After one of the most heart-stoppings finishes in Falcons’ history, we can all take a deep, long breath and move onto Buffalo. The Falcons’ snatched victory from the jaw of a real live Lion, but that ominous noise you hear is the stampede roaring down from the north.
The 2-1 Bills are a bit of an enigma—a high-variance team that could perform like one of the better teams in the league on any given week (see Denver game), but follow that up by looking like a team destined for a top-five pick in the draft (see Carolina game).
The two teams the Bills have beaten this season are the New York Jets (1-2) and the Denver Broncos (2-1), both teams likely heading in very opposite directions this season. The Bills' one loss came on the road against the Carolina Panthers, an explosive 9-3 game that featured no touchdowns and four fields goals—quite the barn burner.
The Bills boast some impressive numbers on defense: best in the league for points allowed (12.3), second overall in red-zone defense, and they’ve allowed a grand total of zero passing touchdowns.
Let’s put those numbers in perspective, because the Bills have not yet seen an offense quite as destructive as the Falcons’. Atlanta currently owns the fifth overall offense with 29 PPG, while the Jets (22nd), Broncos (8th), and Panthers (29th) don’t come relatively close to bringing the same level of explosiveness to the field as the Falcons do.
Simply put, the Falcons are the first true test for a stout Bills’ defense. Let's take a look at some of the most important matchups in which Atlanta will need to triumph if they’d like to keep their record perfect one month into the season.
Falcons’ offensive line vs. Bills’ pass rush
If injured Bills Marcell Dareus and Shaq Lawson are active, they’ll complete Buffalo’s defensive line and easily be the most talented front four the Falcons have faced this season. Add in the rock-solid Kyle Williams and the talented Jerry Hughes, and you begin to see why the Bills’ defense has been so successful so far—they are loaded up front.
But we haven’t even mentioned who is probably the Bills’ best pass rusher—2016 Pro-Bowler Lorenzo Alexander, who pulled in 12.5 sacks last season and already has two this year. Alexander is one of the most deadly pass rushers in the game today, and he’s surrounded by a plethora of talent.
With Ryan Schraeder ruled out again while recovering from a concussion, the Falcons will trot out Ty Sambrailo once again at right tackle. Sambrailo struggled mightily against the Lions’ pass rush but was a mauler in the run game. Against the Bills, Sambrailo will likely see Lawson rather than Hughes and Alexander (thankfully), but Lawson has been playing well this season and had a sack in each of the past two games.
Jake Matthews was an absolute stud against Detroit, effectively shutting down the red-hot Ezekiel Ansah to the point where people were wondering if Ansah was even playing in the game. Matthews will need another vintage performance against top-tier pass rushers Hughes and Alexander.
RG Wes Schweitzer steadily improved each week of the season after a slow start, and he held up relatively well against the solid Detroit front consisting of A’Shawn Robinson and Haloti Ngata. A healthy Bills’ DT rotation would be more difficult to slow down, with Dareus and Jerel Worthy teaming up with the wily vet Williams.
Falcons’ receivers vs. Bills’ secondary
On paper, the Bills’ secondary doesn’t look all that great. Sure, they’ve got a familiar name in Micah Hyde, but the success of this surprisingly good unit lies within some lesser-known players.
In rookie Tre’Davious White and youngsters Jordan Poyer and EJ Gaines, the Bills have somehow found themselves with a formidable secondary after losing starters Stephon Gilmore to free agency and Ronald Darby to the trade market. Even the most homery of Bills homers couldn’t have seen this unit performing so well three weeks into the season.
Obviously, the Falcons have one of the best receiving corps in the entire NFL—some experts have gone as far to say that Atlanta boasts the deepest unit in the league. Julio Jones is unstoppable when he wants to be, Mohamed Sanu is having his best season as a Falcon, Taylor Gabriel just went turbo all over Detroit’s defense, and Justin Hardy catches everything thrown his way. Even top-tier secondaries like Seattle and New England struggle to contain the Falcons’ receivers.
Though Buffalo currently has a top-10 overall pass defense, they’ll clash with the seventh-overall passing offense—this is a matchup where something will have to give. If the Falcons hope to bounce back against an uncharacteristic performance against the Lions, they’ll have to be much more sure handed and fundamentally sound against a Bills’ pass defense that has yet to give up a score.
LeSean McCoy vs. Falcons’ linebackers
LeSean “Shady” McCoy has been around for awhile and is currently in his 9th season, but he’s still a top-shelf back and is elusive as ever. Though the Bills haven’t quite gotten the ground game going just yet, dump-off and screen passes have worked for Buffalo, with McCoy catching 18 of 20 targets for 131 yards three games into the year.
The Falcons faced one of the better pass-catching running backs last week in Theo Riddick and did a decent enough job to slow him down, though even an elite athlete like Deion Jones was beaten in coverage on occasion. Jones will have his work cut out for him against Shady, and he’s expecting to see vintange McCoy out there on the field.
Duke Riley has yet to have his breakout game (it’s coming soon), but De’Vondre Campbell is beginning to emerge as a star. The high praise for Campbell isn’t just coming from the Falcons’ fan base—the national media is starting to recognize Campbell’s huge potential. Using baseball scouting terminology, Campbell is a five-tool player. He brings speed, power, coverage, pass rush, and size. Campbell was a raw fourth-round pick out of Minnesota, but he’s developed into a gem that can be counted on to make plays week in and week out.
The Falcons have as exciting a linebacker corps as any team in the NFL, and McCoy is one of the most electric players they'll see this season. This is a battle that could be the game’s deciding factor.
Which matchups are you looking forward to the most?