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NFL Preview - Atlanta (6-0) at Philadelphia (3-3)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Asante Samuel apparently didn't fit the mold of Juan Castillo's defense and was eventually traded from the Philadelphia Eagles to the Atlanta Falcons in the offseason.
Known as a gambler from his cornerback position, the brash and flashy Samuel will make his return to the City of Brotherly Love when the undefeated Falcons invade Lincoln Financial Field to take on the Eagles Sunday afternoon.
Samuel enjoys playing off the line of scrimmage, a tactic Castillo frowned upon with physical cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie already in the fold. Moving Samuel out of the equation made sense, right? It may have, but since then Castillo has been fired and Samuel is rolling deep with the unbeaten Falcons.
It took Samuel six games to finally get his first interception with the team in a 23-20 win over the Oakland Raiders on Oct. 14, one week before Atlanta's bye. Samuel stepped in front of a Carson Palmer pass in crunch time and returned the pick 79 yards for a touchdown.
"It was about time," said Falcons defensive end John Abraham of Samuel's INT for a score. "We've played six games, and that's what we expect him to do every game. I told him before the game, 'It's about time for you to get a pick, right?' We really needed that turnover in that point of the game, and it was the deciding factor in getting the win."
The Raiders were able to tie the game later on, but a 55-yard field goal by Matt Bryant kept the Falcons with an unblemished record.
Atlanta is off to its best start at 6-0, but there are some out there who believe the Falcons haven't proved anything. Well, they won at a hostile Arrowhead Stadium in Week 1, literally picked apart Peyton Manning and the Broncos, blasted the Chargers on the road and squeezed out a close win over Carolina. Wins over RGIII and the Raiders ensued for Atlanta, which now faces a trio of tests against Philadelphia, Dallas and New Orleans.
"I think everybody knows where we're at. The really good thing about our football team is we're not satisfied," said Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who is one win shy of becoming the team's all-time wins leader. "There is a desire in there to play better football. We've been very fortunate and the thing about the NFL is it's a week-to-week proposition."
Atlanta has played well in October under Smith, going 12-4, and is 3-1 after the bye under this current regime. That lone loss came against the Eagles back in 2008. Smith can tie Dan Reeves with a win Sunday. Reeves went 49-59-1 as Falcons head coach from 1997-03.
Discipline and forcing turnovers have been the Falcons' calling card this season. Their 18 penalties against are the fewest in the league and they have a plus-10 turnover differential (Eagles are minus-9 differential). Atlanta has converted 45.3 percent of its third downs this season, which ranks tied for fourth in the NFL.
Philadelphia made a big move during their bye week by firing Castillo. The decision came a few days after the Eagles blew a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions in a 26-23 overtime loss on Oct. 14.
Asomugha played arguably his best game as an Eagle, shutting down Lions All- Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson most of the game. But in the waning minutes, Castillo switched defensive assignments and opted to blitz more while taking Asomugha off of Johnson. After the loss, a dejected Asomugha questioned the coach's decision and Castillo was later axed.
The Eagles promoted secondary coach Todd Bowles to defensive coordinator, and guess who is a big supporter of the move? You guessed it, Asomugha. The talented defensive back said he is not sure how much will change and likes Bowles' calm, relaxed demeanor. Asomugha said the mood hasn't changed in the locker room and that the players are eager to win, mentioning that the Eagles "have to put wins together."
Asomugha said confidence in Castillo wasn't eroding before the switch.
"We think this defense is good. The players, everybody feels that way," Asomugha said. "We're still confident as a defense. There's a lot of confidence in his (Bowles) ability."
Philadelphia's high-priced cornerback prefers that Bowles remain on the sidelines rather than in the pressbox under his new label since he is a specialist with the defensive backfield and can talk with him right away. Asomugha did reflect on Castillo and mentioned it was tough to hear the news and respects him as a man and a coach.
Eagles head coach Andy Reid may have lost some fans by making a desperate move to fire Castillo, but blame can be spread around. Quarterback Michael Vick is still having issues protecting the football as evidenced by his eight interceptions and nine fumbles, five of which have been lost. Vick was interception free for three games until chucking up two free balls versus the Lions. Protecting Vick has been a problem, too. Vick has been sacked 17 times and at least twice in every games this season.
Vick, a No. 1 overall draft pick by the Falcons in 2001, used the bye week to reflect on what needs to improve.
"I understand the most important thing is for me to go out and continue to do my job, and try to help this football team the best way I can," Vick said. "We control our own destiny and gotta make things right. Just gotta come out fresh, gotta start fast, get better. Hopefully we get this thing turned around and I'm optimistic we will."
