When Chip Kelly was Oregon's head coach from 2009 through 2012, the word got out pretty quickly: Kelly's thoughts on conditioning and sports science had his team more ready than the opponent to play for a full 60 minutes, and when you played the Ducks, the second half would be a real problem as Kelly directed his quick-strike offense against your tired and out-manned defense.
That very nearly happened to the Falcons in their season-opening win against Kelly's Eagles, who roared back from a 20–3 halftime deficit to make the 26-24 final a lot more interesting that Atlanta would have liked. The Falcons had Kelly's team dead to rights through the first 30 minutes, but right on schedule, Kelly directed his offense—led by new quarterback Sam Bradford—to eat up as much clock as possible and send Atlanta's aggressive defense into a set of wind sprints it wasn't prepared to run.
It worked to a point. Starting at their own five-yard line with 9:49 left in the third quarter, the Eagles went on a classic drive: 13 plays, 6:10 off the clock, and 120 yards if you include the penalties. That drive ended with a five-yard pass from Bradford to DeMarco Murray, and Kelly was just getting started. As the Falcons played more and more passive zone, Philly's offense caught fire. Atlanta countered that mega-drive with a 14-play, 62-yard, seven-minute drive that ended with a Matt Bryant field goal to put the Falcons up 23-17. But the Eagles came right back with a quicker jaunt down the field, ending a six-play, 80-yard, two-minute drive with a one-yard Ryan Mathews run that gave Philly the lead for the first time in the game. Bryant responded with another field goal on Atlanta's next drive, and it looked to all the world that the Eagles had the winning momentum.
However, new Falcons head coach Dan Quinn dialed up a few more blitzes and coverage concepts, and the Eagles were stalled at the Atlanta 26-yard line. Cody Parkey missed the 44-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 (a position where the hyper-aggressive Kelly will usually go for it), and the Falcons got the ball back with 2:26 left in the game. However, Atlanta went three-and-out, and the Eagles had one last stand to try and pull off the furious comeback.
In the end, it was a Bradford pass to second-year receiver Jordan Matthews that decided the game, and not in the way Kelly wanted—the ball went right through Matthews's hands, and into the awaiting arms of safety Ricardo Allen.
“I'm so happy right now,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game. “Our defense stepped up at the end of the game. Ricardo has worked so hard, coming into his second year as a safety—he's done a great job and came up with a huge play at the end.”
It was a game of huge plays, and a statement win for a Falcons team that does not at all resemble the Falcons teams we saw under former head coach Mike Smith.
Three thoughts on why this game turned out the way it did:
1. The Falcons looked more like the Eagles than the Eagles did
Through the Eagles' two full seasons under Kelly, the Eagles have bewildered defenses with a lethal combination of play-action, packaged plays, first-read-open looks for the quarterbacks, and a quick pace that left opponents struggling to find schematic matches. Under new offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons employed many of these principles, and the difference was mesmerizing. An offense that was once stuck in the mud, despite the talent of quarterback Ryan and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones was set free under Shanahan.
Ryan was directed to use the running game to set up the pass with play action, which is something the Falcons should have done more often in 2014—Ryan used play action on just 18% of his plays, but threw eight of his 28 touchdowns with play fakes, and saw increases in completion percentage and yards per carry. In Shanahan's system, play action caused the Eagles' linebackers to cheat up, leaving them helpless against frequent crossing routes, and forcing Philly's cornerbacks to deal with Jones and White with isolated coverage. Add to that Shanahan's route concepts, which gave Ryan easy reads as he turned to throw, and it was clear that Atlanta's offense was the truly dynamic one on this night—with a lot of concepts that would appear very familiar to Eagles observers.
And though the Eagles eventually found their groove on the offensive side of the ball, Shanahan still kept the pressure up. In the second half, he mixed in time-killing drives to rest Atlanta's defense, and more draws and screens when the Eagles started blitzing.
Ryan finished with 23 completions in 37 attempts for 298 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Both picks came when Ryan showed one flaw that has followed him through his NFL career, that being his occasional determination to throw to a receiver spot no matter how well-covered that receiver may be. New Eagles linebacker Kiko Alonso made an incredible one-handed grab for one of the picks, and defensive back Walter Thurmond got the other, but this was not your father's Falcons offense. Before, Ryan would have been bogged down in limited route concepts and his own lack of mobility, but now, Shanahan's offense allows him to reset and find openings. Two other primary beneficiaries were running back Tevin Coleman, who gained 80 yards on 20 carries, and receiver Jones, who absolutely abused new cornerback Byron Maxwell for nine catches, 141 yards and two touchdowns.
No matter who they play, the Falcons will be a team to watch on both sides of the ball, and the new coaching staff is the clear reason why.
2. Dan Quinn's defense was for real... for the most part
In Week 14 of the 2014 NFL season, the Seahawks traveled to Lincoln Financial field and beat the daylights out of Kelly's Eagles. The final score was 24–14, but the overall effects were far more glaring. Philly gained just 139 total yards and ran just 45 plays. Dan Quinn was Seattle's defensive coordinator at that time, and he parlayed his excellence with the NFL's best defense into his new position as the Falcons' head coach. Quinn's influence was clear and present... for a while. The Falcons had the worst overall defense in the league last season, per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, but with Quinn's aggressive schemes and a few new parts, the Falcons looked like a team reborn on both sides of the ball through the first half.
And then, the Chip Kelly juggernaut came alive, beating the Falcons' defense over the head with its lethal combination of quick plays and clock monopolization. As the third quarter moved into the fourth and Atlanta's gassed defenders gave up play after play, it started to look like so many Falcons teams in the recent past—where passive schemes and average players combined to fall behind.
Quinn is a different breed of cat, and it showed down the stretch. And the rookies from Clemson—pass-rusher Vic Beasley and defensive tackle Grady Jarrett—will ascend in Quinn's scheme.
3. The Eagles are still a force in the NFC
This was absolutely a tale of two halves, and the Eagles simply met a force they didn't expect. Kelly's team gained just 125 total yards on 34 plays in the first 30 minutes, while the Falcons went off for 244 yards on 39 plays. But in the end, the stats were far more even: 399 yards on 68 plays for the Eagles, and 395 yards on 70 plays for the Falcons. The result really could have gone either way.
Here's what we know. Kelly has his ideal quarterback in Bradford, who finished his day with 36 completions on 52 attempts for 336 yards, one touchdown and two picks. The running back rotation wasn't as frequently seen as Kelly would have liked, given the fact that the Eagles were fighting back from a severe deficit, but Murray and Mathews each scored, and Darren Sproles gained 50 rushing yards on just five carries. Alonso adds all kinds of spice to an estimable front seven, and with Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher out of the picture, defensive coordinator Bill Davis can be more aggressive in coverage.
The Eagles should still be seen as an NFC championship favorite. One game doesn't change that. But what one game may change is the perception of a Falcons team that had grown far too dormant until new management kicked in.
GALLERY: WEEK 1 OF THE 2015 NFL SEASON