With Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith looking to enrage the state of Georgia for the umpteenth time, the Falcons need to start winning again. They don’t have any breathing room following Tampa Bay’s unexpected emergence. Another West Coast trip is on the horizon, but they don’t have to play a Super Bowl contender or playoff-caliber team on this occasion.
The Los Angeles Rams are flawed on both sides of the ball. Based on previous history, they are still more than capable of coming up with a surprise victory in December. That is what helps Jeff Fisher remain employed, despite infuriating an entire fan base and legendary running back on a weekly basis. As the Falcons enter the softest part of their schedule, there are several key players currently injured. This is a worrying sign going into the final stage of the season. Here are five things to watch for on Sunday.
Replacing major pieces
Losing Desmond Trufant and Adrian Clayborn were significant blows. Despite both players performing at a high level, the defense is still a below average unit with them on the field. There are simply too many holes for them to make any considerable strides. For the Falcons to reach the playoffs, they are going to depend on the offense. Scoring 30 points or more a game has become the norm. Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, and Jake Matthews haven’t practiced this week. These are three essential elements to an offensive juggernaut.
Jones is the only player that appears to be on track. Quinn has been optimistic about his status, which is crucial against Gregg Williams’ ultra aggressive defense. With Sanu likely sidelined, Matt Ryan needs one big wide receiver available. Taylor Gabriel, Justin Hardy, and Aldrick Robinson aren’t ideal options in the red zone. Robinson’s touchdown came off a coverage bust last week. They can’t rely on defensive breakdowns, especially against a desperate team.
Matthews’ injury forced Tom Compton into action against Tamba Hali. That didn’t end well, as Ryan was fortunate not to be sacked on three separate plays. If Compton is matched up against Robert Quinn, the coaching staff will need to provide ample support. Using Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo to chip can only help slow down the star pass rusher. The offensive line is already facing a plethora of problems on the inside.
Containing Aaron Donald
How do you prevent an unstoppable force from wrecking havoc? When Atlanta had to face J.J. Watt last season, they were fortunate that Houston kept turning the ball over and suffering from coverage busts. Los Angeles is similarly unbalanced, although its highly unlikely that Jared Goff plays as poorly as Ryan Mallet. Watt produced three tackles for a loss, two passes defensed, and one sack in a lopsided contest. Donald is the only other defensive lineman that can dominate like Watt. He is a matchup nightmare for every opposing offensive line.
The stellar defensive tackle has several qualities that molded him into a dominant player. His hand usage is terrific to go along with a wicked first step. An undersized specimen like Donald can obtain leverage without much resistance. With his impressive speed and strength, it creates all sorts of problems for interior offensive linemen. How are they supposed to contain him? Bill Belichick went an extreme route and triple-teamed him on some occasions. There will be plenty of double teams, as Chris Chester is a major liability against efficient power rushers. Alex Mack continues to play at an All-Pro level. He will need to provide support as much as possible. Look for Kyle Shanahan to design specific plays that eliminates Donald as well.
Featuring the dynamic duo
With injuries surrounding the offense, it would be foolish for the Falcons to overly depend on the passing game. Los Angeles’ pass rush can be devastating, along with stout cornerback Trumaine Johnson being ready to shadow Jones. When Jones and Sanu were sidelined on the final drive last week, Shanahan opted for a more balanced approach. Tevin Coleman received four straight carries, before Ryan started operating in the no huddle. It showed more willingness to rely on the run rather than force Ryan in precarious situations.
Although the stat sheet won’t show it, Devonta Freeman is coming off one of his finest performances of the season. He broke several tackles and turned minimal gains into effective runs. Freeman’s outstanding cutting ability and shiftiness can give opposing defenses fits. As Jones recovers, the coaching staff should make him the focal point against Los Angeles. Coleman will play an essential role as well. Splitting him wide and utilizing his blistering speed would be ideal for this particular matchup.
They found the perfect scenario against Kansas City, as Coleman was isolated against a linebacker. Compton’s inability to hold up in pass protection and Derrick Johnson’s delayed blitz forced Ryan into a poor throw. That play should have ended in a touchdown. The electrifying running back combo essentially carried the offense to victories over New Orleans and Denver. They will need to be called upon again, given the injuries and Los Angeles’ heavy blitz scheme. A solid dosage of screens and draws could dissect them.
Todd Gurley factor
Gurley would have been higher, if it wasn’t for the injury crisis. This is a fun storyline, as the Falcons had an opportunity to select Georgia’s own last year. They decided to select Vic Beasley, which was the more logical move, much to the chagrin of D. Orlando Ledbetter. The best player available motto appears to be coming into fruition, as Beasley is having a far better season than Gurley. Freeman and Coleman are the best running back duo in the league. Beasley has already reached double digit sacks on the season. Well played by the front office.
The poor supporting cast isn’t the only thing hampering Gurley’s development. Bucky Brooks did an excellent job breaking down a few plays from his disappointing season. From missing open gaps to not making defenders miss, the Rams can’t be completely at fault for Gurley’s poor production. Taylor Gabriel has more 25-yard plus runs than him. At some point, the former first round pick is going to overcome this slump or prove to be an ordinary running back. Teams have been successful running the ball against the Falcons. Los Angeles can’t ask for a much better matchup to get their golden boy going. It should be an intriguing matchup, considering how Dan Quinn’s defense knows stopping Gurley on first and second down puts them in a favorable matchup against Jared Goff.
Blitzing or relying on the front four
Goff looked lost against the Patriots, when they decided to blitz. It’s not surprising to see a rookie get rattled by five or six defenders trying to hit him. This does allow defensive coordinators to get more creative. Adding more blitz packages would be a wise decision, but will they actually be effective? According to Pro Football Focus, Alex Smith completed all six passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. The blitz packages were largely underwhelming. On third-and-ten, they decided to overload the A Gap and drop Beasley into coverage. It forced Deion Jones into covering Tyreke Hill. Smith easily exploited that mismatch and picked up an easy first down.
Unless they call a corner blitz, the other blitz designs haven’t been effective this season. Jones and De’Vondre Campbell are rarely providing adequate pressure on those calls. Dwight Freeney and Beasley should continue carrying the pass-rushing load. Due to excellent play calling and Smith’s conservative style, they didn’t have many opportunities to get after him. Goff is prone to holding onto the ball, which is a common trait for young quarterbacks. There should be plenty of opportunities, especially with Freeney going up against Greg Robinson. The legendary pass rusher has been getting close in recent weeks. He should have stripped Carson Palmer on multiple occasions two weeks ago. This could be the week where Freeney’s frequent pressure gets rewarded.