Falcons vs Cowboys Preview: Can Atlanta Win A Shoot-Out in Big D?

falcons vs cowboys
Credit: Blogging with the Boys

Atlanta sports fans are riding high this week. The Braves are World Series champs, the Bulldogs are number one in the nation, and the Falcons stole a win from the swamp people in New Orleans. It’s enough to have people in the Peach State buying the idea that Jorge Soler broke the Atlanta sports curse when he sent one over the railroad tracks in Houston. This week’s game against Dallas will put that notion to the test. Here is the Falcons vs Cowboys preview for this week.

Atlanta hasn’t faced a team as dangerous as the Cowboys since their week two matchup with Tampa Bay. The Falcons have improved quite a bit since that 48-25 drubbing, but have they grown enough to stand toe-to-toe with one of the top teams in the NFC? Are they ready to face off against a Dan Quinn-led defense?

Vegas thinks the Falcons are dead in the water, as Atlanta opened as nine-point underdogs. I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dry. No one will ever mistake me for a bright-eyed optimist, but I think the Falcons have a puncher’s chance this week. The path to an upset victory is narrow, but it exists. Here’s how the Falcons can find themselves with a winning record for the first time since 2017 vs the Cowboys.

Continue to Stand Strong Against the Run

I’ve harped for weeks that the Falcons run defense was a weakness that opponents had not fully capitalized on yet. Before the Panthers and Saints games, I called it the number one concern for the team. Carolina exploited that weakness and gained just enough of an edge to squeak out the win two weeks ago.

Sean Payton, a coach that’s never been shy about copying off someone else’s homework, looked to bully the Falcons defensive front last Sunday. It was a rousing success for the first two drives. The Saints averaged seven yards per carry, and though penalties killed the drives before getting into scoring position, it seemed Atlanta’s inability to control the line of scrimmage would doom them for a second consecutive week.

Then something strange happened.

Atlanta plugged in the recently elevated Anthony Rush alongside Mike Pennel at defensive tackle, giving the Falcons a pair of 330+lb run stuffers in the middle of the line. Shockingly this added girth facilitated a complete 180 for the Falcons’ run defense, and the team allowed a meager 2.6 yards per carry for the remainder of the game.

The defense still collapsed in the fourth quarter, but forcing the Saints to be one-dimensional allowed the Falcons enough time to build just enough of a lead to stay competitive.

Let’s Keep that Energy on Sunday

The Cowboys have one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL. So it seems the Falcons will have their hands full vs the Cowboys. Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb, and Dalton Shultz are a dangerous trio on their own. Wide receiver Michael Gallup appears set to make his return this week.

Despite the up-and-down performances of late, Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard are as talented of a running back duo as you’ll find. Dallas can beat you any number of ways, so the key is to make them one-dimensional. 

Mike McCarthy wants to lean into the run game, but he will abandon it if successes don’t come early. Atlanta must limit Dallas’ run game, particularly early. Dak Prescott and the bevy of receiving options at his disposal are a daunting challenge on their own. If Dallas can mix up the play calling and control the game’s tempo, the opportunities for Atlanta will dwindle to nothing.

I Have a Plan, but You Won’t Like It

It’s nearly impossible to find a matchup between the Dallas offense and Atlanta’s defense that favors Atlanta. The Falcons should feel confident in AJ Terrell’s ability to handle his side of the field, but apart from him, you’d struggle to identify any competitive advantage to leverage.

Fans rail against soft zone coverages, but if they succeed in limiting the run, Atlanta’s best hope is to sit in zone coverage and ward off explosive plays. Forcing Dak Prescott to take what the defense gives him opens to door for misfires, and the Falcons have to capitalize on them if they happen. It won’t be pretty football, but Atlanta doesn’t have the horses to do anything other than try to win on the margins.

Which Matt Ryan Do We Get on Sunday?

Blunting the offense from Dallas is the best we can hope for, and that means Matt Ryan and this offense will have to score early and often to pull out the upset. We’ve seen breathtaking performances from Ryan over the last few weeks, but we’ve seen a few duds as well.

Despite the complete absence of a run game, Ryan navigated dirty pockets and led the team to victory against the Saints. However, a week prior, he could not overcome the rocky performance from his offensive line, and the offense failed to find its footing against the Panthers. The question is, which Matt Ryan shows up this week?

It’s probably unfair to place the entire burden of the offense at Ryan’s feet. He’s missing his best receiver, the run game has been mediocre at its best, and the offensive line’s struggles are apparent to anyone watching.

Despite the emergence of Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts, this is an offense without a clear identity. This lack of a clear identity, of something this team can count on from week to week, means the offense’s success depends entirely on Ryan’s ability to make things happen in imperfect situations.

