This is it—time for the Falcons to get redemption for a certain game that occurred in February. Time for Atlanta to dig themselves out of this slump and go on the road to defeat their most hated opponent on national television. Sunday Night Football in Foxborough is arguably the biggest test and most important game of the season for this young Falcons team.
Both these teams are struggling and neither is the juggernaut they were in 2016. But you can bet that both teams will be playing hard to prove to the NFL that they should still be viewed as legitimate contenders in 2017.
That being said, here are some of the players I’ll be keeping a close eye on during Sunday night’s game.
WR Julio Jones
Look, we’ve been waiting to see Julio get more involved for five games. Sark has promised, time and time again, that he’s going to get Julio more touches, particularly in the red zone. Here we are in Week 7 and none of those things have happened. Julio has one red zone target and no TDs. He’s been MIA at the end of games when the Falcons desperately need a play.
I don’t think this is Julio’s fault, but it’s time for Sark to put up or shut up about getting the ball to Julio. It’s not rocket science, folks. The Patriots will likely be down CBs Stephon Gilmore and Eric Rowe. That means we could see the 5’11 Malcolm Butler on Jones, or someone like Johnson Bademosi or Jonathan Jones. The Falcons must take advantage of these match-ups if they have any hope of coming away with the win on Sunday.
WR Mohamed Sanu & WR Marvin Hall
Sanu is returning for this game, but how healthy will he be? It’s clear that the Falcons offense hasn’t been the same without him—Gabriel cannot consistently be the third down chain mover, and he isn’t a quality red-zone target. The hope is that Sanu can at least get back to being a reliable short-yardage target for Matt Ryan, who has had his receivers constantly let him down through five weeks.
There’s also the matter of the recently-promoted Marvin Hall, who caught Ryan’s first successful deep ball for a TD against Miami. Hall has impressive speed, solid hands, and decent size. The rapport he’s been able to build with Ryan in such a short time, and the knowledge of Sark’s scheme from his college days, have combined to make him an intriguing option in a relatively short time. I’m interested to see if he’s a bigger part of the gameplan this week.
LB De’Vondre Campbell and SS Keanu Neal
It’ll likely be up to these two players to keep the Patriots’ biggest weapon in check on Sunday. Rob Gronkowski has been as effective as ever in 2017, and will no doubt look to wreak havoc on a Falcons defense that has still been shaky covering TEs. Depending on how the Patriots line up, the Falcons will likely have either Campbell or Neal handle coverage duties on Gronk. Campbell has seemed to play better deep coverage on TEs, while Neal has appeared to play better closer to the line of scrimmage. Hopefully the two of them can combine for at least marginally effective coverage on the future Hall of Fame tight end.
EDGE Vic Beasley & EDGE Takkarist McKinley
The Falcons pass rush—with the return of Vic Beasley—came into a game against the struggling Miami offensive line and generated exactly zero sacks. That will absolutely not cut it against the Patriots, who have the weapons and the QB to take advantage of extra time in the pocket. Hopefully, Beasley will be closer to full health in this game, and the young McKinley can start to have some more consistent success. The Patriots tackles, RT Marcus Cannon and LT Nate Solder, have both been playing poorly in 2017. It’ll be up to Beasley, McKinley, and the interior pressure to make Brady uncomfortable on Sunday Night Football.
LB Deion Jones & LB Duke Riley
The biggest weakness the Falcons have shown through five weeks is an inability to cover RBs out of the backfield and incredibly poor tackling ability from the LB position. That must change if the Falcons want to have any hope of limiting a Patriots’ offense that will be perfectly happy to dink-and-dunk their way down the field all game long. Jones has mixed some very good moments with some bad ones, but he’ll have to play his best to keep the Patriots dangerous RB corps in check. Riley has been awful thus far, but he absolutely must play better against the Patriots. This is a chance for these two to establish themselves as a quality LB duo against some very stiff competition. Here’s to hoping Riley finally starts playing up to his talent level.
What are your thoughts on the game? Any Falcons you’ll be watching closely? Do you think the recently-signed DT Ahtyba Rubin will receive meaningful snaps on Sunday night?