As the Falcons start preparing for the Seahawks, they are being pegged as a Super Bowl contender. Not many people expected that following a heartbreaking loss to Kansas City just a few weeks ago.
A four game winning streak to finish the season is noteworthy, because after coping with a brutal schedule, the Falcons showcased their capabilities, even if it was against four non-playoff teams. This is clearly a dangerous team featuring a MVP caliber quarterback, superstar wide receiver, and the hottest head-coaching candidate on the market in Kyle Shanahan.
As The Ringer’s Danny Kelly wrote last week, every playoff team is vulnerable. It’s not difficult to decipher Atlanta’s flaws. The defense is very young, which leads to coverage breakdowns, as a defensive line filled with aging veterans and limited players doesn’t help them. Everyone is aware of these defensive shortcomings that can’t be fixed before Saturday afternoon. Instead of dissecting the young secondary or underwhelming defensive line, there are other issues to address involving Dan Quinn’s team. Here are three concerns that aren’t receiving much attention when it comes to the Falcons’ Super Bowl chances.
The third-year left tackle suffered a knee injury against Kansas City. Despite not returning in that game, he managed to play the following week versus Los Angeles. His performances have declined over the past few weeks. It wasn’t surprising to see him look stiff against the Rams, given that Matthews played with a heavy brace, which affected his movement. San Francisco didn’t have anything to offer up front in the next game. Matthews was removed from the injury report heading into Carolina. All indications pointed towards a successful recovery.
Matthews was a disaster in pass protection against the Panthers. Mario Addison gave him fits on inside moves. Wes Horton and Kony Ealy had their moments as well. Matt Ryan’s outstanding pocket presence saved him from allowing more than two sacks. When Matthews struggles, it will come against power rushers. Joey Bosa’s bull rush overwhelmed him on several occasions. It was his worst performance of the season, before Carolina’s array of edge rushers found great success on the right side.
To see Addison beat him without bull rushing repeatedly was most concerning. Matthews is known for having excellent footwork. Analysts rave about his ability as a technician. He kept anticipating Addison bending or using an outside move, which left him vulnerable inside. It’s rare to see the usually reliable tackle take poor angles. Good left tackles shouldn’t be left on the ground against decent pass rushers. Paul Kruger managed to beat Matthews a few times in the season finale.
Chris Chester is known for being the offensive line’s weakest link, yet he wasn’t the only problem over the past two weeks. For all of Seattle’s issues, they still possess one of the best defensive lines in the league. Ryan Schraeder will likely battle Cliff Avril for the majority of the game. That will leave Matthews against a combination of Michael Bennett and Frank Clark. This is going to be a huge test, especially after Bennett vented about Matthews’ cut block in their previous matchup. It caused the Pro Bowl defensive lineman to miss five games.
Ryan should find success against a secondary without their most valuable player. Matthews will need to play much better for this offense to continue scoring over 30 points a game against better opposition, which is a requirement for them to reach the Super Bowl. They’ve scored under 30 points in five games this season and only defeated the Broncos.
The defense produced 34 sacks this season. Vic Beasley’s emergence played a crucial role in their progression. By implementing more twists and moving personnel around, Quinn deserves credit as well. The pass rush is still wildly inconsistent. Tyson Jackson, Brooks Reed, Jonathan Babineaux, and Courtney Upshaw aren’t the only reasons. They haven’t been getting production from their usually reliable pass rushers. Adrian Clayborn and Beasley haven’t generated much pressure in recent weeks.
Immediately criticizing a player coming off surgery is harsh. It’s not surprising to see Clayborn look rusty. He suffered a torn MCL and partially tore his meniscus in Week 12. To see him return in Week 16 was remarkable. Clayborn hasn’t looked like his usual explosive self. Nobody expected Mike Remmers to contain him without any support. When sliding back inside, his quick first step and vicious hand usage isn’t quite there. He still looks to be getting back to game speed, which is completely understandable. Clayborn’s injury was always going to be worrying. It came at an unfortunate time. They desperately need him to support Beasley, who may command more double teams.
Since destroying Los Angeles, the NFL sack leader has been quiet in recent weeks. Recording two sacks in three games doesn’t paint the whole picture. Both sacks came from having blistering speed and good instincts. He doesn’t beat the opposing right tackle to sack Colin Kaepernick or Drew Brees. Unless it comes from running twists, Beasley has been ineffective over the past three games. The second-year edge rusher is still developing pass-rushing moves. Due to the defensive line’s limitations, he is in a precarious situation. Beasley needs to be productive for this defense to survive against above average quarterbacks.
Reed has been their most productive pass rusher over the past three games. That isn’t ideal for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. The pass rush should emerge against an abysmal Seahawks’ offensive line. If they prevail on Saturday, how does the defensive line fare against Dallas or Green Bay? Both units are up there with Oakland as the best pass protecting offensive line in the league. Most talented players step up in critical situations. Beasley proved it against Denver with a three-and-half sack performance. Clayborn sacked Aaron Rodgers twice on third down during the second half. Dwight Freeney’s resume speaks it for itself. To make up for a young linebacker duo and secondary, the pass rush needs to step up. Russell Wilson isn’t going to be as inaccurate as Cam Newton.
The front seven hasn’t been greatly tested over the past four games. Early game offensive explosions forced opposing teams into abandoning the run. As the Falcons play in more competitive games, they are going to face more dangerous offenses. Thomas Rawls is coming off his best game of the season. Although Detroit’s defense is a below-average group, Seattle showed their commitment towards running the ball. Dallas is a run-first offense featuring an elite running back and the most dominant offensive line in the league. It’s highly unlikely that the Falcons will have a 20-point lead in these respective matchups. That makes containing the opposing ground game so essential.
Grady Jarrett is a disruptive player, who possesses great hands and relentless motor. He knows how to obtain leverage and drive opposing centers back. Handling double teams proved to be an issue this season. A rotation of Babineaux, Upshaw, Ra’Shede Hageman, and Ben Garland won’t pose many problems. The lack of talent puts added pressure on Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell. Opposing guards are getting to the second level and taking out both linebackers far too easily.
It’s a collective effort, when stopping the run. They haven’t played in a close game since December 4th. How they fare against an unpredictable offense like Seattle and potentially a physical juggernaut in Dallas will play a significant role in each respective game. Philadelphia revealed the most realistic blueprint on how to beat the Falcons. Don’t be surprised if either team tries to replicate it.