The pressure is already mounting for the Atlanta Falcons. Following a disappointing home opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they are headed on their first of many West Coast trips, this one against the Oakland Raiders. The off-season darlings are filled with quality talent on both sides of the ball.
With an upcoming three-week stretch looming against Carolina, Denver, and Seattle, this could possibly be viewed as a must-win game. The offense needs to finish drives and avoid third-and-long situations. Any progression on defense would be greatly appreciated from an already discouraged fan base. Here are five things to watch for on Sunday.
Front seven faces daunting challenge
The Raiders' offensive line was emerging as one of the better units in 2015. They decided to bolster their interior line by signing Kelechi Osemele in free agency. The stalwart left guard joins Rodney Hudson and Gabe Jackson to challenge Dallas as the best offensive line in the league. Osemele is a versatile mauler who can play left tackle as well. After starting right tackle Menelik Wilson injured his groin, Osemele shifted from guard to tackle and didn't skip a beat.
They allowed six hurries, one hit, and zero sacks on forty passing attempts against the Saints. It's difficult to see how the Falcons can generate a pass rush. Quinn is willing to blitz more by using Kemal Ishmael or Deion Jones, which is good because without blitzing, they couldn't outplay a below average Tampa Bay offensive line and pressure Jameis Winston. De'Vondre Campbell missed multiple tackles and couldn't get off blocks last week. He looked overwhelmed compared to Deion Jones, who played fairly well. The front seven took a beating against Dallas last year in the first half. It prompted Quinn into calling a timeout and getting in their faces. He could be forced into doing that again.
Finding a balanced offensive attack
After imploding in the third quarter, the Falcons were forced to abandon the run. They ended up calling 39 passing and 19 running plays. That isn't an ideal balance, especially with Kyle Shanahan's known commitment to the running game. They should emphasize it for Matt Ryan's sake. With Oakland's pass rush, Shanahan needs to keep his quarterback steady and opposing defense guessing.
There isn't any reason to panic about the running game yet. Tampa Bay was ranked second against the run last year. Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander are on the verge of becoming a top-tier linebacker duo. Oakland doesn't have the speed at linebacker to make plays like them. The running game should be somewhat effective at minimum. It's not only the offensive line that needs to step up. Patrick DiMarco and Levine Toilolo missed several blocks last week. DiMarco struggled against Tampa Bay's speed, while Toilolo was beat at the line of scrimmage on far too many occasions. That led to negative yards occurring on outside runs. Running the ball successfully will help improve the next part drastically as well.
Third down and red zone efficiency
The Falcons went three for thirteen on third down last week. That contributed towards another abysmal stat, as they only converted one out of four red zone opportunities. Both are significant indicators behind a team's failures. Pre-snap penalties, pass protection breakdowns, and Ryan's inconsistency mostly caused these shortcomings.
Ryan showed improvement from last year, but still missed on a few opportunities. Missing a wide-open Mohamed Sanu on the last drive was demoralizing. Jake Matthews allowed one sack and committed two penalties on third down. He bounced back against Robert Ayers following a difficult first half. There are plenty of elements that go into a team succeeding in critical situations. Play calling and execution are two of the biggest components. Shanahan became too playaction happy against Tampa Bay. If he could refrain from being overly crafty with both running backs and allow Ryan to operate like a traditional quarterback, the offense could produce during these substantial moments. That could also include using more no-huddle, which is always a touchy subject with the coaching staff.
Showdown on the edge
To make up for the defense's faults, the offense needs to average between 24 to 30 points a game against above-average teams. That includes better pass protection, which proved to be an issue last week. Jake Matthews struggled in the first half, while Gerald McCoy manhandled Chris Chester in the second half. Subpar individual performances will doom any offensive line. When facing Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin, you can't afford many blunders.
Pro Football Focus ranked Atlanta's offensive line as the fifth best unit in the league. Matthews and Ryan Schraeder have played a pivotal role behind their success. They will be depended on heavily for Ryan to stay comfortable in the pocket and pick apart Oakland's questionable secondary. Mack is being pegged as a potential defensive player of the year candidate. With matchups against Von Miller and Michael Bennett in October, Schraeder will be tested against elite pass rushers. The right tackle has been praised for his pass blocking excellence. Schraeder is an all-around talented right tackle, but this next month will reveal him as either an All-Pro caliber player or simply above average.
Another week against a talented wide receiver duo
Besides Mike Evans' third quarter explosion, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford played well against Tampa Bay's massive wide receiver duo. Trufant allowed only three catches for 22 yards on six targets according to Pro Football Focus. He contributed with one interception and one pass breakup as well. Alford wasn't fully responsible for Evans' 49-yard touchdown, as Roberson Therezie failed to fulfill his coverage responsibility. Not maintaining his composure against Evans was Alford's biggest disappointment from last week. He will need to handle himself much better in a loud atmosphere.
Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree will provide a sturdy test. Cooper is considered as one of the most complete young wide receivers in the league. His route running and ability to make catches in traffic makes him a tough matchup against any cornerback. Quinn has mentioned that Trufant could possibly shadow him on Sunday, which creates an already fascinating matchup into something special. Crabtree is a crafty route-runner, who breaks tackles on a consistent basis. With Atlanta's tendency to miss tackles, he can pose significant problems. Both cornerbacks need to be on their game against this outstanding duo. This matchup would have been higher on the list, if the Falcons didn't have so many pressing issues. Since Oakland is known for being a pass-first team, both cornerbacks will be tested often.