Normally, Julio Jones would make the list of top three matchups, because he is a nightmare in cleats and there are few mortals who can stand against him. Injured and questionable in this one, though, Julio cannot be an automatic pick. We’re left to consider what this offense will look like without him.
What makes this game more interesting than it should be is all the injuries on Atlanta’s side, frankly. No Adrian Clayborn, no Desmond Trufant, no Mohamed Sanu, and potentially no Jake Matthews or Julio puts the Falcons in somewhat of a hole, missing key players on both sides of the ball against a team laying at home and backed into a corner. While I do think Atlanta will win, this adds some intrigue to the matchup, and makes me warier than I’d like to be.
With that in mind, here are three matchups that should matter in this one.
Aaron Donald versus Chris Chester
This has the potential to be a major problem for Atlanta. Donald is a world-beater, one of those rare defensive tackles who can absolutely destroy interior offensive linemen and make a quarterback’s life miserable. While Chester won’t be the only one dealing with him, Donald does to line up on his side.
While Chester is not a major liability, it is true that he is no great asset in pass protection on his best of days, and a day spent facing Aaron Donald is nobody’s idea of a “best day.” With six sacks already this year and 26 over his three NFL seasons, Donald can and will get after Ryan, and if Ryan’s missing his top two receiving options, that could be hugely problematic. The Falcons are going to need to hope Chester and company are up to the task of protecting their quarterback, and they’re going to need to give Ryan the option to dump the ball if (or when) he has pressure in his face.
Taylor Gabriel versus the poor sap who has to cover him
The Rams do not have terrible cornerbacks, but they also don’t have great ones, and they certainly don’t have the kind of cornerbacks who can keep up in a footrace with Taylor Gabriel. That’s one silver lining on a day where the Falcons are going to have to be creative to deal with the loss of Sanu and potential loss (or at least limitation) with Julio. Justin Hardy and Aldrick Robinson will have to step up, but it’s Gabriel who has the potential to break things open.
The obvious problem for Gabriel is that he’s going to be facing a better caliber of cornerback than he typically does, since he could very well be the #1 or #2 option in the passing game. A matchup against Trumaine Johnson would not be insurmountable, but Johnson is not a slouch. It’ll make sense to get him the ball in space on quick hitters, and Aldrick Robinson should be able to carve out a larger role, but the Falcons will still be hopeful that they can take a couple of deep shots in Gabriel’s direction.
Vic Beasley versus Rob Havenstein
Beasley has annihilated his fair share of tackles in 2016, and we’ll hope that Havenstein is the latest man on the list.
Havenstein is not a bad player, per se, but he’s not a particularly great or quick-footed one just yet, and Beasley is good for a couple of plays a game where he just looks unblockable. Against tackles who can’t deal with his speed or maul him at the point of attack, Beasley can be downright nasty, and Jared Goff is not yet experience enough or good enough to consistently escape pressure.
Let’s hope this one gets ugly.