D is Key for Dallas

Dallas poses many of the same challenges that the Saints defense presented. Despite the news that Randy Gregory will miss Sunday’s game, Dallas can still rush the passer. Micah Parsons has shown immense promise off the edge, and Osa Odighizuwa has flashed potential on the interior. The Cowboys secondary is an opportunistic group that is forcing turnovers at an impressive clip, largely thanks to the sensational start from Trevon Diggs.

Though Dallas’s run defense isn’t as suffocating as the Saints, they still rank in the top ten in yards allowed and fifteenth in DVOA. Dan Quinn has this group playing confident, complimentary football, but there are weaknesses to be exploited.

Fast & Physical Means Small and Risky

We all know the score when it comes to a Dan Quinn defense. Though he’s pivoted away from his Legion of Boom-style cover three scheme a bit, his basic philosophies are unchanged. Quinn wants aggressive, athletic players who are focused on creating turnovers. It’s a winning strategy, but it leads to high variance football. It’s a boom-or-bust proposition every week. 

In their win last week, Denver followed the same gameplan that regularly thwarted Quinn in Atlanta. The Broncos came out and punched the undersized Cowboy’s defense in the mouth and won the game at the line of scrimmage. Denver racked up 190 rushing yards and converted 53% of their third downs.

Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t particularly dynamic, but he didn’t make costly mistakes. It will be hard for Atlanta to follow that same script to the letter, but we should hope to see elements of it crop up on Sunday.

Run It Even If It’s Not Pretty

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Atlanta has to find a way to run the ball efficiently. That’s not to say I expect them to post 150+ rushing yards, but a success rate of 40%+ will make life much easier for Ryan and the passing offense to operate.

The Falcons run game was abysmal against the Saints, but Dallas doesn’t have the same sort of imposing linemen, especially with Randy Gregory sidelined with an injury. It’s probably too much to expect the Falcons line to generate a ton of push, but if they can keep the chains moving, this Dallas line will wear down. An average run game is enough when you have Ryan under center.

Who Covers Kyle Pitts (Part IV)

Kyle Pitts is the wildcard this week. He’s had a sleepy paid of performances against the Panthers and Saints. With Ridley away from the team, opposing defenses have been comfortable matching their best corner against Pitts. Stephon Gilmore and Marshon Lattimore effectively shut Pitts down, and it seems inevitable that task will fall on Trevon Diggs this week. 

Diggs has been an interception factory this season, but his aggressive playstyle has also led to quite a few blown coverages. True to form with a Dan Quinn defense, Diggs is a big play waiting to happen. The problem is you’re never quite sure which team will make the big play. This may not be the week to lob up contested passes to Kyle Pitts, but opportunities will present themselves if Ryan can be patient. 

Role Players Make the Difference

The other receivers need to continue to step up this week. No single player has to dominate, but each receiver needs to make an impact in some way. Last week Olamide Zaccheaus snagged a pair of touchdowns. Russell Gage pulled in a few clutch first down receptions, and we all remember what Cordarelle Patterson did to seal the game.

Spreading the ball around and keeping the offense on schedule is the path forward for this team. Creating explosive plays is crucial, but Atlanta can’t force the issue. Dallas’ secondary is dangerously opportunistic, but they will eventually break down if Atlanta can keep the chains moving. Patiently waiting on opportunities and striking when they present themselves is the easiest way for Atlanta to get (and hold) a lead this week. 

Don’t Give Them Anything For Free

Mental mistakes, in all three phases, have cost the Falcons a few victories this season. Penalties, coverage breakdowns, and questionable play-calling gave Washington and Carolina enough opportunity to escape with wins they probably didn’t deserve. Dallas is too talented to gift them with easy yards.

While Atlanta overcame penalties from Fabian Moreau and Richie Grant last week, the margins will be a lot tighter against a better team this week. The Falcons need to channel Max Fried and pitch a near-perfect game to get the win this week. Mental mistakes will make the Falcons have a greater chance of winning vs the Cowboys.

Final Prediction

The question in Atlanta all week has been whether the win against New Orleans was a turning point. Which is what makes this Falcons vs Cowboys preview sp hard. Turning points are something you can only identify in retrospect, but a win this week will make a strong case for that notion.

Atlanta’s recent successes have come against teams that are incomplete at best and terrible at worst. Dallas, on the other hand, is a true contender. A victory this week would put the league on notice that the Falcons aren’t a team you can write off.

The thing that scares me the most about this week is how poorly Dallas played last week. The Cowboys expect to be a top seed in the NFC, and they laid an absolute egg against Denver. There are few things as dangerous as a good team coming off of a bad loss.

