After playing four of their first six games on the road, the Atlanta Falcons start a two-game home stretch. The black jerseys are making a long overdue comeback. Julio Jones is playing his first game inside the Georgia Dome since going ballistic on the Carolina Panthers. Following a controversial loss in Seattle, they have to be fired up and ready to make a statement.
San Diego shouldn't be judged off their record. The offense is still capable of taking over games, and a few emerging rookies are making an impact in their front seven. Injuries are affecting them, but they have remained competitive or dominated in every game this season. The Falcons will need to be wary of their fast starts, especially after last week's subpar first half performance.
Here are five things to watch for on Sunday.
Offensive line's response
The offensive line recently faced two of the premier front sevens in football. Besides their first half debacle against Seattle, they fared relatively well. This upcoming matchup isn't exactly favorable, but they should play similar to how they performed between weeks two and four. Ryan Schraeder has struggled heavily over the past two weeks. Facing Von Miller, Cliff Avril, and Michael Bennett can make any tackle look foolish, but the usually reliable right tackle tends to struggle against speed rushers, which was evident from getting blown off the line of scrimmage by Bennett and allowing Avril to beat him off the edge.
San Diego tends to move rookie sensation Joey Bosa around, although they prefer using him on the left side. Schraeder needs to revert back to his outstanding early season form in this intriguing matchup.
Jake Matthews struggled with lapses as well. Seattle's hostile environment appeared to rattle him, as the third year tackle was late on a plethora of blocking assignments. Melvin Ingram is starting to develop into one of the better pass rushers in the league. It's no secret that San Diego's secondary is prone to allowing big plays. As long as the offensive line holds up, Matt Ryan should continue playing at a high level. This unit was playing like a top-five offensive line before last week's dreadful performance against Seattle.
Rattling Phillip Rivers in some capacity
There are countless things that will change on a yearly basis. Philip Rivers making the most out of a dire situation isn't on the list. The stellar quarterback is constantly working behind a decimated offensive line or throwing to a depleted receiving corps. No quarterback has done more with less over the past three seasons. His quick release, decision making, and fearlessness always provides a sturdy challenge for any defense. With any great quarterback, the most efficient way towards affecting him is generating pressure.
The pass rush will be watched closely, as they showed flashes against Seattle. Russell Wilson's mobility and Seattle's play action usage helped conceal a below average offensive line. Vic Beasley was being used far too often as a spy in that game. Although Rivers isn't very athletic, his pocket awareness is outstanding. Combine that with a quick release and defenses struggle to sack him, when the offensive line is healthy. According to SB Nation, San Diego possess the second biggest offensive line in the league.
The Falcons' nickel front is relatively undersized, as Adrian Clayborn is used inside and bigger right tackles can manhandle Beasley. If this game doesn't turn into a shootout, it will likely come from the defensive line getting after Rivers. Quinn needs to allow Beasley to pass rush more often, especially with Derrick Shelby done for the season. The burden will primarily fall on Dwight Freeney, Clayborn, and Beasley.
Devonta Freeman-Tevin Coleman combo
Due to Seattle's fast start and exceptional front seven, the running game never flourished. Freeman and Coleman combined for 50 yards on 17 carries. They were also limited in the passing game. Coleman only caught a meaningless seven-yard screen at the end of the first half. Freeman caught three passes for ten yards. Seattle's persistent blitzing, terrific linebackers, and Earl Thomas shut them down. The game fell on Matt Ryan's arm. As well as the consistent quarterback has played; an ineffective running game made Kyle Shanahan's offense more predictable.
San Diego is ranked fifth in run defense, but hasn't been tested against a top-tier rushing offense. Nose tackle Brandon Mebane will be a handful in the middle, but Atlanta does have a favorable matchup against linebackers Denzel Perryman and rookie Jatavis Brown. Freeman should receive plenty of carries and find open lanes. Although Coleman is a noticeable drop off as a pure runner, they should try to get him more involved. The second-year back hasn't been a factor in the running game since their victory over New Orleans. Coleman's lack of cutting ability and vision are still problematic issues in a zone-blocking scheme. With more usage, the second-year running back is too talented not to improve behind Freeman.
Containing a unique tight end tandem
Quinn's cover three scheme is going to be tested by San Diego's talented tight ends. Despite putting up impressive numbers last week, Jimmy Graham didn't have to make many standout plays. Wilson found him underneath for multiple easy eight-yard gains. Atlanta's linebackers were constantly lining up ten yards away from the line of scrimmage. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell took advantage and used Graham on shorter routes.
With Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell not on the injury report, Quinn should trust them more than Kemal Ishmael and LaRoy Reynolds. They'll need the rookie duo, as Hunter Henry is already making big plays on a weekly basis. According to Pro Football Focus, he only dropped two passes on 90 catchable passes during his previous two seasons at Arkansas. Henry can stretch defenses, which allows Antonio Gates to find space on hitch routes. Gates looked healthy for the first time all season against Denver. Keanu Neal didn't shadow Graham very often last Sunday. It wouldn't be surprising to see Neal match up against either tight end, as they pose the biggest threat out of their receiving options.
Replacing Derrick Shelby
Another key role player suffered a torn Achilles in October, and Shelby is a bigger loss than Sean Weatherspoon. He was playing significant snaps in Quinn's nickel package over the last few weeks. When Jones and Campbell were healthy on opening day, Weatherspoon only played six snaps. Shelby was starting to excel as a defensive tackle. He blazed past Germain Ifedi to wrap Christine Michael for a key third-down stop against Seattle, along with generating more pressure over the past two weeks. Shelby's versatility will be greatly missed.
Jonathan Babineaux is expected to replace Shelby, although he won't play 30-35 snaps. The aging defensive tackle is starting to decline following eight productive seasons. This could very well be his final season in Atlanta. With Courtney Upshaw and recently signed Cliff Matthews not offering much optimism, can Babineaux turn back the clock? The undersized defensive tackle always used a quick first step to abuse opposing guards. Eventually, a quick first step deteriorates with age. Shelby's injury leaves plenty of questions on who will line up alongside Beasley. It should be fascinating to see how the coaching staff handles a gaping hole within their nickel defense.