Atlanta’s defense stands tall in another Falcons-Eagles nail-biter

ATLANTA -- Falcons fans are used to seeing plenty of fireworks inside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but it was Atlanta’s defense that deserves the most credit for the 24-20 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night.

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One week after allowing the Minnesota Vikings to gain 172 rushing yards, the Falcons (1-1) put the clamps on and held the Eagles (1-1) to just 49 yards on the ground and a paltry 2.3 yards per carry. Atlanta paired that stifling run defense with a pass rush that sacked Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz three times and hit him 10 times on the night.

Although the Falcons did allow a 13-play, 83-yard drive in the fourth quarter that put the Eagles up 20-17, the defense largely held Philadelphia’s offense in check. More importantly, after allowing a deep pass on what could have been a game-ending fourth-down play, the Falcons’ defense regrouped to clinch the win with a fourth-down stop on their second opportunity.

“All-in-all, I was proud of the toughness of our team,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn Quinn said after the game. “I said we’d find out a lot in the locker room last week about who we are. After such a difficult performance we had told the team there is a really big difference between playing hard and playing well. I told you after the game I thought we played hard but we didn’t play well.

“So, tonight, to have an ending and a finish like that, with the game-winning touchdown and then to come back and get a fourth-down stop for the win, I think it showed a lot of toughness, a lot of heart and what we stand for.”

It deserves mention that the Eagles were without top receivers Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson for most of Sunday night, and fellow receiver Nelson Agholor also left the game periodically. But the Falcons’ combination of pressure up front and solid coverage on the back end didn’t give the Eagles much time to move the ball, regardless of who was in the game.

Atlanta held Philadelphia to 286 total yards, 142 of which came on the final two Eagles’ drives. Cornerback Desmond Trufant picked off Wentz twice while Grady Jarrett, Adrian Clayborn and Vic Beasley each recorded a sack.

“We didn’t get a lot of chances in our first game to get a lot of pass rush, but the ones that we did we had some pressure,” Quinn said. “But it’s a part of our game that we’ve worked hard at; the guys are putting in the work and hopefully we’ll continue to improve as we’re going.”

As has often been the case, the Falcons’ defense was led by a trio from the 2016 draft class. Safety Keanu Neal led the team with nine tackles, while linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Deion Jones finished with eight and seven, respectively.

The Eagles had their chances, offensively, however. After the Falcons took a late lead on a 54-yard touchdown by Julio Jones – what was ultimately the game-winning play – Agholor broke free up the left sideline for what would have likely been an easy score, but the pass slipped right through his fingers.

Still, the Falcons’ defense never blinked, even after some big plays by the Eagles. The biggest of which came on the first game-winning opportunity for Atlanta, a 43-yard pass from Wentz to Agholor on a fourth-and-14 with just 1:29 remaining in the game. But three plays later the Eagles faced another fourth down, and this time Neal and cornerback Isiah Oliver tackled tight end Zach Ertz just inches short of the first-down marker.

“It’s all about the next play,” Neal said. “You make mistakes in the game, but you build from them, you learn from them. You don’t let them linger. You’ve got to have a short-term memory in this game.”

In the previous two meetings between these teams, Atlanta’s offense came up just short at the goal line – resulting in two heart-breaking losses in front of a national audience. With the nation’s eyes upon them once again, it was the defense’s turn to be tested with the game on the line, and they proved up to the task.

“I remember talking to Deion and he said, ‘We’ve got this Q,’” Quinn said. “He smiled at me and I said, ‘Alright, I know it. Let’s go finish it off.’”

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