If Atlanta isn’t ready from the opening whistle, they may find themselves in too deep of a hole to dig out. Absent another dud from Dallas, starting fast, and keeping pace is the only way Atlanta has a chance this week.

As hopeful as I want to be, it’s tough to predict a victory. Each gutsy performance is slowly eroding my pessimism about this team, but I can’t muster enough optimism to expect a win this week. I believe Atlanta will give Dallas all they can handle and even manage a sneaky backdoor cover, but ultimately this Cowboys offense will prove to be overwhelming. I’m hoping for a shoot-out, but expect Atlanta to end up on the wrong side once the dust clears.

Falcons vs Cowboys Score Prediction

Dallas 35 – Atlanta 31

Can We Talk About Calvin Ridley?

Calvin Ridley
Credit: Atlanta Falcons

The announcement that Calvin Ridley would be absent from Sunday’s game against the Panthers was sudden; a last-minute blow to a fan base that was riding an uncharacteristic wave of optimism after the Falcons pulled out two consecutive wins. His statement that followed soon after, stating he would be stepping away from football to attend to his mental wellbeing, was equally surprising. Reactions varied, though the majority of fans and onlookers were supportive, but the shock was palpable.

This season was supposed to be Ridley’s coronation as an elite receiver. Falcons fans expected to see Ridley be the greatest weapon on a resurgent offense. However, questions have replaced the high expectations set for Ridley, and everyone is left to wonder if the budding star at wide receiver will suit up again in 2021. It’s a massive blow to a team struggling to find their way. Ridley’s absence is inconvenient, unfortunate, and in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter one bit. 

Life is Bigger than Football

Football is a huge business. Billions of dollars move through the NFL every year as people flock to stadiums and gather around televisions to watch the exploits of supremely talented athletes every weekend. It’s a momentary distraction from the mundane, a place to invest and express strong emotions without any great consequence. Its position in our culture, the extent to which it shapes the rhythms of our lives, gives it an exaggerated sense of magnitude. It is, in the end, just a game, and its importance diminishes to nothing compared to real societal issues. Mental health, and our relationship with those who struggle with it, are just one of those.

It’s heartening to see the outpouring of support that Ridley has received since releasing his statement. It’s not been unanimous; nothing in society ever is. Still, the overarching sentiment has been supportive, signaling a welcome shift in how we discuss mental health, particularly among men. There is no weakness in seeing a problem and seeking help, and I’m grateful we are finally open to having that conversation.

Mental Health Is Health

Mental health isn’t a subcategory of living; some tertiary factor in having a quality life that only deserves a spare thought once in a while. Mental health is tantamount to quality of life. I’m entering my middle-aged years, and I’ve already lost friends and family to cancer, heart disease, and the litany of ailments that come with failing physical health. However, I’ve said goodbye to just as many due to addiction and suicide. I was 15 years old when my best friend killed herself. A year later, I lost a friend to an overdose for the first time. Those were just my first traumatic losses. There have been more since, and there will likely continue to be more. I know I’m not alone either. It’s a pandemic that permeates the very fabric of our culture. Depression and anxiety are everywhere. It touches everyone. It is part of who we are. 

The only cure for this, the only path forward, is to end the stigma surrounding mental health. We have to accept that all of us face problems and that sometimes we need help. We must openly support those that do seek and not diminish their worth for doing so. Seeking mental health assistance is no different from going to the doctor because of chest pains or broken bones. This is why I celebrate Calvin Ridley for prioritizing his health and seeking to heal himself. If he’d torn his ACL, we’d all wish him a speedy recovery and move on. Despite our knee-jerk tendencies for judgment, there’s no reason to treat this differently.

Calvin Ridley Has Earned His Privacy and Respect

We have no idea what Ridley is going through, and we likely won’t ever learn the details surrounding his absence. That shouldn’t be an expectation any of us have. Despite some strange sense of entitlement a portion of our population has concerning people in the entertainment industry, it’s none of our damn business. Ridley’s brief statement already exceeds any burden of transparency we should reasonably expect. His responsibilities to inform people of his position end with his employer.

Unlike a broken bone or torn ligament, there’s no precise timetable for a return. That’s the nature of this beast, and any expectations otherwise are unfair. It will take as long as it takes. If he comes back next week, next year, or never at all, that’s a decision for Calvin to make.

Focus on the Big Issues First

There will be a time to discuss the monetary implications of his absence. Still, those conversations should be a part of a more extensive discussion about supporting people who struggle with mental health issues. Ridley is privileged in that he has the means to walk away from his job and seek assistance, but that doesn’t diminish his struggle. Instead, that should start a conversation about supporting those who don’t have the same financial resources. 

