Matt Ryan, Falcons must solve red zone woes against Eagles

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FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The numbers don’t lie. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan knows it.

In Ryan's past three meetings against the Philadelphia Eagles (including the playoffs), the Falcons are 0-3. In those games, the Falcons averaged 12.3 points per game while scoring two touchdowns in nine total trips to the red zone. Ryan completed 4 of 17 passes (19 yards) in the red zone with one touchdown, one interception, two sacks and a passer rating of 34.7.

On top of that, Ryan and the Falcons are coming off a shaky season-opening performance against the Minnesota Vikings. The Falcons fell behind 21-0 early due to turnovers, which led to them scrapping the original offensive game plan. One red zone trip resulted in a Ryan interception on a bad throw, while the other was a 2-yard touchdown toss to receiver Julio Jones late in the 28-12 defeat.

So what has to change offensively going into Sunday night's matchup with an Eagles team that returns many players from last season’s top-ranked red zone defense (opponents scored touchdowns in the red zone 44.6% of the time)?

“We just gotta find a way to come out on top," Ryan said. "There’s all kinds of different ways to win in this league. Some games shake out differently. More so than anything, we have to stay on schedule on offense, stay in front of the chains, make sure that we’re getting first downs on first and second down and leaving ourselves in good third-down situations. I think that’s the key to being successful against these guys."

What went wrong in the previous three encounters with the Eagles? The Falcons had chances to win the past two games on the final play, but the Eagles’ zone defense rose up. In the 2018 season opener in Philadelphia, the Falcons had five opportunities to punch it into the end zone from 10 yards away after a defensive penalty. Running with 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs), then-offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian couldn’t come up with the right formula. Ryan went 0-for-4, including a pass that sailed too far left in the end zone to Jones as time expired in an 18-12 loss.

The 2017 divisional playoff game ended in much the same fashion, as Ryan's last-minute rollout and pass to Jones sailed out of bounds, allowing the Eagles to run out the clock in a 15-10 win.

"We’ll take a look at some of the stuff that came up, situational, and have adjustments for what we want to do," Ryan said. "I’m sure they’ll have adjustments for what they want to do as well. But we’ll have ourselves prepared. And we can use our experience of going against them in the past of what they have done -- same defensive coordinator for a long time up there now -- so, we’ll certainly be able to use that.

"They’re true to form of who they are. They’re an aggressive defense. They play with great effort. I think that’s been a staple of Jim Schwartz's defenses my entire time in the league. That’s kind of what he’s always gotten out of those guys. It’s just going to come down to us playing physical, being on top of our assignments, making sure that we don’t have mistakes that we don’t need to have, and staying on schedule."

Maybe the Falcons can take something from what current offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did against the Eagles in Week 2 last year when he was head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs won the game 27-21 and went 2-for-2 in the red zone. Koetter used 11 personnel on both scoring situations, starting the drives with a run play and following up with scoring passes from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, respectively.

Koetter admitted he probably should have gone with a three-wideout look the first time the Falcons entered the red zone last week against the Vikings. Instead, he inserted an extra offensive lineman in the heavy package, and the Falcons lost a yard on a run play, followed by the Ryan interception off play-action.

The Falcons certainly have enough weapons to put stress on any defense. They could flood the Eagles’ zone, if that’s the defense Philadelphia elects, by putting Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu on one side of the formation and running some high-low action. Koetter also could use running back Devonta Freeman as a pass-catching weapon, perhaps even on a wheel route. He could use tight end Austin Hooper, a big target, to draw a mismatch. Or maybe the Falcons will activate one of their big backs, rookie Qadree Ollison or Brian Hill, to handle the ball in goal-line scenarios.

The Falcons also could make life difficult by scoring outside of the red zone off big plays, if the rebuilt offensive line missing rookie right guard Chris Lindstrom (broken foot) allows Ryan enough time to throw against a fierce defensive front. The Eagles were vulnerable to such plays last week against the Redskins, with cornerback Rasul Douglas giving up a 69-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Terry McLaurin and virtually the entire defense surrendering a 48-yard score to ageless tight end Vernon Davis.

"At the end of the day, we just have to score points," said Ridley, who had a 20-yard touchdown catch last week. "It doesn't matter who we're playing or what they're doing. We're the better team. We've got a lot of good guys. We're better than a lot of people, I think. So we just have to be better. We just have to go out there and make plays."