This week our beloved Falcons face what is a clearly superior opponent in the Jaguars, at least on paper. For all that, the Jaguars are a mirror image of our team in a lot of ways. There's the aging yet effective running back and the young stud waiting to take over, the potent front seven, the dubby receiving corps, and the one elite cornerback and a lot of question marks in the secondary. Of course, their young stud running back is fantasy paladin Maurice Jones-Drew and their star cornerback is interception machine Rashean Mathis, so that makes a difference. I'm going to break this down into five basic categories, so check it out:
Passing Game: The Jaguars are very familiar with our particular predicament. The Jaguars have a dynamic quarterback in David Garrard, but he faded into the background in the second half of last week's game and seems to struggle with consistency. On top of that, they have a truly excruciating receiving corps. Ernest Wilford, John Broussard and tight end Marcedes Lewis are the only thing even closely resembling decent options, and Wilford still hasn't delivered entirely. Former first rounders Reggie Williams and Matt Jones have to be considered busts at this point. Sound familiar?
In order to win, I believe the Falcons are going to have to pass often. That means they should put their shakiest receiving option up against Rashean Mathis, first of all. It might seem counterintuitive, but if Petrino doesn't believe in Jenkins he's better off just sacrificing him against one of the league's best cornerbacks. If Mathis picks off a pass against Harrington, I want it to be because he swooped in from across the field and snatched in. I don't want it to be because Harrington's trying to force the ball in to his receiver there. It's not like the rest of the Jaguar secondary is awful, but it's not good enough to completely shut down White and Robinson if they can speed their ways around the field. Against an average secondary with one great player, this is a great opportunity for Harrington and the receivers to show us something. I'll be pretty concerned if they don't.
Edge: The Jaguars, thanks to Garrard's athleticism and better match ups with the secondary.
Running Game: Let's just award this one to the Jaguars. Dunn and Taylor are similar in terms of effectiveness at this point in their careers. Dunn is probably still more physical and Taylor is a tad shiftier, but neither of them are going to be the impact backs in this game. For the Jaguars, that belongs to Maurice Jones-Drew, a fantasy legend after one year and probably the most dangerous player either team will trot out there. Drew is a short back with good speed and excellent power for his size, and I expect him to be much more effective than he was against Tennessee. The entire defense should be watching Drew at all times.
The key on offense for the Falcons could also be a young back, the talented Mr. Norwood. People who note his insane yards per carry last year probably think he's just capable of motoring down the field, but I've come to expect more than that from him. Norwood has a truly elite burst of speed and is a very shifty back who really only needs to work on his physicality. Against a Jaguars front seven that tackles very well, he'll have to use that shiftiness and find open spaces. Even if Dunn's the starter, Norwood should and I suspect will get more reps. If Petrino even puts Artose Pinner in the game, I'm going to flip my shit.
Edge: Jaguars, just because Drew has the potential to annihilate us at any given moment.
Run Defense: This is the facet of the team that should improve this week, but since we're facing a potentially elite back I'm more than a little concerned. Adrian Peterson made the Falcons front seven look like clowns last week. Toss in the continued absence of Rod Coleman and the D-Mo and Stephen Nicholas debate and you've got a unit that could be shakier than any of us would like. Giant run stopping machine Grady Jackson will have to clog the middle and force Drew and Taylor to the outside, where we pray unto our various deities that Abraham and Anderson can handle them. Otherwise there's going to be a lot more pressure on Boley--and Nicholas in particular--than I would really like. I think we'll hold Drew under a hundred yards, but it's what the Falcons do in the red zone that's going to determine the outcome of that particular battle. Unless they clamp down hard, I'd say Drew's going to score at least once.
The Jaguars are typically effective against the run but suffered the kind of collapse that's usually reserved for supermassive black holes. Allowing more than 225 yards rushing to Chris "I Thought I Sucked!" Brown and LenDale "Fat Piece of Crap" White should be an indicator that something is wrong. Fortunately for the Jaguars, they come up against a team that features smaller, quicker backs. Whether that means Dunn and Norwood are going to run all over them or be stymied is a complete question mark to me, but the Titans were the more physical team and benefited from it. Maybe we should get Artose Pinner in there.
Edge: The Falcons. Looking bad against a promising rookie is much better than looking horrible against Chris Brown and LenDale White.
Pass Defense: The Falcons looked alright against the Vikings, which doesn't serve to tell us much. DeAngelo Hall was aggressive and made that nice pick off of Tarvaris Jackson, but the rest of the secondary was just alright. Williams was active enough but looked a little out place out there. I expect that until he adjusts, so the Falcons will just have to compensate by pulling the ancient Lawyer Milloy....I mean, the mediocre Lewis Sanders...
Okay, we might be screwed. To be fair, the Jaguars don't have a very tough passing game. They might actually make the Falcons look good in coverage, a confidence boost that's sorely needed anyways. The Falcons will have to greatly step up the pass rush if they want to stop Garrard, as they registered no sacks against a semi-mobile Jackson. In particular I'm looking at John Abraham, who damn well better start earning his paycheck sometime soon.
The Jaguars have, as already mentioned, Rashean Mathis. This alone does not bode well, but safety Reggie Nelson also looked pretty good back there. I'm not sold on Sensabaugh or the rotating bucket of crap that constitutes the other corners, but this is still a secondary that could prey on poor decisions. It doesn't help that huge defensive tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson scare the shit out of me. If the offensive line can't return to form (I think they will), there's going to be a lot of Joey Harrington shaped dents in the turf. Just based on last week's results (they shut down Vince Young), I have to favor the Jags.
Edge: The Jaguars, thanks to Mathis and the tackle tag team in particular.
The Falcons lucked out big time. Instead of consistent and potent kicker Josh Scobee, the Falcons will be squaring off against John Carney. I don't have to tell anyone who has been watching him the last couple years that Carney's washing up quicker than seaweed at high tide. If the Falcons keep the Jags out of his range, it could be a miserable day for the team from Old People Land. Adam Podlesh is a talented young punter, but I'm not overly concerned about his ability to pin us in a corner just yet.
On the return side, Maurice Jones-Drew is scary as hell. If Dennis Northcutt is returning punts, then I say the Falcons should just kick it right at him and not even worry. In Drew's case, they might as well kick it as far away from him as possible. He's always a threat to break off a long return, and the last thing we want to give the Jaguars with their inconsistent passing game and old kicker is some gimme yardage. Stopping Drew will be the key, just like on defense.
For the Falcons, masked kicker Mattster Prater will attempt to win our hearts once again. It's way too early to tell whether he'll be successful in the black, white and red, but I'd prefer to get him as close as possible so we don't really have to find out this week. Koenen looked terrific against the Vikings and netted 46.8 yards per punt, but I'd really like to use him as little as possible, too.
Consider me cautiously optimistic about Jennings, too. He was totally ineffective on punts, but he only had two chances and should get many, many more this week. On kick returns he had a 19.6 average, which is respectable enough. He hasn't shown us anything to make us believe he'll just take off for the end zone, but I'll settle for consistency.
Edge: Jaguars by a little thanks to a more dangerous return game.
Final Prediction: I'd like to pick the Falcons in an upset, but I just don't see it happening. I'll say Jacksonville wins 20-10, but I'll hope all weekend that I'm wrong.