A cascade of changes could follow this game, which makes it worth monitoring closely.
That may be an odd thing to say when the Falcons are 2-5, but there hasn't been a more important game in the last two seasons of Atlanta football. Win here and the coaching staff likely buy itself some time, the Falcons remain in the divisional hunt and they get to feel good going into their bye week, a breather that may result in better fortunes for injured Falcons like Justin Blalock, Jake Matthews, Prince Shembo and Harry Douglas. Lose and it's possible Mike Smith could be out of a job during the bye week, and if not at the end of the season, and we're ushering in a new and uncharted epoch in this franchise's history.
With that in mind, here's four matchups that will likely matter Sunday morning.
Easily the most critical battle of the game. If the Lions can destroy Matt Ryan's pocket with Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and the rest of their potent defense, the Falcons are likely going to look every bit as inept on offense as they did a week ago versus the Ravens. That will lead to few scores and give the Lions a chance to make hay against a defense that is finding its way very, very slowly.
The key for the Falcons will be finding ways to mitigate the pressure up the middle. The Lions can bring it off the edges when they need to, but Suh and Fairley are terrors and the Falcons will be starting James Stone at center. He's thankfully flanked by Justin Blalock and Jon Asamoah, inarguably the team's finest remaining linemen, but these guys are handfuls even for great interior linemen. In those rare situations where Stone has to take one on, the Falcons need to have a plan to roll Ryan out or provide an extra blocker in the backfield to buy him time.
If the Falcons can at least get a respectable effort going with the ground game and give Ryan some room to work, I like their chances of hanging in this one. If not, it'll likely doom the Falcons before they ever get going.
Jonathan Massaquoi vs. Garrett Reynolds
On the other side of the ball, we look to Jonathan Massaquoi against the Lion's greatest weakness on a middling offensive line. If injury issues linger, our old friend Garrett Reynolds will likely start at right tackle.
Ideally Massaquoi wouldn't be playing a lot of LDE, but Mike Nolan needs to scheme opportunities for him to rush at Matthew Stafford off Reynolds' side. Even in his best years, Reynolds wasn't great with speed off the edge, and Mass can provide that. If the Lions are forced to commit additional help to Reynolds' side, it gives Corey Peters, Paul Worrilow and others chances to win one-on-one matchups against the rest of the line, which is average on a good day.
That might be a little optimistic for this pass rush, which got going against the Ravens partly because they were missing key players. This gives the Falcons a fighting chance, at least.
Julio Jones vs. Rashean Mathis/Darius Slay
By his standards, the last couple weeks have been extremely quiet for Julio Jones. This might be a good time to reverse the trend.
Rashean Mathis was once a very good cornerback, and he's a still a capable one. At age 34, though, he's getting by as much on his instincts and physicality as anything else, and while physicality can at least help you slow down Julio Jones, instincts don't do crap. That means the Lions are likely to give Darius Slay a few cracks at him, because Slay is younger and also physical. The Lions, simply put, don't have any great options to put on Jones.
The Lions will likely compensate by bracketing Julio and trying to rough him up at the line, something that has been effective at knocking him off his game for stretches. But Jones is clearly talented enough to bust out against this secondary, and the Falcons need him to.
Mike Smith vs. Jim Caldwell
Caldwell's enjoying life with his new team, while Mike Smith is facing the very real prospect that he'll lose his job in the weeks or months ahead. In a game that could be close thanks to middling offenses, it may come down, in part, to effective coaching.
Smiths' been a punching bag for a while now, but I don't know that I trust Caldwell in big games, either. His tenure in Indianapolis was marked by excellent management of his players and staff, but poor tactical mastery. Expect to see one or two bone-headed decisions from both of these guys, but hope those coming from Smitty aren't the ones that turn the tide of the game. With everything at stake, he'd better hope so, too.
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