The 2-3 Falcons face the 1-5 Dolphins in a game that feels like a make-or-break moment for both teams. As I’ve covered in my Q1 Falcons review, Atlanta has slowly, but steadily, improved over the last three weeks. Having settled into a rhythm on offense and coming off of a bye week, Atlanta heads into this game rested, relatively healthy, and ready to build on their recent successes.
Miami, despite a talented roster, is trending in the opposite direction. They surrendered their fifth loss to a hapless Jaguars team in London a week ago. Curiously, the team opted against the traditional bye week following an international game, leaving them banged up and searching for answers.
In a stunning reversal of fortune, Brian Flores has gone from a Coach of the Year candidate to the coaching hot seat in six short weeks. Injuries, underperforming players, and questionable coaching decisions have brought Miami to a point where they have to win this week or accept that the 2021 season is lost.
Dolphins Sink or Swim with Their Defense
Atlanta struggled to move the ball early in the season, but have started to find their way since their Week 4 game against Washington. Incremental improvements along the offensive line leading to vastly improved play from Matt Ryan have fans feeling confident the offense can begin to reach their full potential this season. The Falcons will need to build on their recent successes to get there, and this Miami defense looks like a perfect stepping stone.
Miami was one of the better defenses in the NFL last season. They finished 11th in DVOA, 7th in EPA/play, and 16th in total success rate in 2020. There has been a precipitous drop in those metrics this season. The Dolphins have slid to 26th in DVOA, 27th in EPA/play, and 23rd in success rate. Injuries have sapped some of this team’s potential, but miscues in coverage have been a significant hindrance regardless of the starting roster.
Despite a solid season from Emmanuel Ogbah, the Dolphins haven’t been effective at pressuring opposing QB’s. They haven’t been a complete disaster against the run, but they still find themselves in the bottom third of the league in yards allowed and EPA/play. In short, there are few true strengths to point to for Miami defensively.
Injuries May Hamper Any Hopes of a Turnaround for Miami
The Dolphins had six defensive players listed as “limited-participants” in their Wednesday walk-through. This designation means a bit less since the Dolphins didn’t work at full speed, but the continued presence of starting corners Xavian Howard and Byron Jones on the injury report is worth monitoring.
Both players missed last week’s game against the Jaguars, which coincided with Trevor Lawrence’s best performance as a pro so far. Generally a man coverage defense, Miami shifted to a zone-heavy philosophy and looked out of sorts for most of the game. It will be interesting to see what adjustments Miami makes this week if their star corners can’t go.
The Falcons’ best offensive production has come when faced with man coverage this season. Seeing the lack of depth at receiver for the Falcons, the Jets opted for a heavy dose of man coverage and paid dearly for it. Atlanta was similarly able to gash Washington in Week 4.
Otherwise, teams have decided to stay in zone coverage, comfortable with their ability to rush Ryan and keep the offense bottled up, and in general, it’s worked. In this instance, it may play to the Dolphins’ favor if injuries force them to rely on zone coverage. However, considering the painful breakdowns they suffered in zone last week, it’s not a particularly rosy picture either way.
Miami Has a Matchup Problem
With Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage on track to play, the Falcons will have more options at their disposal than they’ve had in weeks. Coupled with the rising confidence in Kyle Pitts and the emergence of Cordarrelle Patterson as an elite playmaker, Atlanta has the weapons to stress passing defenses at multiple levels. In theory, Miami has enough chess pieces to match up, but it hasn’t seemed to work out that way for them this season.
Eric Rowe has a reputation for being a “tight-end eraser,” but his snap counts have dwindled over the last few weeks. If the Week 3 matchup against Darren Waller is any indication, Byron Jones may draw the assignment against Kyle Pitts, if healthy. Assuming Xavien Howard suits up, he’ll be responsible for Calvin Ridley, a rematch after facing off in joint practices (that Ridley seemingly dominated) in training camp.
This still leaves the question of who will take Russell Gage and Cordarrelle Patterson. Even if fully healthy, Atlanta poses a tough matchup if Miami wants to rely on man coverage. A banged-up secondary may make that impossible.
It Still Starts Up Front for Atlanta’s Offense
It seems, in theory at least, Miami’s best hope for limiting the Falcons offense is to get to Matt Ryan early and often. The Eagles and Bucs dominated the line of scrimmage against Atlanta and cruised to easy victories. Both teams exploited the young, inexperienced Falcons interior, leaving Matt Ryan to pay the price.
However, Jalen Mayfield and Matt Hennessey are steadily improving, and the offense is picking up steam behind them. Ryan, who looked cooked through the first two weeks, has since strung together two games reminiscent of his MVP season.
The key to shutting down the Falcons offense is evident: hit Ryan and make him uncomfortable. If Ryan faces pressure early, it speeds up his internal clock, and he starts to miss open plays downfield in favor of early check-downs. The Jets allowed Ryan to settle in, and even though they managed to pressure him through the second half, he succeeded in maneuvering in the pocket and making throws. Early pressures are the key.
McGary Out, Spriggs In
Miami has a reasonably strong chance of achieving substantial pressure on Matt Ryan. Kaleb McGary, Atlanta’s primary starter at right tackle, was placed on the COVID/reserved list early in the week, and though there is a slight chance he may return, all indications are that Jason Spriggs will step in for him on Sunday. It’s an unfortunate turn for an offensive line that looked like it was starting to gel after an incredibly rough start to the season.