There will be a time to discuss the impact this has on the team moving forward. However, that’s a discussion that exists in a bubble of its own. It’s a far less meaningful conversation. For many, the NFL is life, but life will always be bigger than the shield. 

Most of all, I ask we all be thoughtful in how we discuss this issue publicly. Ridley deserves respect, but, more importantly, you never know who else is listening to how you respond. Our world is full of people who need help but don’t know how to ask. Don’t let a flippant comment or tweet be a reason a friend suffers silently. Don’t reinforce the toxic behaviors that hold us back. Allow this moment to be an opportunity for us all to grow, to take the next step, small as it may be, towards a happier, healthier society. 

Falcons vs Panthers Preview: Spooking Sam Darnold

Falcons vs Panthers

Rivalry games are my favorite part of the NFL. Throw standings out the window because things always get weird when two teams that hate each other square off. The best rivalry games are appointment viewing. Ravens vs. Steelers, Cowboys vs. Eagles, Packers vs. Bears, and, inside our division, Falcons vs. Saints generally make for good television. Despite being division rivals, Falcons vs Panthers doesn’t live up to that hype, at least for Falcons fans.

The swamp people will always be our favorite team to hate. With their fan base comprised of retired northerners and bandwagoners, the Bucs get a silver medal in the hate Olympics, especially with Tom Brady and their bought-and-paid-for title. When it comes to the Panthers, the best I can summon is a mild annoyance. 

I Don’t Think About You At All

Actual footage of me talking to Panthers fans.

That low-key apathy is one-sided. In my experience, Panthers fans hate us. My experiences represent a small sample size, but I’ve seen a deep, seething hatred from our little brothers from Charlotte. I mean, I get it. The hate is justified. The Falcons lead the series 33-19 and have won eight of the last ten games. If someone crossed my path twice a year and kicked my ass, I’d be mad too. 

Now isn’t the time to get comfortable, though. Atlanta is riding high following consecutive victories, but Carolina is still a dangerous team. We may be the big brother, but now and then, the little guy punches up. Sunday’s game is going to be one of the tougher matchups the Falcons have seen, and they’ll need to execute in all three phases to maintain their dominance over the Panthers.

Falcons Defense vs. Panthers Offense

This matchup won’t draw the most attention in the media, but the Falcons defense will play an outsized role in the outcome of this contest. The best way for Atlanta to overcome the Panther’s stifling defense is to win the time-of-possession battle. We will talk about how the Falcons can control the clock on offense in a bit, but the other side of that coin is potentially even more crucial. Atlanta has to step up against Sam Darnold and Carolina’s offense. 

Is This the Chuba Hubbard Breakout Game?

The offensive game plan from Joe Brady and Matt Rhule isn’t a secret. They want to run early and often to take the pressure off of Sam Darnold. With Christian McCaffrey on IR, rookie runner Chuba Hubbard will shoulder this responsibility. It’s a noticeable step down for Carolina, but Hubbard is a talented runner, and the Panthers will feed him if they’re able. Joe Brady called seven run plays during their first drive last week. They really want to run the ball. It will be up to Atlanta to quell those early attempts to dominate the line of scrimmage.

I’ve written about the concerns I’ve had about the Falcons’ ability to stop the run for several weeks straight. Like a doomsday prophet on a street corner, I find myself repeating the same warnings this week. Yes, I realize Atlanta is ranked ninth in rushing yards allowed, but raw production doesn’t tell the whole story. Atlanta is ranked 30th in the NFL in rushing success rate allowed at 47.1%. Anything above 40% isn’t good; close to 50% is terrible. When teams want to run the ball, they’ve faced little opposition from Atlanta. For various reasons, no team has leaned on the run game against the Falcons so far, which has helped prop up Atlanta’s defensive statistics. I suspect, however, that trend comes to an end this week.

Who Can Step Up?

The Falcons have to be ready to stop the run, particularly early in the game. Grady Jarrett is the only player on the active roster that’s consistently played above replacement level. Someone, anyone, has to show up on Sunday ready to make an impact. I’m hoping Mike Pennel gets time at nose tackle, if for no other reason than he offers much-needed size on the interior. Marlon Davidson and Ade Ogundeji are also candidates to step up this week. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but an improvement from Atlanta is vital. If Carolina is successful on nearly 50% of their run plays, it will put immense pressure on Atlanta’s offense to score every time they touch the ball.

