Jets Fans Have a Reason to Fly High
The Jets fly into London feeling a little better about themselves after collecting their first victory of the 2021 season. Rookie quarterback Zac Wilson has looked like a rookie from BYU adjusting to the NFL, but last week we saw a glimpse of the potential that propelled him up draft boards last spring. After a slew of questionable decisions in his first two games, it appeared his coaches tried to reign in his free-wheeling style of play in week three, only to see him throw for 160 yards and two interceptions. Last week, Wilson was back to his backyard playstyle, and he logged the best game of his short career. It wasn’t a perfect game, Wilson has yet to exit a game with no turnovers, but he helped generate big plays.
The Jets pass rush exploded against a depleted Titan’s offense, amassing seven sacks in week four after totaling only six sacks in the first three weeks. Third-year defensive tackle Quinnen Williams has had a fast start, and John Franklin-Myers and Bryce Huff have emerged as legitimate threats as edge rushers. The Jets’ secondary hasn’t faced a potent offense, but they’ve bordered on average so far this season. Despite the glut of turnovers from the offense, the Jets defense has done well to secure themselves in the top half of the NFL in yards and points allowed.
Falcons Fans Waiting to See a Finished Product
The Falcons have been schizophrenic through the first four weeks. After laying an egg against the Eagles and Bucs, the defense carried the team to victory in week three before falling apart entirely against Washington last week. The offense, who had been nearly invisible all season, finally showed up against a dreadful Washington defense. Unfortunately, until this team can put together a complete game in all three phases, it doesn’t seem likely they’ll find much success. The only consistency Atlanta has seen this year is in Cordarrelle Patterson, but despite his best efforts, he can’t carry this team by himself.
Sometimes Growth Means More than Wins
That brings us to the “must-win” game for both teams this Sunday. If we choose to be honest, we can admit that a win for either team isn’t going to move the needle this season. The Falcons and Jets wrote their stories before this season ever kicked off. The Jets embraced the rebuild by throwing their rookie quarterback into the fire. Sure, they added some pieces in free agency, but they intended to compete in 2022 and 2023. This season was always going to be the first step in a new direction.
Though the Falcons’ leadership deflected the notion, it is apparent this is year zero of a long-term rebuild for this team. We all heard Arthur Smith say Blank hired the wrongs guys if he wanted to rebuild, but Smith’s bluster didn’t match the team’s actions in the offseason. No one expects the front office to admit they do not intend to compete, but the truth was in plain sight for anyone willing to look. That’s why many of us are already firing off draft takes.
At this point, both fan bases should shift their baseline expectations away from wins and focus on growth. Wins will keep the casual fans engaged, but progress is far more critical. Creating incremental gains week to week is the only path to changing the narrative. Planting seeds now is the only way to enjoy the fruit they may bear in the future. The question for this week, and every week moving forward, is how much can both of these teams grow.
Can the Falcons Offense Survive Without Ridley?
The Falcons finally saw an offense that resembles what we expected going into this season. After three weeks of nominal production from Matt Ryan and this passing offense, they notched four passing touchdowns (thanks, Cordarrellle!) against Washington. We finally saw a few explosive plays after three games of nickel and diming defenses. This newfound production was due partly to a shift in playcalling, but mainly because the Falcons held Washington to their fewest quarterback pressures this season. Ryan looked remotely comfortable in the pocket and was generally able to deliver the ball in rhythm, a scenario that has been painfully absent so far this season.
This is the part of the article where I had focused on the offensive line and playcalling. I had a thousand carefully chosen words outlining who needed to continue growing and how Calvin Ridley was the key to this offense blossoming into the productive unit we all hoped to see. Then, in a bizarre turn of events, the news came down that Calvin Ridley wouldn’t be traveling with the team to London due to “personal reasons” just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post. Awesome.
First, let’s all hope everything in Ridley’s life will be ok. There will be plenty of speculation about what’s happening and what it means. We aren’t likely to find out what happened anytime soon, if at all. I sincerely hope whatever is going on comes to a positive conclusion for the sake of everyone involved. Life is bigger than football, and I wish Ridley the best.
