After a ten day layoff, the Atlanta Falcons are back on the road. With Marcus Mariota possibly not playing for the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, this appears to be a golden opportunity for Atlanta to bounce back from a demoralizing defeat. The bandied-about quote "everyone knew the Falcons wouldn't go undefeated" doesn't remove the bitterness towards losing decisively to a division rival.
It's well documented that Atlanta cost themselves with two fumbles inside the red zone against New Orleans. They were still incapable of generating consistent pressure against an injury-plagued offensive line. Changes need to be made instantly for them to keep up with Carolina. Here are the main components to watch for on Sunday.
Containing Delanie Walker will be crucial
After last week's debacle, covering tight ends will be a recurring focus on this weekly feature. Walker is one of the more versatile tight ends in the league, based on his blocking excellence and athleticism. Tennessee has made a plethora of mistakes in free agency over the past three seasons, but Walker is one of the few exceptions.
Sean Payton utilized play-action rollouts against Atlanta's base defense, which currently doesn't feature one capable pass rusher. With linebackers consistently biting on those fakes, Drew Brees was able to find a wide-open Benjamin Watson consistently. It wouldn't have been surprising to see Mariota utilizing a similar tactic, but unfortunately for Tennessee, a strained MCL injury will likely keep him sidelined.
Zach Mettenberger is a pure pocket passer with limited athleticism, so it's difficult to envision him being effective on those particular rollouts. Walker will remain dangerous, and the coaching staff should specifically game plan for him, a task that Justin Durant's possible return should make more manageable.
Another difficult challenge for the offensive line
Tennessee's productive pass rush shouldn't be surprising, given their expensive off-season investments. Derrick Morgan was re-signed following interest from Atlanta. They surprisingly added Brian Orakpo, which seemed risky considering his inability to stay on the field, but both players have complimented each other well so far this season. Dick LeBeau has done an excellent job of maintaining Orakpo's snap count to keep him fresh on third down.
The biggest problem will be Jurrell Casey, who has developed into one of the most versatile defensive players in the league. His ability to excel between a two-gap to four-tech alignment allows LeBeau to move him around freely. Ben Stockwell of Pro Football Focus did an excellent job of breaking down Casey's capabilities as a pass rusher, but suffice to say it wouldn't be surprising to see Kyle Shanahan devise a quick-passing game plan.
That isn't waving the white flag on trying to throw downfield against a shaky secondary, however. Tennessee has benefitted from playing against below average offensive lines such as Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and Buffalo. Their front seven commands respect, but it doesn't possess multiple game changers like Denver or St. Louis. A quick-look passing game seems like a realistic to get Atlanta's struggling receivers more involved, and to find success against Tennessee.
Prime opportunity for the wide receivers to shine
Following two lackluster games, many analysts have started to wonder about Matt Ryan's outlook. Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com has stated that Shanahan's offense has made Ryan a dink-and-dunk quarterback. While the star quarterback has been conservative this season, it's overly harsh to criticize Shanahan for that. Roddy White's inability to create separation combined with Leonard Hankerson dropping easy completions has hindered a once-feared passing attack. Ryan has missed a fair share of opportunities over the past two weeks, as well.
On the first play against New Orleans, White got past Brandon Browner and was open downfield for a potential touchdown. Ryan decided to make the easier throw to Julio Jones, who dropped an easy first down.
Hankerson has gotten open frequently, but seven drops out of 37 targets (Pro Football Focus Premium Stats) is beyond unacceptable. Even with Jones truly healthy for the first time in weeks, the Falcons still need see White or Hankerson take advantage of Tennessee's below average secondary. Fans have started to become anxious for Justin Hardy to make his NFL debut, and another mundane performance by both wide receivers could spark that move. Regardless of what transpires, Atlanta can't continue to depend on Devonta Freeman and Jacob Tamme as their primary receiving options behind Jones.
Pressure is on the pass rush to emerge
Bryan Cox and Dan Quinn have spoken publicly this week about the pass rushing woes. While sacks are overrated from a statistical standpoint, other numbers have indicated that Atlanta's pass rush has been extremely disappointing thus far. Ranking last in key categories wasn't supposed to be in the cards after all the additions this offseason. With the exception of Adrian Clayborn (two sacks, five hits, and three hurries), nobody has really met expectations yet. O'Brien Schofield has excelled at stopping the run rather than generating consistent pressure, making him an ideal fit for Kroy BIermann's early down role, rather than third downs.
Vic Beasley is still trying to find his niche. The highly touted pass rusher should use his speed more than bull rushing or utilizing his spin move against much bigger tackles. His blistering first step usually translates into a pressure or near sack, but he needs to close the deal.
Thankfully, Tennessee's offensive line looks to be unstable at the moment. Rookie right tackle Jeremiah Poutasi was benched following Cameron Wake's carnage last Sunday, and starting center Brian Schwenke is out for the season. With immobile Mettenberger likely starting on Sunday, all the pieces are coming together for the pass rush to rise up against a below-average offensive line.
Some noteworthy returns that can't be ignored
Both fan bases will be chomping at the bit to see the return of certain former players, although that may change now. Harry Douglas is suffering from a rib injury and hasn't practiced yet this week. Evan Silva of Rotoworld tweeted an alarming stat about the ineffective wide receiver.
With Kendall Wright working mostly in the slot, Douglas would line up against Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford. Whether the former Falcon plays or not, he won't be much of a factor.
Andy Levitre will be making his return to Tennessee, and that's a bigger deal. Titans fans haven't forgotten about his dreadful play last season or massive contract. They already want to stop hearing about him becoming a moderate success in Atlanta. Levitre seems comfortable within a zone-blocking scheme, as Tennessee's power-blocking scheme and injuries hampered his play last season. This will be a difficult matchup for him, with Casey frequently lining up on his side. After struggling against Fletcher Cox on opening night, Levitre has bounced back against inferior competition, so this should be an excellent test for him.