Spriggs, though undersized, was a steady swing tackle for the Packers from 2016-2018. He missed 2019 with an injury and struggled in limited snaps after moving to Chicago in 2020. Spriggs is an adequate pass blocker but, being undersized, struggles with powerful pass rushers. He is likely to see a heavy dose of Emmanuel Ogbah on Sunday, a matchup that is likely to be very troublesome for the Falcons. Kaleb McGary hasn’t exactly established himself as an outstanding tackle, but his absence will be something to watch.
The success or failure of the Falcons’ offense hinges on their offensive line play. Atlanta ranks as one of the worst rushing teams in every metric imaginable. It’s probably too much to ask for this group to suddenly become an excellent run-blocking unit. That shifts the burden to the passing game.
Keeping Ryan clean, especially early, is the best hope for continued success. This offensive line already has to account for less-than-stellar play from its center and left guard. Trying to also account for weakness at right tackle may prove to be more than this offense can absorb. Arthur Smith will need to conjure the same magic from 2020 that helped the Titans overcome a below-average offensive line.
Who is the QB in Miami?
Atlanta’s defense has shown, in spurts at least, that they can do enough to win games. It would be a stretch to characterize them as average, but they are good enough to shut down bottom-of-the-barrel offenses. Despite Miami falling into the category of “awful,” there is an argument that Tua Tagovailoa is good enough to lift them out of the gutter when he’s healthy.
That argument may be null and void by the weekend, should the rumors the Dolphins are closing in on a deal with Houston for Deshaun Watson prove to be true. It’s unclear how soon Watson would be able to take the helm, but, certainly, he wouldn’t be ready to play by Sunday.
Should a trade materialize, that leaves Jacoby Brissett as the presumptive starter, making this week’s matchup considerably more favorable for Atlanta. Brisset can lead an offense if the pieces around him are top-rate, but the Dolphins struggles in the run game, and pass protection is treading into meme territory.
Weakness on Weakness
That’s not to say the Falcons have been effective rushing the passer, but the gamble Miami made on its young offensive linemen hasn’t paid off, and their offense is floundering as a result. They’ve shuffled players to different positions looking to find a grouping that works, but, for now, it’s been a fruitless endeavor. Despite Dante Fowler’s recent appearance on the injury report, I feel confident the Falcons can get the best of this offensive line.
If Tagovalioa is on the roster, the calculus changes a bit. Tua, despite less than ideal arm strength, is much more effective at pushing the ball downfield. His average intended air yards per attempt is a full yard higher than Brissett’s. Though Philadelphia found quite a bit of success against Atlanta in the short passing game, the Falcons have been much better defending the dink-and-dunk approach since.
Despite Miami’s insistence on turning deep threats like Jaylen Waddle into possession receivers, if the Dolphins can’t generate explosive plays in the passing game, they will struggle to score points on any defense, even Atlanta’s.
The Forgotten Run Game
I haven’t mentioned much about either team’s run game, and for a good reason. Neither team has a run game worth mentioning. I know my writing this almost certainly guarantees one of these teams will explode this week, but history is on my side here. Miami ranks 32nd in rushing yards. Atlanta has been more productive on the ground, but finds itself alongside Miami as a bottom-five team in rushing DVOA.
The one appreciable difference is Atlanta’s willingness to stick to the run game. Miami ranks last in carries. Despite playing one less game than most of the teams in the NFL, Atlanta is 24th. You can expect Atlanta to try to establish the run, but it’s a stretch to expect them to be overly effective. If either team suddenly finds a run game, it will become the turning point in the game. However, the outcome likely comes down to which quarterback has the better game.
Dink and Dunk or Get It in Chunks
Predicting a winner for this week isn’t easy. These are two underperforming teams with far more questions on their rosters than answers. The winner of this game is likely to be whichever team finds a way to generate explosive plays, something neither team has done consistently so far.
It seems, on paper at least, Atlanta is better situated to do so. They are healthy; Dante Fowler Jr. and Kaleb McGary are the only two players who haven’t participated in practice this week. A bye week has presumably given Arthur Smith additional time to self-scout and tweak his offense. Kyle Pitts is coming off his breakthrough game, and Calvin Ridley is rejoining the team this week.
On the other hand, Miami is a team with glaring uncertainty at the quarterback position. A quarter of their team is on the injury report. Brian Flores saw a raft of coaching assistants make lateral moves to other teams in the offseason, suggesting a lack of confidence in him. Now it appears the team and fanbase are losing faith as well. Miami is a team that’s on the ropes, one solid punch away from going down for the count.
You Know What That Means!
If you’re a long-time Falcons fan, you know what that means. Atlanta is going to lose this game convincingly. By some miracle, the Dolphins will find a run game. Tua Tagovailoa (or Jacoby Brissett) will morph into Joe Montana — it happened to us once already — and Emmanuel Ogbah will set the single-game sack record.
Is this needlessly pessimistic? Perhaps. Am I saying all this because the Falcons only win games I pick them to lose? Couldn’t say. I can tell you that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Final Prediction: Miami 27 – Atlanta 17