Darnold Is Who He Is

Have you heard the old fable about the scorpion and the frog? The story starts with standing on the bank of a river needing to cross. The scorpion, unable to swim, needed help across, so he asked the frog to carry him. The frog was understandably hesitant but eventually agreed when the scorpion pointed out how futile it would be to sting him; they’d both surely die if he did. Alas, halfway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog. With his last breath, the frog asked why someone would so willingly embrace mutual destruction. The scorpion said, “I can’t help it. I’m a scorpion.”  

After enduring a season of stick-in-the-mud QB play from Teddy Bridgewater, the Panthers rolled the dice on Sam Darnold, hoping to unlock the potential that made him a high draft pick. Unsurprisingly, like the fabled scorpion, Darnold can’t be anything other than what he is, a lousy quarterback. The same issues that plagued him in New York have followed him to Carolina. He crumbles under pressure, an unfortunate trait to have when your offensive line is a sieve. He doesn’t read coverages well, and with seven interceptions in the last four games, is a walking JUGS machine for opposing DB’s.

If, and this is the biggest “if” of the game, the Falcons can stop the Panther’s rushing attack, Sam Darnold looks incapable of elevating the team around him. If Atlanta wants to shed the reputation of being the “get right” opponent, they can start this weekend by burying a quarterback that was benched for *checks notes* Phillip Walker last week.

It’s Not Just Darnold Falling Flat

Darnold is the easy scapegoat for the Panther’s offense, but, in fairness, he isn’t getting much support from his teammates. The Panther’s offensive line has been a disaster. They are in the top five in pressures and sacks allowed, which only exasperates Darnold’s shortcomings. Right tackle, Taylor Moton, is the lone bright spot among a dismal offensive line group that just placed starting right guard John Miller on IR. His replacement isn’t readily apparent, but none of the options available are promising. 

A team with a potent pass rush would have already written this game off as a win. The Falcons, well, they aren’t that team. We’ve all watched this team trot out an anemic pass rush for years, and there isn’t much reason to expect it to get better. However, if there is a game on the schedule ripe for a miracle turnaround, it’s this week. If Atlanta can delve deep and find a consistent pass rush, Darnold will crumble as he has over his entire career. 

But Wait, There’s More!

We’ve established the Panthers have massive issues at quarterback and along their line, but their receivers aren’t helping matters either. Carolina leads the NFL in dropped passes with 18, five more than the second-worst team. There aren’t many things more deflating than a dropped pass. It is exponentially more so when the offense struggles in so many other areas. 

That’s not to suggest the Falcons secondary can relax; Carolina has a dangerous set of receivers. We saw the Falcons’ secondary struggle toward the end of the Miami game, especially with AJ Terrell and Fabian Moreau sidelined with injuries. Thankfully, the entire secondary seems to be trending in the right direction to play this weekend. 

Atlanta’s Defense Is (Lowkey) the Key to the Game

How the Panthers attack the Falcons offense will likely be the more entertaining aspect of the game, but how Atlanta’s defense fares is likely to be more impactful. Carolina is ranked 30th in offensive DVOA, worse than everyone the Falcons have played aside from the Jets. Carolina’s inability to keep their defense off the field is a primary cause behind their four-game losing streak. If the Falcons jump on them early and control the game’s tempo, they have an excellent shot of extending their dominance over the Panthers.

Falcons Offense vs. Panthers Defense

Atlanta has enjoyed an offensive resurgence after a slow start to the 2021 season. Kyle Pitts has posted monster games in consecutive weeks, and Matt Ryan is looking awfully similar to the quarterback we saw in his 2016 MVP campaign. It hasn’t been perfect, nor has it been against premium competition, but this unit is playing well and improving every week. 

Protection is a Priority

The maligned offensive line for Atlanta has quietly put together consecutive games of allowing zero sacks. Though the pressure rates haven’t dipped, they’ve managed to give Ryan enough time to get the ball out. Jalen Mayfield still has plenty of “oh shit” moments, and no one on the line is great at run blocking, but this unit is doing enough to win games. It’s a slow progression, but each week they look a little better. This week, they face a formidable group of pass rushers, and further progression will be necessary to keep the offense moving.

Brian Burns has tormented us since the moment he walked in the door. Derek Brown and Daquon Jones are going to make life difficult for our young interior, too. Across the line, it’s hard to feel great about any of the matchups. That’s been the case all season, though, and lately, the Falcons have found a way to get it done. It’s been a heavy dose of scheme and a savvy quarterback, and that will have to continue to bear out again on Sunday. 

Scheme Early Successes

Arthur Smith has his work cut out for him. Carolina is a top ten defense in sacks and QB pressures, and they are the second most blitz-happy team in the league. Although the defense let them down, Atlanta fought through a similar situation against Washington, but the Panthers are better on the backend. Smith will need to find ways to create easy completions to get Ryan into a rhythm early. If they can keep the chains moving, the explosive plays will come, but failure on early downs will clip the Falcons’ wings entirely. 

