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Falcons vs. Chiefs: What to watch for on Sunday

A list of the most significant things to watch for on Sunday. Pass protection, replacing Adrian Clayborn, and containing Travis Kelce are highlighted.

Arizona Cardinals v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons face another strong challenge, as the Kansas City Chiefs continue their road trip. Both teams are capable of playing in January, yet noticeable flaws prevent them from being recognized as realistic Super Bowl contenders. Kansas City’s offense can’t consistently move the ball, while Dan Quinn’s defense allows far too many big plays. This is a very intriguing matchup between two contrasting teams.

Kansas City is a slightly better version of Philadelphia on paper. They have an outstanding front four led by superstar Justin Houston. Unlike Philadelphia, they have a top-tier cornerback in Marcus Peters. Their ball-control style offense suits them based on their limited quarterback and playmakers on the outside. Despite having better talent at key positions (defensive end, cornerback), Kansas City resembles Philadelphia in many certain aspects. That has to be concerning, considering how much the Falcons struggled three weeks ago. Here are five things what to watch for on Sunday.

Facing a ferocious front four

After handling Arizona’s pass rush in convincing fashion, the offensive line faces another difficult task. Kansas City is dealing with injuries across the defensive line. Dontari Poe has yet to practice this week. Houston didn’t practice yesterday, which isn’t a good sign for a player, who recently returned from injury. Dee Ford should return this week. He adds another dimension to a star-filled defense with his speed and active hand usage. Opposing right tackles have struggled to neutralize Ford’s ability to use a variety of different pass rushing moves.

If Houston manages to play, Kansas City will likely implement various packages. They put Tamba Hali alongside him against Denver and ran a modified stunt. It translated into two points and a sack for Houston. With Ford likely returning and Chris Jones’ emergence over the past five weeks, this is going to be a tall order for the Falcons. Kyle Shanahan called more screens than usual last week. He could revert back to it again, especially with Taylor Gabriel’s recent success. Ryan has fared well against pressure this season, but Kansas City’s secondary is filled with ball hawks.

There are many reasons why this team finds themselves at 8-3. A league-best plus 14 turnover ratio is arguably the biggest reason for their success. Coping with their pass rush will ultimately make or break Atlanta’s explosive offense.

Stopping the run

It seems strange to emphasize shutting down the ninth worst rushing team (on paper) in the league. Then again, Philadelphia wasn’t running the ball effectively, before gaining 208 yards against the Falcons. Due to the offense’s success, the Falcons haven’t been heavily tested on the ground. Opposing teams are forced to throw the ball more, as they are playing from behind in the second half. Doug Pederson stayed committed to running the ball, controlled time of possession, and exploited the Falcons’ frailties.

Based on their similarities, Kansas City’s excellent coaching staff will likely follow a comparable route. Spencer Ware has developed into their workhorse back. Although Jamaal Charles has been missed, they aren’t shying away from the run. This is the first of three upcoming games, where Atlanta is facing a run-first or ball control offense. The undersized front seven can’t allow themselves to be manhandled again.

Both rookie linebackers need to show better gap discipline. Ryan Matthews had multiple 20-yard runs, where a rookie linebacker or Keanu Neal overran the play. That can’t happen against a smart offense with an athletic center like Mitch Morse. Keep an eye out for Tyson Jackson as well, who will be playing against his old team and should receive more reps, as the Falcons will be playing in their base package more than usual.

Playing without Adrian Clayborn

Clayborn is going to be sidelined with a torn MCL and partially torn meniscus for an extended period of time. The versatile defensive lineman has been a revelation for the front four. Although Vic Beasley gets most of the credit for reviving a notoriously dreadful pass rush, Clayborn has been the more consistent pass rusher. He produced four-and-half sacks in five games between weeks five and nine. With his ability to generate pressure on the edge and interior, the defensive line will greatly miss him.

There aren’t any suitable replacements on the inside. Brooks Reed could receive more opportunities, despite weighing 255 pounds. Jonathan Babineaux and Courtney Upshaw don’t offer much optimism. Ra’Shede Hageman could play more snaps, but Quinn doesn’t view him as a viable pass-rushing option. That is why he was left inactive against Tampa Bay, Green Bay, and Arizona. The defensive line was starting to look dangerous with Beasley, Clayborn, and Dwight Freeney.

This major injury puts pressure on both edge rushers to carry the load. Beasley faces Mitchell Schwartz, who is arguably one of the best right tackles in the league. It will be a good litmus test for the second-year pass rusher, who continues to make strides on a weekly basis.

Containing Travis Kelce

Don’t let Kansas City’s overly conservative offense fool you. They have multiple playmakers that can cause serious damage. Kelce is their most dangerous weapon based on how Andy Reid and Brad Childress use him. Defenses can’t put one player on him for an entire game. Kelce is constantly moving around and being utilized in different formations. The coaching staff recognizes his versatility as a tight end. Whether they use him on a screen or allow him to run a vertical route, big plays usually occur. Kelce beat Aqib Talib on a double-hit cut last week. Not only did he beat one of the premier cornerbacks in the league. It looked so effortless and smooth.

The defense hasn’t faced many above average tight ends this season. Using a safety to shadow the opposing tight end did occur on multiple occasions. Keanu Neal covered Greg Olsen for the majority of the game. After Jimmy Graham started finding openings in their zone defense, Kemal Ishmael started tracking him. How Quinn game plans for this matchup will be crucial towards stopping Kansas City’s biggest threat. There have been some mentions about De’Vondre Campbell possibly covering him. That’s a daunting task for a rookie fourth round pick. Campbell possesses great speed and decent range, but his inconsistent instincts could be an issue against the crafty tight end.

Beating man coverage

According to Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner, no defense plays more man coverage than Kansas City. They will challenge opposing wide receivers to beat them all game long. That didn’t end well last week, as Trevor Siemian picked on Phillip Gaines and Kenneth Acker. With quarterbacks avoiding Peters, Kansas City’s other cornerbacks are being exploited. They didn’t properly replace Sean Smith in the off-season.

This is a big opportunity for the wide receiving corps. Peters doesn’t move from his preferred left side, which allows Julio Jones to roam elsewhere. When the phenomenal wide receiver is held under 40 yards, he goes for 100 yards or more in the following game. Expect him to be targeted more on Sunday. Mohamed Sanu was Ryan’s favorite target on third down last week. After finding success against Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Cooper, Sanu is slowly emerging as a dependable option. The receivers need to win their respective matchups, as Ryan could be enduring pressure all game long.