If records mean anything, Eagles head coach Andy Reid is 13-0 after the bye, the longest win streak since the bye week was introduced in 1990.
Atlanta ended a four-game losing streak to Philadelphia with a 35-31 win last Sept. 18 at the Georgia Dome. The Eagles, though, have won eight of the previous 10 matchups in this series, including the postseason. In two career games against his former team, Vick has thrown for 290 yards with three touchdown passes and an interception.
Vick suffered a concussion in last year's showdown.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Matt Ryan, the NFC Offensive Player of the Month for September, will be the primary focus of an Eagles' defense that has experienced trouble getting to the quarterback this season. Ryan, who has been sacked just once in each of his last two games, leads the eighth-best pass attack into a hostile and loud environment, but pressure doesn't seem to bother him. He has led the Falcons on game-winning drives in the fourth quarter in three straight games, and doesn't want to be in that position for another week. A fast start is key.
"It's important every week. That's one of the areas we need to improve," Ryan said. "We haven't done a great job of that the last couple of weeks. Smitty (Mike Smith) talks about it all the time. We want to start fast and maintain that throughout the game. Regardless of what they have going on, I think that's a point of emphasis for us this week."
Ryan has thrown two or more touchdown passes in a game five times already this season and his 98.8 passer rating ranks fourth in the NFL. He is tied for fourth in the league with 14 touchdown passes and the Falcons are 27-0 record when he notches a quarterback rating of 100 or better. Ryan's 67.8 completion percentage is fifth in the NFL, and owes credit to a dangerous wide receiver duo in Roddy White and Julio Jones. Tight end Tony Gonzalez isn't too shabby either.
What will make the game go a lot more smoothly is an effective Michael Turner running the football. Turner has just one 100-yard game this season and has totaled just 100 yards on the ground in the previous two games. The bowling ball-type Turner needs to step it up for Atlanta's weak ground game against an Eagles run defense that is permitting 104.5 yards per game. Turner could thrive against Philly's new-look defense, and is looking forward to playing in front of the Eagles' "friendly" faithful.
"Oh yeah, it's fun, it's fun," Turner said when asked about playing in hostile environments on the road. "It's football, the spirit of the game. Going into hostile environments is what makes this league so great. We're going to expect a good football game. They (Eagles) know they can't take too many more losses."
If Philadelphia believes in the numbers game, then they know it will be important to get running back LeSean McCoy going early. McCoy has hit the century mark in rushing twice this season and has compiled only 75 total rushing yards in the past two games. Atlanta is 28th in run defense, allowing 143.8 yards per game.
McCoy wasn't pleased with his latest performance versus the Lions and carried the ball 14 times for a season-worst 22 yards. He'll have left tackle King Dunlap to run behind Sunday after a hamstring issue hampered the big offensive lineman. Dunlap takes back his starting job from Demetress Bell and will face a steady challenge against Falcons talented defensive end Abraham, who had three sacks against the Raiders and owns 10 1/2 in his past nine games.
Since recording three sacks in a loss at Arizona on Sept. 23, the Eagles' defense hasn't recorded any in each of the past three games. Ryan was sacked a season-high seven times in a close win versus Carolina on Sept. 30, so perhaps Bowles will devise a scheme similar to what the Panthers did. Eagles rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks said Bowles has a creative mind and has plenty of players to work with in stunts and schemes.
"There's a sense of urgency. We got 10 games left, so it's time to get down to business," Kendricks said. "Everyone's held accountable."
Besides having to worry about White and Jones at receiver, Philadelphia is facing a future Hall of Fame tight end in Gonzalez. Gonzalez went to the same college as Kendricks and the two Cal Bears will go at it Sunday. Gonzalez is one touchdown shy of 100 in his career, too.
"I'm excited. I'm excited," Kendricks said of facing Gonzalez. "This game's fun for me. It's a game and he's one of the best tight ends to ever do it."
Eagles safeties Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman will have their hands full and must be in the right spots, or else it will be a long afternoon. Having Bowles, their secondary coach, calling signals should help in coverage.
How will the Eagles' defense perform under a new coordinator? Can Vick keep the ball in the hands of those wearing midnight green? Will the Falcons be able to exploit Philadelphia's ineptitude to harass the quarterback? Those questions and more will be answered late Sunday afternoon, when Atlanta rides off in the sunset with its unbeaten record intact after a grudge match. Turner will be the Falcons' key to success in a close one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 24, Eagles 17
10/25 14:57:00 ET