Will Carolina Man Up?

The key to the game this week, and every week, is how defenses choose to defend Kyle Pitts. Early in the season, zone coverages thwarted Atlanta. Quick pressure on Ryan, and a lack of a speedy option outside, allowed defenses to force short passes, and the Falcons offense sputtered. Over the last few weeks, the Falcons have faced much more man coverage, and the offense blossomed. Carolina isn’t as man-heavy as the Jets or Dolphins, but they tend to prefer man, especially on third down. Atlanta has the weapons to exploit this tendency if they can protect Ryan.

There aren’t many teams in the NFL that have enough talent across the board to defend the Falcons in single coverage. Calvin Ridley may be off to a slow start, but he’s routinely won against single coverage. Kyle Pitts roasted everyone Miami lined up across from him, and Cordarrelle Patterson has been making fools out of linebackers and safeties all year. Up and down the roster, Atlanta can create mismatches against man coverage. Even players like Gage and Hurst are problems in single coverage. 

Panthers Have the Horses

I’m not underestimating Carolina, there are legitimate studs on their defense. Stephon Gilmore may make his debut for Carolina this week. Donte Jackson and AJ Bouye have played well, while Jeremy Chin can do most anything asked of him. Still, if Carolina tries to stay in man coverage, Matt Ryan will find the open man. There are three consecutive games worth of film proving that. I don’t expect that Carolina has missed that fact. The Panthers could choose to rush four and sit in zone, or they’ll ramp up their pressure packages, but either way, Atlanta has to be ready to keep Ryan clean. If the Falcons offensive line pitches another shutout, this offense will find a way to put up points. 

Special Teams Needs to Get it Together

As much as we’ve collectively groaned about the pass blocking, or the defense blowing leads in the second half, we haven’t talked enough about the special teams play in Atlanta. Koo is great, obviously, but the rest of this group needs to pull it together. This unit has failed to turn in a single clean game all year between shanked punts, blown coverages, and (almost) turnovers on punt returns. While a big return from Patterson or Williams would be incredible, I’ll settle for one game with no glaring errors. This week’s game is likely to be determined on the margins, and one mistake can be enough to swing the balance.

Who Wins in a Battle for Best of the Worst?

It’s clear this division is Tampa’s for the taking, but it’s wide open behind them. This week, a Panthers win keeps Carolina in the mix and gives their fans a rare win against a hated foe. A Falcons victory would be enough to get fans in Atlanta talking earnestly about wildcard positioning. It’s a battle to decide who is the best of the bad teams. Who keeps their playoff hopes alive, and who starts (or continues) firing off mock drafts? It’s a coin flip game, but I feel compelled by superstition to continue my trend of picking against the Falcons. I love being right, but if being wrong leads to W’s, I have no choice. It’s honestly the least I can do. Sam Darnold wins in a shootout and lives to fight another week.

Final Prediction: Carolina 35 – Atlanta 34

Falcons vs. Dolphins: Tua or No, Dolphins Gotta Go

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

Dolphins Injury Report 8/20

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

Atlanta Falcons Q1 Review: Defensive Line

Falcons Defensive Line
Photo Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With the Atlanta Falcons in a bye week, I am taking a moment to review the performance of each position group so far. I’ve already covered quarterback, the offensive line, and the skill position players. Today I’m turning my attention to the other side of the ball, starting with the defensive line.

Before I dive into player-specific analysis, I want to share a few team defensive statistics that will set the table for this article and the upcoming articles on the linebackers and defensive backs.

Team Total Defense Stats

Atlanta Falcons Defensive Production per Pro Football Reference

Defensive Advanced Metrics

Advanced Defensive Metrics per rbsdm.com

As you can see, the Falcons haven’t been a particularly efficient defense. The raw yardage totals are better than they’ve been in years. However, raw production statistics can hide significant deficiencies. Instead, if you look at DVOA, EPA, or Success Rate, it becomes crystal clear that this defense hasn’t been overly effective.

The 2020 Atlanta Falcons defense set the bar so low it would be near impossible to perform worse. Having that as a reference point, the 2021 squad has actually been an improvement. Dean Pees is a legendary defensive coordinator. The feeling is it will only be a matter of time before Atlanta has a respectable defensive unit. There have been brief flashes, but this group is pieced together with primarily journeymen and late-round draft picks. Pees is a great coach, but he’s not a magician.

