How Philadelphia Eagles approach task of covering Julio Jones, Falcons’ other skill players
Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones during an NFL football game against the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
PHILADELPHIA — Jalen Mills absorbed plenty of lessons during his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016. He learned about practice habits, learned how to thrive in Jim Schwartz’s defense and learned the tendencies and ticks of dozens of NFL receivers while facing test after test during his first year as a professional cornerback.
What stands out this week, though, is a truth Mills understood after a 24-15 win over the Falcons in November 2016: Teams that have players like Julio Jones on their roster lean on their stars as much as they can.
“So if you do line up on Julio,” Mills said, “you have to be ready, because the ball is coming.”
The Falcons will return to Philly on Saturday for an NFC divisional round matchup, which means Mills and the Eagles will contend with Jones during the franchise’s most significant home game in a decade. They’ll have to find ways to contain an all-pro receiver with the size of a bone-crushing linebacker and the shiftiness of ankle-breaking returner.
But the task of stopping the Falcons’ offense goes well beyond Jones, Mills and Schwartz say.
While the Eagles defenders assigned to Jones on any given play must remain on high alert, as Mills learned covering the 6-foot-3 pass catcher last year, Schwartz warned that too many teams can forget about Atlanta’s other talented skill-position players.
Schwartz, the Eagles’ second-year defensive coordinator, mentioned the Falcons’ running back tandem often during a news conference Monday. He pointed out that receiver Mohamed Sanu creates daunting matchup problems for defenses, too. And last season, it was receiver Taylor Gabriel who scored the Atlanta’s only touchdown against the Birds when he broke free for a 76-yard reception.
Plus, the Falcons have reigning MVP Matt Ryan flinging the ball around to all those targets.
“You have to look at it that way and say, ‘How do you stop their offense? How do you minimize their scoring and not just concentrate on one player?'” Schwartz said. “They do have other players that are threats. Sanu has been a consistently good player for a really long time. Their tight end’s developed. Both backs can catch the ball out of the backfield. Pro Bowl quarterback. It’s not just a one-man team.”
The Eagles certainly aren’t revealing any hints at their game plan to defend all those playmakers, but it’s clear versatility in the secondary offers options.
Schwartz could ask Mills to shadow Jones across the field or have Ronald Darby follow the Falcons’ most explosive player. Or perhaps they’ll keep the two outside corners on their particular sides of the field and let them each get a crack at one of the NFL’s most feared wideouts.
Inside, the Eagles might have slot specialist Patrick Robinson cover Sanu all game, while safety Malcolm Jenkins would provide a bigger and more physical presence on the veteran. It’s also unclear how aggressive the Eagles’ defensive backs will be at the line of scrimmage against an offense that can move the ball consistently or hit big plays down the field.
In the playoffs, those matchups and schemes are pivotal. It’s just that the Eagles won’t unveil their plans.
What Mills and Schwartz did offer a glimpse at was the defense’s mindset. The Birds want the player covering Jones to understand the likelihood of a pass coming his way, and they’ll surely shade coverages toward that side of the field.
Just as important to Schwartz, however, is that every player on the defense understands what the other receivers and ball-carries on the Falcons can do.
“You gotta know your matchup,” Mills said. “You gotta know how they use different types of guys in different areas of the field.”
That message happens to jive with another thing Mills picked up on last season. While the defender covering Jones has to be up to the challenge, it’s also crucial that everyone else on the field remains sharp.
“The challenge comes with their whole offense,” Mill said. “Whichever guy lines up [across from you], you just have to embrace it.”
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