After a much-needed break, the Atlanta Falcons start a crucial two-game home stretch. They need to win at least one of these home games to maintain control of a wild card spot. A three-game Southern road trip will start in December, so this is crucial.
While Andrew Luck has struggled with accuracy and decision making, he looked more comfortable with new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. The former Cleveland Browns head coach will likely implement a quick passing game plan to aid Matt Hasselbeck, who is in for the injured starter. That could pose problems, given Indianapolis' talent at their skill positions. Here are the main components to watch for on Sunday.
Key players returning from injury
After consecutive embarrassing defeats, this team desperately needed to get health,y with depth being a major issue. Leonard Hankerson, William Moore, Justin Durant, and Robert Alford are all expected to play, and Moore's return stands out in particular, as the defense thrives off his overall presence. The veteran safety remains as the ultimate enforcer who constantly finds himself around the ball. Over the past two seasons, Atlanta is 10-4 with Moore on the field, and they are 2-9 without him, with both wins coming from that two-week stretch against Tampa Bay and Carolina last season. Moore will miss tackles or blow a coverage assignment on occasion, but not many safeties can replicate his ability to close down plays and force turnovers.
Hankerson is another major asset that needs to stay healthy. Atlanta has missed his ability to stretch the field. Similar to Moore and the defense's success, Hankerson's injury correlates with Matt Ryan's inability to throw downfield. Durant's range and versatility has been missed over the past two weeks. With quarterbacks such as Teddy Bridgewater and Cam Newton coming up soon, Atlanta needs a linebacker like Durant that can make sideline-to-sideline plays. Alford will play a crucial role as well. They will desperately need him to be on his game against one of the bigger receiving threats in the league.
Containing T.Y. Hilton
When it comes to drafts, Thomas Dimitroff would desperately love to have the 2012 draft back. Only Lamar Holmes remains on the roster, and he may not play another snap for Atlanta. Holmes was taken with the 91st pick, and Hilton was selected with the 92nd pick. With Peter Konz being drafted three picks ahead of Lavonte David, the 2012 draft couldn't have gone worse.
Hilton doesn't receive nearly enough recognition for being such a dynamic threat. With Indianapolis struggling to throw downfield, mostly due to pass protection being a major issue, Hilton has been somewhat limited this season. But Indianapolis won't hesitate to move him around to cause matchup problems, and according to Pro Football Focus, Hilton runs 22.6 percent of his routes inside the slot. Alford's return couldn't come at a better time. Philip Adams was torched on multiple occasions by Quinton Patton to certify his status as nothing more than a backup corner. Hilton will be used in a variety of ways to help Matt Hasselbeck get the ball out quicker. His breakaway speed and crisp route-running can cause defenses' nightmares.
Dialing down blitzes for now
It seems bizarre for a defense to limit their blitzes when they're struggling to produce sacks. The 40-year old Hasselbeck has excellent instincts and knows how to make quick decisions, however. In an impressive performance against Houston, his average release time per throw was at 2.12 seconds. That statistic is close to Tom Brady's impressive release time.
He's also very good at handling blitzes. Hasselbeck has a completion percentage of 60 percent, along with two touchdowns and a passer rating of 106.7, this season according to Pro Football Focus. Some may argue that Atlanta's defense poses a bigger challenge than Houston and Jacksonville based on their secondary, and that is a fair argument, but there are still plenty of mismatches that can be created. Donte Moncrief, Cody Fleener, Dwayne Allen, and even Andre Johnson can still cause damage.
Atlanta would be wise to not go blitz heavy for this matchup. They would be much better off forcing Hasselbeck to takes chances downfield, check down, or attempt to scramble. Rob Chudzinski appears to be an upgrade over Pep Hamilton based on limiting seven-step drops that destroyed Luck earlier in the season. A quicker passing scheme can leave Atlanta stranded, if they decide to blitz frequently.
Defensive end rotation
Although Vic Beasley has been playing more on the left side in recent weeks, Quinn stated publicly that he would play on the left side more often. This decision could be based on giving him better opportunities to generate more pressure. The coaching staff likes O'Brien Schofield and Adrian Clayborn as a tandem, although there is nothing to indicate that they have been effective together. Beasley and Clayborn did have success on stunts earlier in the season.
While their pass rushing success has been limited, it's a bit surprising to see Quinn publicly announce this decision. Schofield has been effective as a pass rusher in spurts this season. For the coaching staff to sacrifice him against left tackles could be detrimental to an already suffering pass rush. Thankfully for their sake, both edge rushers will be rotating from side to side. That should keep opposing tackles guessing from both angles. Atlanta's sub nickel defensive line has failed to live up to expectations following an impressive preseason performance against the Jets. With key defensive players returning, better coverage downfield could present them with more opportunities to create pressure. Anthony Castonzo and Joe Reitz should prove to be quality tests for both edge rushers.
Inserting Tevin Coleman into the offense
Since returning from a rib injury in week five, the rookie running back has received a grand total of 40 snaps. That includes only four snaps against San Francisco, as Kyle Shanahan decided to abandon the run in a one-possession game. Devonta Freeman's emergence should have made Coleman into a change-of-pace back. That hasn't even come to fruition, as Coleman hasn't been given more than four carries since his return. Nobody will deny Freeman's status as a workhorse running back, but it shouldn't preclude Coleman from having some type of role within the offense.
An electrifying playmaker with true breakaway speed needs to be utilized in some capacity. If Dirk Koetter managed to use Antone Smith in a four-man rotation, why can't Shanahan do the same with Coleman in a two-man rotation? Atlanta shouldn't have another repeat performance like they did against San Francisco with 45 passes and 13 rushing attempts. Shanahan emphasizes balance on a weekly basis. Freeman receiving 18 to 20 carries with Coleman receiving five to seven carries would be a realistic proposition. They need to find ways to get him the ball to add another explosive element in a slowly increasingly-bland offense.