As much as we sincerely love them, these Atlanta Falcons are a flawed football team. They’re sitting at 6-4 because they’ve blown a couple of games thanks to some baffling, lousy play, even though they’ve put together what I would call a strong first ten games of the season.
As we gear up for the stretch run, it’s worth asking three questions about the Falcons that have lingered all year, and may wind up impacting their fortunes the rest of the way. You may be surprised to learn that not all three questions are about the defense.
Will the Falcons stop the run?
This one’s a big one. The Falcons muddled along just fine through most of the first half of the season, surrendering some frustrating gains but largely keeping it together as a run defense. Then the Eagles came along, showcased a strong offensive line and commitment to the run, and absolutely gashed this Falcons defense. I knew this wasn’t a stellar defense when it comes to dealing with opposing ground games, sure, but that effort shook my faith a bit, even so.
The Falcons need substantially better play up front, particularly from the interior of the defensive line, and they need everyone working in the second level to do so as well. Atlanta’s problem is less about missed tackles than bad angles and being unable to get off of blocks and make a play, and while I don’t anticipate that’s magically going to be mended between now and January, it’s critically important that the Falcons find a way to turn this huge liability into a minor one.
Is Desmond Trufant going to be healthy?
It’s very troubling that Trufant went from seeking a second opinion on his shoulder to day-to-day and then back to an uncertain prognosis. The team surely knows more than they’ve said about his status, but it does set off alarm bells when you have a bye week and the team is shrugging about whether he’ll play against Arizona.
Without Trufant in the lineup, the Falcons just don’t have the same caliber of secondary, to put it bluntly. Robert Alford is still a very good player, Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen have been a pretty effective safety tandem, and the team has gotten more out of Jalen Collins, Brian Poole, and C.J. Goodwin than they had any right to expect. Trufant is one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, though, and the team’s fortunes on defense depend a fair amount on him shutting down his man for the majority of the average game. As we saw a little bit against the Eagles, who don’t have a supremely effective passing game, Poole and Collins get exposed a little bit in coverage if they’re forced to play a ton of snaps against a team’s best options, and the Falcons still have no real answer for short passes over the middle of the field.
They need Trufant, in other words, and we’ll have to hope this injury doesn’t linger.
Will the pass protection hold up?
You want to acknowledge the mitigating factors when it comes to the team’s struggles with pass protection of late, like the fact that the Falcons pass often, that Matt Ryan hasn’t always done the best job escaping, and so on. Make no mistake, though: You haven’t been imagining all that pressure.
The Falcons have allowed 24 sacks of Ryan this season in just 10 games, and he was under a ton of pressure against the Eagles a week ago. For a little perspective, the Falcons allowed 30 and 31 sacks in 2015 and 2014, respectively, and are now on pace to surrender 38 this year. Sacks never tell the full story, but that would be a significant step backwards for a unit that added Alex Mack and kept the rest of its line intact from a year ago.
What’s behind that? Chris Chester justifiably gets singled out for his failures in pass protection, but there have been lapses across the board, particularly from both Jake Matthews and Ryan Schraeder. Matthews has had more rough stretches than anticipated this year, while Schraeder just hasn’t looked like the same guy as he did in 2014 and 2015. Mack has been stellar with a couple of hiccups, and Levitre has been fine.
Getting Tevin Coleman back will give Matt Ryan another dangerous weapon and open things up, which may mitigate some of these issues, but the line just has to block better going forward. Fortunately, they’re not playing many pass rushes with the kind of talent Philadelphia brought to bear going forward.