Going into Sunday’s game with the Denver Broncos, everyone is talking about the match-up between their defense and the Falcons offense - including us. Rightfully so, as both units are playing at the top of their game. However, the match-up between the Broncos offense and the Falcons defense could end up being the most important. This is how we see it stacking up.
In the Trenches
The Falcons had been playing poorly in the trenches until the game against the Panthers. For whatever reason, the unit began to play well. Grady Jarrett has been a very solid player in just his second year and Tyson Jackson has played well recently when aligned at the 3-tech. Derrick Shelby also had a much better game against the Panthers. Vic Beasley finally used his speed and was able to generate some pressure. Dwight Freeney has shown that he is defying father-time, using his spin-move to destroy the dreams of offensive tackles even at his advanced age. Don’t get me wrong - this is still a relatively poor unit, but they have played better lately. They’ll need to keep it up if the Falcons are going to win on Sunday.
The Broncos have a banged-up offensive line that could be ripe for exploitation. Their center, Matt Paradis, has been very good this year. Michael Schofield at right guard has been a good pass blocker and decent at run blocking. Left guard Max Garcia has not been great and is a potential target for generating pressure up the middle. Russell Okung is a steady presence at left tackle, while backup right tackle Ty Sambrailo is a huge liability. The Broncos hope that normal starter Donald Stephenson can return for this game. If not, the Falcons will look to capitalize on the backup.
This is a relatively solid Broncos offensive line, though there is the potential for the Falcons to generate some pressure if Stephenson isn’t healthy enough. Even though the team generated more pressure against Cam Newton, they’ll need to do it more consistently before getting the nod here.
The Skill Positions
The Falcons have three capable corners that will be tested in this game. Desmond Trufant is arguably one of the top cover corners in the league. On the other end, Robert Alford is an aggressive ball hawk who is prone to the mental mistakes, but is also capable of making big plays. Rookie nickel corner Brian Poole has been a great surprise, as he’s been playing at a high level so far. Free safety Ricardo Allen is off to a rough start but is a capable safety who tackles better than his size would let on. Keanu Neal appears to be the real deal, shutting down Greg Olsen for an extended stretch last Sunday. That doesn’t even mention his hard hits and ability to close quickly.
The Falcons linebacker situation is far more perilous. Rookie linebacker Deion Jones is a legitimate defensive rookie of the year candidate, but he may not be able to play. If he’s out, Laroy Reynolds will likely step in. Reynolds has been ok in spots, but lacks the play-making speed that Jones has demonstrated. Phillip Wheeler takes over for Sean Weatherspoon, while De’Vondre Campbell gets healthy. He’s been serviceable in spots, but it’s painful to see him get extended action. The Falcons also recently signed pod-caster A.J. Hawk, which should ease all concerns about the linebacker depth (if you’re insane).
The Broncos have two good receivers in Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Both guys can create issues, so you can expect to see safety help periodically. Tight end Virgil Green has had a nice season so far and will likely be matched-up with Keanu Neal periodically.
In the backfield, C.J. Anderson has gotten the start but has slowed considerably after a fast start to the season. Second year QB Trevor Siemian has played very well, though it’s unclear if he’ll be healthy enough to start. If not, rookie QB Paxton Lynch will get the nod. He looked good in limited action, but it’s impossible to know how well he’d do in an extended look.
Ultimately, this match-up is going to come down to who plays QB. If Siemian plays, the Broncos will have a slight advantage. If it’s Lynch, the Falcons will have the advantage, if only because he’s a complete unknown. As it is, we’ll have to call this a draw.
The Broncos offense won’t be confused for a dominant unit, even if they do have quite a few good pieces in place. This is a team that leans heavily on their defense, and asks their offense to just be competent. Unfortunately, the Falcons have a bottom-five defense that is hopefully getting better. Until they can deliver consistently, this Falcons D won’t get the benefit of the doubt.