelphia, Nelson Agholor had to step up in Alshon Jeffery's absence. He caught 8-of-10 targets, but for only 33 yards. Agholor was actually more valuable with a 16-yard run and that 15-yard completion to Foles. Philadelphia's other wideouts (Mike Wallace and DeAndre Carter) caught 1-of-4 targets for 10 yards.
That means these teams combined for 28 receiving yards from their non-leading wide receivers. Even Torrey Smith had 39 yards by himself for the Eagles when these teams met in January. I looked at Atlanta's 2017 season and found that it always had at least 45 receiving yards from the non-leading wide receiver.
This mark of 28 yards sounded preposterously low, so I looked through our 2017 receiving data to check it out. I based every game on the leading wide receiver that day rather than the true No. 1 wide receiver on the depth chart. In 2017, games averaged 138.7 combined receiving yards from non-leading wide receivers. Only two games featured fewer than 40 yards. One was the ugly Christmas game between the Eagles and Raiders (35 yards) and the other was Week 1 between the Jaguars and Texans (29 yards). The latter probably wouldn't have happened if Allen Robinson didn't tear his ACL that day.
So sure enough, the 28 yards would have been the lowest game in the NFL last season. The fact that the third-lowest game also involved Foles and the Eagles (with Jeffery catching no passes) isn't good, but at least Jeffery and Carson Wentz should be back soon. For the Falcons, they'll definitely have to get Ridley involved after losing Taylor Gabriel in the offseason. Julio can't do everything for this offense.
New Rules, Old Confusion
Finally, this was the first chance for the NFL to apply its new rules in a meaningful game. There was not a single flag for the new helmet rule that prohibits players from lowering their head to initiate contact. There was one outlandish penalty for a point of emphasis in regards to roughing the passer. The NFL no longer wants defenders to use their body weight to drive a quarterback into the ground, but just what is Grady Jarrett supposed to do here when the laws of physics are working against him? As long as the hit is on time, which it was, then I do not see how any defender can be expected to not at least partially land on the quarterback.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) September 7, 2018
Overall, officials were very flag-positive on the night. The Falcons had 15 accepted penalties for 135 yards and the Eagles had 11 accepted penalties for 101 yards. There was not a single game in the 2017 season (including playoffs) where both teams had at least 11 penalties, and it only happened twice in all of 2016. That's not to excuse a lot of sloppy play by both teams last night, but we'll have to see if this season is going to feature more penalties than usual.
There may be more catches than usual, but one game into the new catch rule has us skeptical. The NFL adopted a three-step process for completing a catch that is very similar to what I proposed last season after the Jesse James touchdown was overturned in Week 15. A player must have control of the ball, get two feet or another body part down, and make a football move. There is no more "completing the process of the catch through the ground" and the ball can move a little.
Of course there were already multiple close calls last night, but the third quarter featured a play so absurdly ruled incomplete that it would live forever in infamy if this was a playoff game rather than Game 1 of 267. Ryan appeared to hit a deep ball to Jones for a 52-yard gain, but the pass was ruled incomplete on the field. After Dan Quinn challenged the ruling, the call of an incomplete pass still stood, befuddling many viewers.
Julio Jones bobbling catch pic.twitter.com/RRwUtcuHK9
— TheRenderNFL (@TheRenderNFL) September 7, 2018
There was an obvious bobble by Jones at first, but he also clearly pinned the ball to his right shoulder. His body was sliding on the ground with that control and he had not gone out of bounds yet, nor did the ball touch the ground. What more can he possibly have done to get a completion? The fact that the official only said the call "stands" (not confirmed) and offered no explanation to the audience for why it was incomplete was frustrating to say the least.
This was a huge play in the game, because the Falcons could have taken a 13-3 lead on that drive. OK, so they probably would have stalled in the red zone again and kicked a field goal, but a 9-3 lead is still a much better position to be in. The Eagles got the ball back and scored a touchdown to lead 10-6.
It's great that the NFL saw it was time to change the rules for a catch, but if we still have to ask what is a catch, then nothing has actually changed. After last night's performance, it may actually be worse now.