The most highly anticipated regular season game is here. It comes at an opportune time for both teams. Bill Belichick and Dan Quinn realize that their respective teams have underperformed this season. While New England’s defense continues to allow big plays, the Falcons’ offense is struggling to produce them. It’s been a surprising turn of events for both teams, as they should be playing much better.
There is positive news for the Falcons heading into this pivotal game. Mohamed Sanu and Courtney Upshaw are expected to return on Sunday. The offense started to stumble following Sanu’s hamstring injury against Buffalo. His return can only help bolster a stagnant offense. Upshaw adds much-needed interior depth, along with newcomer Ahtyba Rubin, who may make his debut. This is the first of three consecutive games on the road. A win against New England would be a massive confidence booster for a team that hasn’t won convincingly since Week 2.
The running back conundrum
There are plenty of questions about Steve Sarkisian’s system. Between the ultra-conservative play calling and the usage of playmakers, everything feels lethargic about a once-dominant offense. The lack of diversity in the passing game and over-reliance on stretch plays has made them look predictable. With the play calling leaving a lot to be desired, it has limited the team’s plethora of explosive weapons. Quinn has pledged to make sure Julio Jones is more featured in the offense. He isn’t the only player that needs to be used more effectively.
Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman solidified themselves as the best running back duo in the league last season. Both players are dynamic, explosive, and versatile in their own unique ways. Freeman’s vision and shiftiness makes him dangerous any time he touches the ball. Not many running backs pick up 20 yards easier than him. With his understanding of the zone-blocking scheme, he is a perfect fit for their offense. Coleman transformed into a matchup nightmare under Kyle Shanahan. His breakaway speed and pass-catching ability proved to be game changing. To place him on the outside or in the slot can rattle opposing defenses, which usually leads to coverage busts and acres of space in the open field.
Besides Jones’ lack of targets, how Freeman and Coleman were misused should have been the biggest talking point following their second collapse against Miami. Freeman only received two carries in the second half. Although the Falcons weren’t running the ball efficiently (44-yard gain inflated Freeman’s yards per carry), you can’t abandon him. It didn’t help that the Falcons were undisciplined again and found themselves in first or second and long situations. To not find ways to utilize such an important player is an egregious mistake. The same issue applies to Coleman. How can you run 37 pass plays, yet only manage to target Coleman once? Running tosses to the outside for a player that doesn’t possess great vision doesn’t help either. They failed to convert on third and short from running a toss to Coleman, before losing eight yards on a similar design in the fourth quarter. To make matters worse, Jones was somehow isolated against Cameron Wake on the huge loss.
Freeman and Coleman each had nine carries, which is rare for them to have the same amount. In the passing game, Freeman was targeted four times compared to Coleman receiving one. This isn’t an effective formula. How Sarkisian uses both running backs going forward will be pivotal for the offense’s progression or continued regression. They can’t ask for a better bounce back matchup than New England’s slow defense. Both running backs should feast on them. With Alex Mack playing at a ridiculous level, there should be gaping holes in the running game. Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts are major coverage liabilities as well. Freeman and Coleman combined for over 300 total yards in multiple games last season. The exceptional running back duo is more than capable of taking over against the 32nd ranked defense.
After suffering a season-ending back injury last season, Rob Gronkowski will finally get his opportunity to face the Falcons. He hasn’t played them in his entire career. The injury-plagued tight end missed their first meeting in 2013. As Brandin Cooks returns to face a familiar foe, it will be interesting to see how Josh McDaniels incorporates Gronkowski into his game plan against Quinn’s defense. They can’t afford another slow start, especially with Sarkisian’s commitment to the running game. Allowing the Falcons to get the upper hand in time of possession would be problematic for them.
The toll of suffering season-ending injuries appears to be catching up to Gronkowski. Although he is still extremely productive, it’s more of a testament to Tom Brady’s phenomenal accuracy rather than him creating separation. The four-time All-Pro can still win in traffic with the best of them. McDaniels knows how to isolate Gronkowski, which allows him to shield away defenders with his size advantage. Safeties struggle to physically match up with him, while linebackers aren’t agile enough to stay in front of him.
If any team possesses enough athleticism and physicality to contain Gronkowski, you would have to consider the Falcons as one of the first possible teams. De’Vondre Campbell is evolving into a complete linebacker. After suffering from coverage lapses and poor awareness last season, the second-year player is playing far more composed. Quinn has been vocal about Campbell’s ability to rush off the edge and cover tight ends. As Duke Riley endures a rough start to his NFL career, Campbell may receive even more playing time to cover Gronkowski.
It will be interesting to see how Quinn mixes up his coverage looks. As the Super Bowl wore on, the Falcons started playing more man coverage. The secondary was repeatedly torched by the likes of Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, and Danny Amendola. Could they opt to play more zone to limit big plays? It would be a noticeable change from how they are currently playing. According to Pro Football Focus, the Falcons are playing the second most man coverage in the league at nearly 50 percent. Sticking to their more preferred structure may be the best option against Brady. Desmond Trufant did an outstanding job shadowing Brandin Cooks last season. That can only help against New England’s crafty wide receiver group. How they decide between using Campbell, Keanu Neal, or relying on more zone looks to contain Gronkowski could prove to be the ultimate difference maker.
Vic Beasley’s time to shine
The star edge rusher returned last week, but didn’t look like himself at all. Quinn did a good job managing his snaps coming off a near month-long layoff. The coaching staff can only hope that all of the rust is gone. According to Pro Football Focus, Beasley failed to create a single pressure on 20 snaps. He looked very hesitant to engage at times. That played a major role in the defense’s failure to record a sack for the first time all season. They need their main sack supplier to get back into form.
Following the drama-filled Super Bowl aftermath, Beasley’s non-existent performance was overshadowed. Marcus Cannon held him to a mere one hit on 54 snaps. Grady Jarrett and Dwight Freeney did manage to pick up the pass-rushing slack. With Freeney no longer in the picture, they can’t afford another no show from Beasley. Brady’s brilliance will likely limit Quinn’s newfound willingness to blitz more often. That puts added pressure on the defensive line to rattle Brady as much as possible. It starts with Beasley using his blistering speed rush off the edge. The 2016 NFL sack king wasn’t very productive during Atlanta’s playoff run. It’s time for him to start delivering in big games.
Playing smart is starting to become a real challenge for the Falcons. It’s been stunning to see them play so undisciplined over the past three weeks. The self-inflicted mistakes haven’t stopped, which has translated into a near three-game losing streak. Good teams aren’t supposed to drop passes, commit silly penalties, and miss open-field tackles on a consistent basis. These errors caused games against Detroit and Miami to be competitive, when they should have been routine victories.
They are talented enough to put themselves in an opportunity to overcome blunders against Detroit, Buffalo, and Miami. That won’t be the case against New England. A few mistakes can instantly lead to 21 unanswered points. Everyone needs to be on their game in order to pull off the upset. Brady isn’t going to miss passes like Jay Cutler or Tyrod Taylor. A secondary with Devin McCourty and Malcolm Butler will pounce on any deflected pass. If the Falcons envision themselves as a top-tier team, they need to start playing like one. That starts with not beating themselves.