The Falcons defensive line is probably the weakest defensive group for the Atlanta Falcons. Since the departure of John Abraham, Atlanta has failed to find an edge rusher to fill his shoes. Grady Jarrett is a superstar, but there is only so much he can do on his own. It hasn’t been a complete disaster, but this isn’t anything approaching a fearsome defensive line. Let’s take a look at the pass-rushing statistics (per PFF) of every lineman (defined as IDL/Edge) that’s collected a QB pressure in 2021.

2021 Falcons Defensive Line Pass Rushing Stats

Atlanta Falcons Pass Rusher Stats per Pro Football Focus

Dante Fowler Jr. Flourishes After Flop

Fowler signed a massive $15 million per year contract with the Falcons in 2020. As most big-money free agents tend to do in Atlanta, he fell flat on his face. Lingering injuries sapped his athleticism and adjusting to life without Aaron Donald proved to be a challenge Fowler couldn’t overcome. Ultimately he earned $5 million for each of his three sacks, falling grossly short of what Thomas Dimitroff envisioned when he was signed.

The newly hired Terry Fontenot wasted no time renegotiating that albatross of a contract. He voided the 2022 season and converted most of Fowler’s 2021 contract to incentives tied to his sack production. It gave the cash-strapped Falcons much-needed cap relief. It also provided Fowler the means to earn back his money on the way to another shot at free agency. Everyone wins.

Fowler is Incentivized

Fowler appears to be making the most of this opportunity so far this season. He’s easily been the best of a bad group of pass rushers in Atlanta. He hasn’t been uber-productive, but he’s already totaled a pair of sacks and forced fumbles through five games. Per PFF, his pass-rush win rate (one of the best indicators of value added from pass rushers) indicated he hasn’t been particularly efficient. Of players with at least 60 pass-rush snaps, he ranks 70th in the NFL with a 14.1% win rate. His 13 total pressures are the 54th most for qualifying defensive linemen.

These aren’t particularly inspiring statistics, but he’s made timely plays as a pass rusher and run defender. His fourth-quarter sack of Daniel Jones set the Falcons up for their first win of the season. The difference in his performance between last year and this year is night and day. He isn’t dominant, but he is a disruptive force if opposing teams don’t account for him. That’s not the output we hoped for when he arrived in Atlanta, but, as with everything Falcons this year, we are looking for progress, not perfection.

Fowler has been surprisingly effective against the run, leading the Falcons defensive line with nine tackles with an average depth of tackle of 1.9 yards. He plays out of control at times and finds himself on the ground more often than he should, but his burst is clearly on a different level than the other edge defenders on the roster. Each sack he notches this season complicated the salary cap for the team in 2022, but it’s worth it knowing the defense has a chance to get off the field on third down. His improved play and how the team approaches him in the offseason will be a compelling storyline to track this year.

Grady Jarrett Following in His Father’s Footsteps

Much like there must always be a Stark in Winterfell, the Falcons must always have an elite defensive talent wasting away on a bad team. Jesse Tuggle held that honor for over a decade, and now, twenty years later, his son has assumed the mantle. Jarrett has earned universal respect from fans and pundits alike, but Atlanta has never been able to surround him with enough support to capitalize on his immense potential. Jarrett continues to toil away, playing at an elite level even if his raw production isn’t always reflective of his ability.

Grady isn’t quite as dominant as he’s been over the last few years in production and advanced metrics. In 2020, he had a pass rush win rate of 15.2% and averaged roughly 3.5 pressures per game. So far this season, he’s posted a win rate of 12.3% and is averaging 2.2 pressures a game. This dip isn’t a sign of declining play. Turn on the tape, and his skill is evident. However, with no other real threats playing next to him, teams are free to focus solely on him. As good as Grady is, there is no way for him to defeat an offense single-handedly.

Despite the singular focus from offensive coordinators, Grady still manages to make his presence know. He’s notched a sack and ties Fowler for the most tackles along the line. His average depth of tackle is 2.6 yards, comparable to the other elite defensive tackles in the NFL. He’s played an outsized role in limiting Daniel Jones and the Giants’ offense in week 3, paving the way for the Falcons to grab their first win.

The Falcons aren’t likely to find a clear solution to their pass rush problems this season, but if Atlanta makes any progress, it will start with Jarrett’s game-wrecking ability inside. Let’s all hope Fontenot finds ways to help him while he’s still here.

Ogundeji Has Earned More Playing Time on the Falcons Defensive Line

The Falcons drafted Adetokunbo Ogundeji late in the 2021 draft. At best, most expected him to be a deep reserve, with a redshirt season as a healthy scratch as his most likely role with the team. However, he flashed enough potential in the preseason to earn his way onto the active roster in week one and has played in every game since. He’s had a limited role, playing behind Fowler and Means, but has been the go-to player as the third man in the rotation.