Time for Plan B
Now, the question is, how do the Falcons overcome this stunning blow to their offense. There isn’t an easy answer to that. With Russell Gage also ruled out, the team is devoid of any threats on the outside to keep the Jets honest. If I were Robert Saleh, I would be throwing every blitz in my playbook at Matt Ryan. I would have zero concerns about single coverage on Olamide Zaccheaus and Tajae Sharpe. Stack the box on early downs, and send the house on third. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The easy answer for the Falcons is Kyle Pitts, but the rookie tight end hasn’t shown any reason to believe he can step in and be the alpha receiver on the outside. I’m sure Arthur Smith will ramp up his usage lined up wide, but I wouldn’t count on that translating to a breakout game. Perhaps Corrdarrelle Patterson slots in at receiver, but his productivity has skyrocketed because of his flexibility. Simply lining him up as an X eliminates the competitive advantage he presents as a moveable chess piece. Patterson has carried this offense so far, but can he keep that pace up with no help around him?
This week presents the most daunting challenge of Arthur Smith’s career as a play-caller. He isn’t facing a daunting defense, but he has so little to work with to keep them honest. I expect a heavy dose of multiple tight end sets, a doubling down on the run game, and quite a few prayers that they can gut out tough yards to stay on schedule.
It Starts Up Front for the Falcons
Whether this plan works falls entirely on the offensive line. The Jets are coming off an impressive seven-sack game, but they haven’t been overwhelmingly effective at rushing the passer this season. Roughly half of their thirteen sacks and forty-one pressures came in their game last Sunday. Jets fans have reason to be excited about their defense, but some regression back to the mean is inevitable. However, unless Atlanta can generate some yardage in the air, they likely face an endless wave of blitzes. These young interior linemen will need to grow up fast this week.
Can Jalen Mayfield, who deserved a much better PFF grade than he received this week, continue to improve after a disastrous start to the season? Facing Quinnen Williams is a tough draw for any guard, but Mayfield availed himself relatively well against a pair of strong interior linemen last week. Matt Hennessey has had positive moments but has struggled to maintain an average level of play. Atlanta has gotten solid performances from Jake Matthews, but Kaleb McGary has continuously faltered at right tackle. Despite the strong start from the Jets edge rushers, this is still the easiest matchup McGary has seen so far. Can he turn in a good performance this week, or will we head into the bye counting the days until Matt Gono is cleared to play?
The Rushing Attack Needs to Carry the Team
Perhaps a more pressing question is whether Atlanta’s line can generate some push in the run game. If this offense is going to function without Calvin Ridley, we need to see a dramatic improvement in the run game. Fans were quick to call for Mike Davis’s job after averaging an embarrassing 1.1 yards per attempt against Washington. However, upon reviewing the all-22 film, it’s pretty apparent the blame doesn’t fall directly on Davis’ shoulder. Chris Lindstrom was the only Falcons lineman that consistently performed to par in the run game. For this offense to maintain a consistently high level of play, the run game has to be efficient. Atlanta doesn’t have to lead the league in rushing yardage, but a sub-30% success rate (29th in the NFL) is not a recipe for success. The Jets are 18th in the NFL in rushing success rate allowed (41.7%), so Atlanta has an opportunity to turn things around this week.
We have yet to see Atlanta marry a successful run game to an explosive passing game. It isn’t surprising with an entirely new scheme and youth at critical positions, but entering into week five, I had hoped to see progress. Progress will be hard to find without Calvin Ridley, so now the best we can hope for is something bordering on competence.
Can the Falcons Rally On Defense?
We were all shocked to see the defense showed some life through the first three weeks. Granted, they allowed roughly a million points to the Eagles and Bucs, but it was nearly excusable with the catastrophic offensive performance. They looked competent, dare I say borderline good, against the Giants. Then it all came tumbling down against Washington, leaving fans to wonder whether it was all an illusion all along. We should learn a bit more this week. If the Falcons can’t pull it together defensively this week, it is time to panic.
The Jets are a terrible offensive team. Let’s hit some highlights.
The Jets are:
- 32nd in points scored
- 29th in yards gained
- 1st in INTs thrown
- 32nd in EPA/play
- 32nd in Offensive DVOA
The Jets are one of the few teams that are worse than Atlanta offensively. Wilson has thrown an interception in every game this season. Their leading rusher (Micheal Carter) is averaging 3.4 yards per attempt. This team is objectively a terrible offense. If Atlanta can’t stand firm against this offense, there is very little hope for them in the short term.
