With three games remaining, the Atlanta Falcons will be searching to find a silver lining to this disappointing season. They finish their three-game road trip against a rising Jacksonville Jaguars side. It can't possibly be any worse than their performance last Sunday. While Carolina is a far superior team, there were some instances that effort was lacking. Those issues pertain to players that were signed or drafted from the old regime. Dan Quinn will be doing some much-needed house cleaning this off-season. With several aging veterans and players signed to one-year deals on the roster, these last three games are vital for them. Here's to watch for on Sunday
Strong defensive response
Regardless of talent discrepancy, no defense should allow three consecutive scoring drives for eighty yards or more under any circumstances. Carolina did that to open up a 21-point lead in the first quarter. It was a pitiful effort by Atlanta's defense, as they blew several coverages and committed unnecessary penalties. They were slow getting to the ball and allowed far too many explosive plays. With two dynamic wide receivers and a big-bodied tight end, Jacksonville's offense is more than capable of scoring in bunches.
A more disciplined response is needed, along with being more efficient improvising blitzes. According to Pro Football Focus, Cam Newton completed all four passes for 70 yards against the blitz. The lack of speed at linebacker continues to leave them at a disadvantage. Besides Philip Wheeler, none of the linebackers have generated many positive results from blitzing this season. On the other side of the ball, opposing linebackers have continuously sacked Matt Ryan over the past five weeks.
There isn't much buzz going into the final three weeks of the season. With a plethora of young players receiving significant snaps on defense, it would be promising to see a few standouts emerge. That starts with not allowing explosive plays or being exposed on blitzes.
Atlanta's second biggest playmaker has been subdued over the past two weeks. Devonta Freeman couldn't get into a rhythm following Carolina's absurd first quarter. Poor run blocking stifled him against defenses such as San Francisco and Tampa Bay. Jacksonville's front seven has been surprisingly solid, but could be missing starting middle linebacker Paul Posluszny. Kyle Shanahan needs to stay committed to the running game for what should be a close game. A similar approach to what they did against Minnesota could benefit this sinking offense.
Freeman's vision and cutting ability can change the landscape of any game. He essentially carried Atlanta's offense to wins over Washington and Tennessee, which seems like three seasons ago at this point. Tevin Coleman should receive more opportunities as well. If the season were going to end on a high note, not solely depending on Matt Ryan and a limited wide receiver corps needs to occur. Besides struggling in pass-protection, Freeman is the complete package as a running back. They need to design even more plays to keep him involved. Atlanta desperately needs some type of explosiveness to help Ryan make better decisions.
Containing the dynamic Allen duo
Besides Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, there may not be a better wide receiver duo than Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns. Both receivers can stretch the field and make catches over the middle. Robinson has developed into one of the top red-zone wide receivers in the league. Contested touchdown catches has become a weekly tradition for him. Hurns' ability to separate and constantly get positive yards after the catch makes him such a difficult matchup. The undrafted free agent has already nine catches for 25 yards or more on just 51 receptions.
Both receivers move around to keep defenses guessing. Robinson tends to run more routes on the right side. That would lead to a fascinating matchup against Desmond Trufant. If there is one knock on Atlanta's most promising star, it's that bigger wide receivers can give him issues. Mike Evans has gotten the better of him on a few occasions this year. Maintaining composure and not over pursuing comeback routes will be important for Trufant to continue validating his status as a elite cornerback. He has already committed six penalties this season, which is a bit concerning. Those penalties usually occur from batting down passes, while trying to get leverage before the pass arrives.
His issue isn't as concerning as Robert Alford's, given that he played one of the worst games of his career last week. He will be matched up against Hurns on most occasions. Another quality deep threat should prove to be an excellent challenge for the talented third-year cornerback. While Alford has arguably been Atlanta's second best player on defense this year, discipline remains an issue by already committing seven penalties this season. He will need to find the quintessential balance between playing conservative and aggressive. After speaking privately with Quinn on Monday, this is a big Sunday for him to bounce back.
More opportunities to make an impression
With their playoff dreams vanquished, the coaching staff may start to give more snaps to younger players. Joey Mbu received 24 snaps and showed some promise. Kemal Ishmael will be replacing William Moore for the second consecutive season.
It was confusing to see Jalen Collins benched last Sunday. My co-host Aaron Freeman of the Falcfans Podcast suspected that Collins didn't play due to the coaching staff needing Alford to cover Ted Ginn on the outside. The rookie cornerback would have been a complete liability, to be fair. It wouldn't be surprising to see him remain on the sidelines, as Alford is the best option with Hurns.
Justin Hardy quietly played 50 snaps last week, although failed to make much of an impression. The rookie wide receiver made an incredible one-handed catch on third down to bail out Ryan. On the next drive, he proceeded to drop an easy first-down completion. Young wide receivers tend to struggle with drops from either a lack of concentration or worrying about the forthcoming hit. Hardy's resume of having excellent hands has inflated expectations quite a bit. As he continues to get more comfortable, his numbers should slowly increase. Paul Soliai should be returning this week to reclaim his starting spot. That shouldn't completely remove Grady Jarrett from the field, as he will likely rotate with Ra'Shede Hageman, who is another player under fire following his outburst on the sidelines last week.
Applying pressure to panicky Bortles
Although his play has vastly improved, Blake Bortles is still maturing as a NFL quarterback. His mechanics are excellent, from his pretty deep ball to throwing on the move. Not being able to handle pressure has plagued him at various points this season. Poor pocket awareness has cost Jacksonville in critical situations this season such as their loss to the New York Jets. According to Pro Football Focus, Bortles is only completing 43 percent of his passes under pressure. That ranks him as the fourth worst quarterback under that category. Bortles is also responsible for eleven sacks (Pro Football Focus), which is an alarming rate for any quarterback. Reverting to his check-down option or simply throwing the ball away aren't options for him yet.
While sacks have been hard to come by, Atlanta's front seven can generate pressure. Jacksonville's offensive line lacks quality, as Luke Joeckel and Zane Beadles haven't lived up to their billing on a consistent basis. Taking advantage may be tough, though. Adrian Clayborn has been anonymous over the past month following a promising start to the season. The same can be said for O'Brien Schofield, unless you include senseless roughing the passer penalties. Both players aren't making compelling cases to be re-signed. They will need to emerge to force Bortles into taking sacks. Vic Beasley has shown some promise in recent weeks barring the Tampa Bay game. To stop Jacksonville from taking shots downfield, defenses have to collapse the pocket. That will be a top priority for this underwhelming pass rush.