He’s taken advantage of his opportunities, earning a team-high 16.7% pass rush win rate and notching a sack. Despite the small sample size, he’s outplayed every edge rusher aside from Fowler, and I suspect we’ll see his usage get ramped up as we move further into the year.

He isn’t overly athletic, but his length and strength set him apart from the other edge defenders on the roster. His inexperience shows at times, but the only way to get him up to speed is to give him snaps. His efficiency ratings are likely to drop with higher usage, but the disparity between him and Steven Means is apparent. At this point, limiting his snaps limits the defense. Give the rook the extra time!

The Leftovers

The rest of this defensive unit ranges from below-average to god-awful. I do my best to avoid disparaging our players too much, but it isn’t easy to find many positives to mention. Steven Means is likely the best of the rest, despite leading the edge defenders in pass-rushing snaps while only registering seven pressures. His 7.8% pass rush win rate is, to put it politely, sub-optimal. He’s been up and down in the run game, alternating between blowing his run fits entirely and dragging ball carriers down at the line of scrimmage.

Confusingly, Dean Pees continues to drop him into coverage an excessive amount of time, where he is a complete liability. Means is a consummate professional, but he is better as a rotational piece and special teams ace. The sooner the Falcons can move away from using him as a starter, the better.

From Bad to Worse for the Falcons Defensive Line

Johnathan Bullard and Ta’Quon Graham round out the primary rotational players. Neither has proven to be huge liabilities, but neither is really moving the needle either. Graham only found his way to the field over the last couple of weeks, so there is a chance he develops into more of a threat as time passes. Still, Bullard and Graham have a total of nine tackles and three QB pressures so far. It’s reasonable to assume a massive leap from either isn’t particularly likely this season.

Tyeler Davison, the other “starter” along the interior, is easily the most replaceable player on the roster. He’s routinely blow off the line against the run and has been utterly invisible as a pass rusher. His 47.3 run defense grade is the lowest among players on the Falcons defensive line.With a 1.2% pass rush win rate, they may be better off setting up a strong box fan in his place. Maybe the breeze would dry out the opposing QB’s eyes.

Unmet Expectations

Marlon Davidson and John Cominsky are two players Falcons fans expected more from this season. Cominsky has been a healthy scratch lately, while Davidson has been hampered with injury most of the season. There is an argument that Cominsky has been miscast as a nose tackle, but if the coaches repeatedly choose to play Johnathan Bullard over Cominsky every week, that has to carry some weight.

For Marlon, this is the second consecutive season that injuries have kept him from seeing the field. It’s too early to write him off as an injury bust, but he has yet to live up to the pedigree we were sold on when he was drafted in the second round.

That leaves one final player to mention, and I saved him for last because he’s one of my favorite Falcons. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner initially won me over with excellent special teams play. Since, he’s found ways to be productive as a pass rusher when given opportunities. He is tied with Dante Fowler for the most sacks on the team, despite only seeing a quarter of the pass-rushing snaps. Am I here to convince you JTM is a world-class player that just needs a shot? No, I’m not delusional.

However, he has always found his way into the backfield when given opportunities. The other players ahead of him aren’t exactly DPOY candidates. I hardly see the harm in giving him more opportunities. It’s a homer stance for me, but I love an underdog who’s shown he’ll put in the dirty work. Give the kid a shot.

Playing (and Praying) for 2022

This group of defensive linemen is the weak link on a bad defense. There isn’t much to work with on this roster despite Dean Pees’ ability to scheme his teams into pressure. Grady Jarrett and Dante Fowler are doing yeoman’s work, but unless one of the young players on the roster can emerge as a complementary piece, this unit will be a constant liability this year. Good defenses are excellent in coverage or rushing the passer; great defenses can do both. Atlanta can’t do either effectively. We knew this group would be a work in progress, but we haven’t witnessed much forward motion aside from minimal gains.

My biggest fear isn’t the lack of pass rush either. The Falcons have one of the highest rushing success rates allowed this season. It hasn’t been the reason for a loss yet, but if a team decides to lean on their run game, I am confident the Falcons defensive line will struggle to contain it. This team needs to add size, power, and explosiveness to its defensive front. Depending on undersized linebackers to perform well when the defensive interior can’t control the line of scrimmage is futile. Expecting a shaky secondary to cover with zero pass rush support is a recipe for disaster.

Luckily, aside from the Bills, Bucs, and Cowboys, the Falcons don’t have any dominant offenses on the upcoming schedule. Hopefully, the coaches can use this season to build up some young depth before Fontenot invests heavily in rebuilding an incredibly sub-par unit.