Every Falcons fan wants to know how well this team will perform in 2014, and with only one game to base our predictions off of, that's daunting business. How the Falcons fare against their Week 2 opponent should help clear things up.
Where the Falcons found the Saints' defense to be easy pickings just a week ago, the Bengals bring a fearsome front seven to the table that should put more pressure on Matt Ryan and the ground game. At the same time, the Bengals don't have an overly strong secondary, which means if Ryan has the time to get rid of the ball, he can wreak the same kind of havoc he did against New Orleans. It will not surprise you to learn that our matchups of note this week heavily revolve around the lines and the secondaries for both teams.
Here's four matchups that are likely to matter.
The Defensive Tackles vs. Bengals Guards & Russell Bodine
The Bengals have one of the stronger offensive lines in the NFL. They know that Andy Dalton wilts a bit under pressure, so it's imperative to protect him well and let him work from the pocket, which he does quite well.
The Falcons may well be able to get pressure off the edges, but the Bengals have incredibly stout tackles and the Falcons weren't very successful at applying that pressure last Sunday, partially due to a lack of trying. If I'm the Falcons, despite the strong Week 1 performance from Russell Bodine at center and Clint Boling's solid solidity at guard, I'm bringing my pressure up the middle.
That means Paul Soliai needs to crash his considerable bulk into the line, and guys like Tyson Jackson, Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Ra'Shede Hageman will be needed on the interior when the Falcons use four down linemen. It means Paul Worrilow, Joplo Bartu and Prince Shembo should be trying to get up the gut when possible. It means disguising fronts and shifting rushers, yes, but at all costs getting in Dalton's face. As I mentioned earlier in the week, applying real pressure to Dalton is one of the keys to this game.
Giovanni Bernard vs. Whoever Is Covering Giovanni Bernard
A.J. Green is a popular choice here, and you do have to worry about one of the best receivers playing in the game today. But there's an established protocol for covering a player like that, one that brackets that receiver with a cornerback and safety and dares a quarterback to throw on the coverage, or look elsewhere. That won't stop Green from having an impact on the game, but it will dampen that impact, and that can go a long way.
The concern is that once you've taken Green away to any extent, you have to deal with Bernard, and that's not as easy. You need someone to be aware of him at all times, and that player needs to be able to cover effectively, change direction fluidly and tackle soundly in the open field. At times, it seems like the Falcons lack that player, and that could be a major problem against the Bengals. I'll take my chances against solid but not spectacular options like Jermaine Gresham and Mohamed Sanu rather than Bernard, so Mike Nolan needs to reach into his bag of tricks and find a way to limit the dynamic running back.
Falcons Receivers vs. Bengals Cornerbacks
This is easily the biggest mismatch in the Falcons' favor, as Cincy Jungle readers have been telling us all week. Leon Hall doesn't look the same (again, I'm relying on Bengals' fans impressions here), Terrance Newman is 36, Pacman Jones isn't gobbling the giant blinking dots and Darqueze Dennard is a rookie. There's not a shutdown cornerback in the bunch, if that term is even relevant in today's NFL.
The Falcons will do everything in their power to take advantage of that mismatch. With Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester on the field, the Falcons have a ton of options for Matt Ryan to throw to even before you factor in Levine Toilolo and the running backs. They'll want to attempt to stretch the field with Jones and Hester, sure, but the important thing is giving the Bengals a reason to think twice about blitzing Ryan all day against a line that will start Gabe Carimi at left tackle. Fortunately for us, Atlanta's well-equipped to do so, because...
Falcons Line vs. Bengals Pass Rush
Against the Saints' defense, the Falcons were largely able to hold their own and give Matt Ryan time, while Ryan bought plenty of extra time with his feet. The big reason the receivers need to be on their games and Ryan needs to have a quick release is the strength of the Bengals front seven.
There's no way around this: Even if Vontaze Burfict misses the game, Cincinnati can throw some truly terrifying players at Atlanta's line, which has Carimi and Lamar Holmes as bookends. Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Domata Peko and Wallace Gilberry can really overwhelm even a quality offensive line, and while the Falcons' has improved drastically, it's not going to be a top NFL O-line anytime soon.
The Falcons will likely have to compensate for this a few different ways, including keeping a tight end or running back in to help block. The best medicine is still going to be enabling Ryan to make quick passes so the pressure never gets home.
Which matchups will you be watching?
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