Injuries at Nickel Complicate Matters
The season-ending injury to Isaiah Oliver is concerning, especially with the recent return of Jamison Crowder. This is exasperated by an injury to Avery Williams, meaning we may see the debut of Darren Hall or Richie Grant on Sunday. Still, by and large, this is a healthy defensive unit that *should* keep this opponent in check. It’s likely to boil down whether the Falcons can find a way to limit Zac Wilson’s ability to escape the pocket and create big plays. Three of the four quarterbacks the Falcons have seen this season has made them pay for breakdowns in containment, and if they can’t clean this up, Wilson will be the fourth.
Dean Pees is aware of this weakness; he addressed it specifically in his press conference this week, so it will be interesting to see how it affects his play calling. Will he continue to be aggressive and blitz to create pressure, or will he depend on disguising coverages and forcing Wilson to diagnose and deliver the ball from the pocket? Can he get more out of his linebackers and defensive backs when it comes to containment?
Will the Falcons Run Defense Even Get Off the (Double-Decker) Bus?
In terms of raw statistics, the Atlanta Falcons don’t have a terrible run defense. However, if you look at the success rate allowed or yards/carry allowed, you’ll see the Falcons are near the bottom of the league. Atlanta has benefitted from playing teams that aren’t terribly interested in dedicating themselves to running the ball, but each team they’ve faced has been efficient on the ground. While the Jets haven’t found much, if any, success on the ground, this may be the week they rededicate themselves to their run game.
The promotion of defensive tackle Mike Pennel is a storyline to monitor this week. The struggles Atlanta has seen on defense stem from an inability to control the line of scrimmage. There is no guarantee he’ll make the active roster, but at 330lbs, he adds much-needed size to this defensive line. I hesitate to place high expectations on a journeyman tackle, but if he can achieve even a mediocre level of performance, it would lift this defense.
The linebackers for Atlanta need to step up their games too. My previous film review revealed undisciplined play, poor tackling, and, sometimes, an unwillingness to play through contact. It isn’t limited to one player. The entire unit has shared these struggles. Better play from the defensive line will help, but we need to see this group settle into their roles and play mistake-free football.
Any hopes of pulling this game out lie squarely on the shoulders of the defense. If they can limit the Jets to fourteen points or less, it will give the offense a chance. There is little hope for the Falcons if this turns into a shootout. They just don’t have the ammunition for it.
Can Our Special Teams Avoid Unforced Errors
Special teams issues have plagued the Falcons all season. We’ve yet to see this team log a “clean” game from its special teams between shanked punts, injured punters, and allowing a kick return for a touchdown. The return touchdown was an obvious error, but the yardage lost to bad punts has been just as impactful. The Falcons aren’t a team with a wide margin for error, and losing the field position battle because of poor kicking is enough to erase whatever small advantages the team manages to find.
With Cam Nizialek injured, Atlanta will turn to Dustin Colquitt as his replacement. Nizialek struggled to begin the year but seemed to have leveled off before suffering an injury last week. Colquitt had an excellent career with Kansas City, but at 39 years old, it’s fair to wonder how much he has left to offer. Here’s to hoping he can recapture his glory days for at least a few weeks.
Buckle Up Buckaroos
Destiny requires this to be an ugly game. Two bad teams facing off for a crowd on the wrong side of the Atlantic ocean who don’t know who or what to cheer for was never a good game scenario. Ugly games can still be fun, though. I’d love to write a glowingly optimistic preview for this one. Hell, I had a borderline cheerful preview written before the Ridley news. However, as it stands now, I’m not sure if either team will be effective offensively.
There is a path to victory for Atlanta. Limit the Jets offense, hope to generate a spark with your special teams, and do just enough on offense to get by. It’s a narrow path to walk, but it’s viable. Unfortunately, there are so many things stacked against the Falcons that I can’t bring myself to predict a victory. It’s probably time to limp into the bye week and regroup before taking on a much tougher slate of games. For the second week in a row, I’ll predict the Falcons drop a “must-win” game.
Final prediction Jets 17 – Falcons 6