After taking a couple of days to celebrate, we now turn our attention to this weekend's opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals. I'll tackle the offense and defense over the next two days as we try to get a handle on what, exactly, the Falcons can expect when they travel out to the Midwest on Sunday.
We'll begin with the offense, which put on an eye-popping performance against the Saints. The team rolled up 568 yards, 28 first downs, and 37 points against New Orleans on Sunday, totals that even the most optimistic amongst us would not have projected coming into the game. The Falcons gave carries to four different backs and Matt Ryan completed passes to nine different receivers, with the offense looking as multi-dimensional as it has in a long time. The Bronze Age, maybe.
I want to take a look at how spreading the ball around can help the Falcons defeat the Bengals, and weigh whether the Week 1 offensive performance will prove to be an outlier or a harbinger of awesomeness ahead.
How A Varied Offense Helps
The Bengals are better equipped to take on the receivers in the Falcons' attack than the Saints, because Leon Hall is an excellent cornerback and Terence Newman is still pretty effective at the age of 36. Move down the depth chart and you have Dre Kirkpatrick, who is a useful, athletic young corner with upside still left to be untapped, a perfectly useful Adam Jones and promising rookie Darqueze Dennard. Certainly this isn't a team that is going to need as much safety help in coverage as the Saints did.
Fortunately, the Falcons have enough weapons to account for that someone's probably going to get a favorable matchup. Levine Toilolo is lurking as a short-yardage and red zone target, the entire running back depth charts features backs who can catch passes and Devin Hester's probably getting a reasonably favorable matchup against Adam Jones for chunks of the game. So long as Roddy's healthy and effective, he can handle Newman in a one-on-one, and the Bengals are already likely to cheat some safety help toward Julio Jones as a matter of course. In years past the Falcons might have struggled to get things going if their top three options were covered, but this year Ryan should be able to dink and dunk it.
Having those short routes will be helpful because the Bengals are likely to fare better than the Saints in getting after Ryan, too. The Falcons can help their cause by putting an effective ground game out there, and with four active backs with varying strengths, they can experiment a little and see what works best against a pretty daunting Bengals front seven.
This will unquestionably be a stiffer test than the Saints. If the Falcons are willing to spread targets around, get the running backs and Toilolo involved and not abandon the run, they've got a shot to put together another nice offensive performance, however.
Reasons To Believe
- The Saints were doubling up Julio for long stretches of the game, and he still found his way to 7 receptions for 116 yards. Jones makes life easier for the offense just by existing, and inevitably giving safety help to the corner on Jones gives someone a chance against, say, S George Iloka or a linebacker. Jones can still win against double teams, even so.
- Harry Douglas and Devin Hester were able to make plays on the sidelines and over the middle of the field, respectively. The Bengals have a superior cornerback depth chart, but beyond Hall, there's no world beaters on the field. Hester's speed can create matchup problems if he draws a 30-year-old Pacman Jones.
- Only five of Ryan's 31 completions went to running backs, but Steven Jackson can allegedly catch, Devonta Freeman has shown soft hands thus far and Jacquizz Rodgers is quietly one of the best pass catching backs operating in the NFL today. The Bengals have hard hitters across the board at linebacker and on the defensive front, but you don't necessarily want any of them trying to cover the Falcons' shiftier backs. Antone Smith is used sparingly, but remains a nightmare matchup because of his ability to turn a short catch into a long touchdown. The Falcons can and should attempt to exploit that.
- Matt Ryan seems to have taken a step forward in terms of his comfort level outside of the pocket, which is what made several plays work last Sunday. There's no question that if he can buy an extra second or two by rolling out, the Falcons have enough ability on the field to ensure someone will be open.
Reasons To Doubt
- The pass rush has a better chance of getting home because the Bengals have a deeper, more solid secondary than the Saints, New Orleans' safety cluster notwithstanding. They also have the dominant Geno Atkins upfront alongside Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry, who are tough matchups for any line. I wouldn't bet on the Falcons limiting Cincinnati to one sack, which means Ryan's going to be facing more sustained pressure. He'll have to continue to display that quick release and ability to escape.
- The Bengals are simply better equipped to cover the Falcons' weapons, and even if some of the matchups should favor the Falcons, they won't be matching up Patrick Robinson on Julio Jones or Roddy White. The Bengals' cornerbacks are all solid tacklers, as well.
- The ground game can't count on having the same success against the Bengals, who have living nightmare Vontaze Burfict at linebacker and better run-stoppers up front. Steven Jackson surviving a hit or two and powering ahead for tough yardage seems less likely against this defensive front, so the Falcons need to be willing to use their other, speedier backs and dial up runs to the outside to make this work.
- Levine Toilolo is a red zone factor, but it's tough to say whether he can be even a reliable short-yardage threat just yet. If Toilolo can't win his one-on-one matchups on a semi-consistent basis, one guy who should be Ryan's outlet in the 5-to-10 yard range is off the table. Again, given the likelihood that the pass rush comes home with greater frequency this week, that's a concern.