At 6-4, the Falcons are in control in the NFC South, but have a narrow one game lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Coming off their bye week, the Falcons really need to finish the last 6 games strongly if they want to win the division and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. They face some tough competition in the Arizona Cardinals, who will be desperate for a win on Sunday. Here’s how the Falcons offense matches up to their defense.
* Assessments based on 2016 PFF scores and alignments
In the trenches
The Falcons offensive line has had some ups and downs this year, though they’ve generally been a much improved unit overall. Alex Mack is having a Pro-Bowl caliber season, while Andy Levitre and Ryan Schraeder have both been playing above-average at their respective positions. Jake Matthews has done well as a pass protector, but isn’t quite matching his 2015 season performance so far. The weak link here is Chris Chester, who was dominated by Fletcher Cox two weeks back, and is a primary target for replacement going into 2017. This is a unit that is protected by a diverse offense and a successful running game. They absolutely can’t afford any more false start penalties or drive-killing holding calls. If the Falcons are going to score points, the OL has to play much better than it did in Philadelphia.
The Cardinals bring in an aggressive defense that features the criminally underrated Calais Campbell and Chandler Jones. Campbell has been a consistently good/great player for most of his career and has shown that he’s not slowing down yet. Xavier Williams mans the nose, but has been unimpressive in 2016 while Rodney Gunter is similarly not playing well at the DE position next to him. OLB Markus Golden is having a good second year, with 6 sacks on the season so far. The Cardinals inside linebackers are Deone Bucannon, a hybrid safety/linebacker that is excelling in that position and Kevin Minter who is solid, but not anything special.
While Campbell and Jones are intimidating, and Bucannon has the coverage chops to take on our tight ends, there are just enough gaps in this defense for the Falcons offense to have a chance. They will need a plan similar to the one used against Denver, and they have to avoid the ugly penalties. With them playing at home and after a bye week, the slight advantage goes to the home team.
The skill positions
The Falcons offense will be lead onto the field by top QB Matt Ryan, who is having the best season of his career so far. He’s shown that if he’s given any time in the pocket whatsoever, he will pick apart any defense. His favorite weapon - Julio Jones - is also off to an impressive start, easily ranking as one of the best receivers in the NFL right now. Mohamed Sanu is a solid possession receiver that can do ok against lesser competition. Taylor Gabriel is an intriguing WR3 option that can take the top off of any defense, despite his small stature. Tight end Austin Hooper has looked good at times, but is mostly the inconsistent rookie many thought he’d be. In the backfield, the duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman may be one of the absolute best in the NFL, with both capable of running the ball or swinging out as receivers. This is a highly dangerous offense with lots of weapons.
Patrick Peterson is easily one of the best corners in the game right now and will likely be matched up with Julio for most of the game. Marcus Cooper has not been good for most of his NFL career, though whether or not Sanu or Gabriel can take advantage of that will remain to be seen. The Cardinals do have good safeties in Tony Jefferson and D.J. Swearinger, with the former excelling in run defense and the latter being their better coverage safety. This is a secondary that doesn’t give up a lot of explosive plays, though they haven’t faced many top offenses so far in 2016.
This is a closer match-up than many realize, but the Falcons get the slight nod here due to the sheer amount of depth they have. Getting Tevin Coleman back - who has wide receiver speed - is a game changer and could be the factor that puts this offense over the top again. The Cardinals have a very respectable secondary, but they have a formidable task ahead of them.
Undoubtedly, the Falcons want to win this game to give themselves some breathing room again in the NFC South. They can’t afford to overlook this Cardinals team, though, as they are more talented than their record would suggest. This is going to be another tough match-up, but if the Falcons can play to the levels they’ve shown previously, this is a match-up that they should be favored in.