What was supposed to be a division showdown with major implications has somehow become a game of pride. The Atlanta Falcons are currently on a five-game losing streak, which has essentially taken them out of the playoff picture. With four games left and Seattle's schedule being extremely soft, finishing the season strong should be all we expect. Pushing the best team in the NFL like New Orleans did last week would be a major confidence booster.
This is the first matchup between both teams since last year's debacle inside the Georgia Dome. Mike Smith was fired and several veterans were released in the aftermath of the 34-3 loss. While Dan Quinn's job security is fine, more veterans could be searching for new teams next year, as Roddy White, Paul Soliai, William Moore, and Tyson Jackson won't be cheap in 2016. All four players need strong performances to give the front office a positive outlook going into what should be an aggressive off-season. Here's what to watch for on Sunday.
Containing the 2015 NFL MVP, to an extent
Cam Newton's ascendance into superstardom has been remarkable. His improved accuracy and willingness to throw in the pocket has made him virtually unstoppable. In the past, Newton would rely on his legs far too often. and would often overthrow his receivers. Despite only completing 58 percent of his passes, don't let the box score fool you, as Newton's metrics have been absurd this season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Newton has a passer rating of 138.9 on twenty-yard throws or more. If it weren't for Ted Ginn's eight drops, his passer rating would be even higher. Atlanta has notoriously struggled against scrambling quarterbacks. After all three linebackers failed to wrap up Jameis Winston on a crucial run last week, they'll need to improve drastically against Newton. Paul Worrilow's lack of awareness played a huge role in Winston's rushing touchdown as well. Newton already has seven rushing touchdowns this year. Instead of blitzing him relentlessly, Quinn should emphasize containment, especially with Atlanta's linebacker core lacking athleticism. The dynamic quarterback has already thrown fourteen touchdowns, when blitzed this season. Atlanta's best hope in this dire situation would be forcing Newton into targeting both starting cornerbacks. Keeping him in the pocket needs to be a top priority.
Staying committed to the run
Although Kyle Shanahan strongly believes in a balanced offense, he hasn't shied away from abandoning the run. In a 17-16 loss to San Francisco, they attempted 45 passes and 13 runs. Shanahan called 45 passes and 17 runs last week, which is an absurd ratio for a 23-19 defeat. Capable running teams don't abandon their strengths in one-possession games. They have to stay committed and hopefully tire out a front seven, especially injury-plagued units like Tampa Bay, who were missing three starters on the defensive line. Utilizing more no-huddle is another solution towards wearing out a front seven.
When playing against a far superior team, time of possession is crucial. Minnesota's time of possession eventually wore down Atlanta's defense, chiefly through Adrian Peterson breaking open a 35-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Devonta Freeman needs to receive more carries to help control the clock, and the team still hasn't figured out how to utilize Tevin Coleman as a change-of-pace back. Instead of giving him pass-protection responsibilities that he can't fulfill, it would be wise to give him more than three carries, which has been the norm since Freeman has become the starter. Improved run blocking will need to occur as well. Mike Person and Andy Levitre have struggled over the past month. With Atlanta's dink-and-dunk passing game not striking any fear in defenses, they need to be more run-dependent on offense. Freeman and Coleman should combine for 22-25 carries at minimum. It would keep Cam Newton off the field, at the very least.
The best will collide.
Who doesn't enjoy seeing the two best players at their respective positions match up against each other? This is the equivalent of Randy Moss versus Darrelle Revis during the 2009 season. Josh Norman has gotten the better of Julio Jones, although you can argue that Jones wasn't fully healthy in December last season. Regardless of your standpoint, Norman is the one of the few cornerbacks to contain Jones during their respective careers.
After voicing his displeasure about the red zone offense, expect Jones to be targeted even more. Shanahan will continue to move him around to keep opposing defenses guessing. Despite shadowing top receivers, Norman doesn't move into the slot. That was noticeable when T.Y Hilton lined up as a slot receiver and Bene Benwikere had to cover him. Jones doesn't run many routes inside the slot, but a slight increase wouldn't be surprising. Atlanta needs to give Jones plenty of targets in order to stay competitive. Whether defensive coordinator Sean McDermott applies safety help at all times or leaves Norman on an island, Jones will need to be productive. He remains as the lone vertical threat within Atlanta's vanilla offense.
Covering a quiet Falcon killer
From 2011 to 2013, Greg Olsen reached the end zone in five consecutive games against the Falcons. From beating Thomas DeCoud in single coverage or taking advantage of their vintage poor tackling, the reliable tight end has always been productive against Atlanta. Nothing suggests that should stop anytime soon. Olsen is on pace to break his career-best of 1,007 yards and has cemented himself as a top-three tight end. On the other side, Atlanta has allowed touchdowns to Garrett Celek, Cameron Brate, and Derek Carrier this season. It's safe to say that none of those tight ends are exactly household names
Quinn has changed Atlanta's soft reputation. The run defense hasn't looked this good, since Brian Van Gorder was defensive coordinator. Besides still having no semblance of a pass rush, they still struggle to cover tight ends on a weekly basis. Benjamin Watson was allowed to run freely downfield without much resistance. There have been some hints about William Moore's decline. Quinn has kept him off the field in their nickel packages, as Robenson Therezie or Charles Godfrey have received snaps alongside Ricardo Allen. The jury is out on Moore being the main culprit of their inability to cover tight ends. It can't help that Worrilow continues to handle coverage responsibilities. He was fortunate to not allow a touchdown to Austin Seferian-Jenkins last week.
With no Panther wide receiver posing a serious threat, Olsen should be the focal point. Atlanta has been bailed out in the past by Newton's inaccuracy. With the superstar quarterback completing laser darts and other incredible throws, they'll need to stick to Olsen at all times. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have been Atlanta's top two defensive players this season. If they can somehow cover the middle of the field, Newton would be forced into targeting both cornerbacks more often. It would be Atlanta's best hope towards causing a turnover to give the offense an opportunity to take advantage of great field position. The offense needs all the help they can get to score touchdowns against this elite defense.
Offensive line needs to make a statement
Although only two offensive line starters remain from last season, it's impossible to forget Ryan taking an absolute beating during last year's NFC South playoff. Justin Blalock had arguably the worst game of his career. Jake Matthews was bullied by Wes Horton on a consistent basis. The offensive line allowed a combined seven sacks, four hits, and sixteen hurries according to Pro Football Focus. Carolina laid an absolute beat-down that included Charles Johnson's infamous statement. Only Matthews and Ryan Schraeder remain from that awful display. Thankfully for their sake, they've played relatively well this season.
The interior line has been problematic during the five-game losing streak. Person hasn't evolved into a starting center based on blowing all sorts of blocking assignments. While Chris Chester has been an asset in the running game, he tends to get overpowered in one-on-one situations against bigger defensive tackles. That was one of the major reasons behind Washington releasing him. Chester has allowed a staggering five sacks this season. Kawann Short has been wrecking shop all season with eight sacks, seven hits, and thirty-eight hits according to Pro Football Focus. Double-teaming Short would be essential to give Ryan actual time in the pocket to go through his progressions. Despite being essentially out of the playoff race, Atlanta can't get manhandled for the second consecutive game against a division rival. Big performances from Person, Chester, and Levitre would give them some leverage going into the off-season. They can't feel secure about their future at the moment