After a third straight loss that has led the Falcons to 3-3, the team is very clearly at a crossroads. With perhaps the toughest three game stretch of the season coming up immediately after Sunday’s contest against the Jets, the Falcons could really use a confidence booster or even just a little momentum. We’ve seen this Atlanta team dominate NFC favorites, and we’ve seen them play awful for four straight quarters. Which version is going to show up in New York on Sunday?
I hope it’s the good version, or at least the decent version. With all that in mind, here are some players that you should keep an eye on during Sunday’s game.
DT Ahtyba Rubin
Rubin should be active for the first time against the Jets’ after having a week to adjust to Atlanta’s system. The 6’2, 330 lb nose tackle has been a force against the run throughout his career, and the hope is that he can stabilize a Falcons’ run defense that has been getting gashed in recent weeks. Adding another big body on the interior to pair and rotate with Dontari Poe could be a boon to a defense that has played well enough early in games, but has faded down the stretch—due in part to sub-par DT depth. Before Rubin’s arrival, the Falcons lacked a true run-stuffing presence on the defensive line. I hope that his addition will make it easier for the LBs to make plays against the run.
LB Kemal Ishmael
All signs point to Ishmael getting his first start at WLB against the Jets. It shouldn’t be a drop-off in most respects—after all, Duke Riley was struggling mightily against both the run and pass and hadn’t been making any plays. But there’s no doubt that Ishmael is a bit of a limited player athletically. He’s an excellent tackler and should be just fine against the run, but we’ve all seen what happens when Ishmael is isolated in coverage: big gains for the offense. The Falcons will have to scheme creatively to keep Ishmael out of too many coverage situations, but hopefully the veteran can provide a more steady presence against the run.
TE Austin Hooper
One of the Jets’ biggest weaknesses through seven games has been their inability to cover TEs. Dolphins’ TE Julius Thomas had his best game of the season against them last week, and they’ve given up TDs to Charles Clay, David Njoku, and Rob Gronkowski. That should be a recipe for success for Austin Hooper, who apparently has become a complete afterthought in this offense despite making plays and running hard after almost every reception (tipped INT excluded). Hooper needs to be more involved in the passing game, particularly against teams like the Jets who struggle to cover TEs. Sark needs to make getting the ball to Hooper a bigger priority going forward, but particularly against New York.
QB Matt Ryan
A lot of the problems with this offense stem from Sarkisian’s bland and unimaginative playcalling, but Matt Ryan deserves his share of the blame too. Ryan, normally accurate and deadly when given time, has been uncharacteristically scattershot this season—particularly with his deep ball. The Falcons need to start connecting on some of those deep shots, if even just to see Matt get his confidence back. If the offense is a train, Ryan is the engineer—he needs to get it up and running and back on track. Errant passes in critical situations, while unavoidable sometimes, can’t be a constant thing. Let’s see if Ryan can start to get his mojo back against the Jets—who have some intriguing rookie safeties in Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, but are otherwise very undermanned in the secondary.
The RBs and the offensive line
We all need to come to grips with the fact that the Falcons’ offense might never return to being a league-leading unit in 2017. Sark might simply be in over his head, or he might eventually get it together—it doesn’t matter. Based on the way this team is constructed, they should always be able to go back to one thing: the running game. With the best RB tandem in the league and an exceptional run-blocking offensive line, the rushing attack should be the engine of this offense. When Ryan and the passing game are struggling, the Falcons should lean on these guys. When the defense starts to get tired late in games, lean on Freeman, Coleman, and the offensive line. If the run game is clicking, that opens up opportunities for deep play-action shots and easier completions in the passing game.
With the talent the Falcons have at RB and OL, there is absolutely no excuse for the RBs to get less than 20 carries a game. Use Freeman early and often, until defenses prove they can stop him. Work in Coleman as a change-of-pace back and especially in the passing game. Run creative 2RB sets with Freeman and Coleman together, particularly once the team reaches the red zone. There is far too much talent invested in those groups—plus two pretty solid blocking TEs in Hooper and Toilolo—for the team to put so little emphasis there. Maybe it’s time to ditch all the 3 and 4 WR sets and start playing more 22 personnel. Utilize your talent in different ways. Pound the rock and take advantage of the mismatches your RBs give you. Please.
Well, there you have it—some interesting players (and whole offensive units, apparently) to watch during Sunday’s game against the Jets. I know I’ll be hoping and praying we can come away with a win, because this whole losing thing sucks.
What are your thoughts on the game? Any particular players or position groups you’ll be watching on Sunday?