The Falcons and Cardinals will walk out of the shiny new tunnels of beautiful Mercedes-Benz Stadium today not only at two opposite ends of the field, but at two opposite ends of the ever-swinging pendulum that is the NFL. The last time these two met, the Falcons trounced the Cards on their way to a unexpected Super Bowl run. Arizona, well, missed the playoffs entirely after reaching the NFC title game the year before.
It was a down year for Arizona, whose window seems to be closing with Carson Palmer and Larry Fitzgerald suiting up for what may be their last ride. But beyond those two aging stars lies an abundance of talent, a promise of a better tomorrow.
This is still a team that employs Tyrann Mathieu, Patrick Peterson, and David Johnson after all, players who could all make a case to be the best at their position. The Cardinals are a thoroughly talented team despite last season’s 7-8-1 record, and the Falcons will look to come out on top of the following matchups.
Falcons’ linebackers vs. Cardinals’ running backs
Speed, speed, and more speed—then a little bit more speed on top of that. If someone were to describe the Falcons’ LB corps that way, no one would argue with them. Led by stud sophomore Deion Jones, Atlanta’s linebackers have come a long way from the golden years of Paul Worrilow and Joplo Bartu.
Jones is accompanied by fellow second-year player De’Vondre Campbell and rookie Duke Riley. Campbell has looked good early on in his move to SAM, and Riley looked more under control against the Steelers than he did against Miami.
Behind the expected starters, the Falcons have LaRoy Reynolds (who’s also having a strong preseason) and converted safety Kemal Ishmael. Josh Keyes has looked surprisingly good so far and could be a key reserve for this team going forward.
With David Johnson, Andre Ellington, Kerwynn Williams, and Chris Johnson coming to town, the Falcons’ linebackers will need to be extremely disciplined to avoid letting any one of these dangerous backs break off a long run.
David Johnson, in particular, is an all-world back that can beat a defense in every way imaginable. His patience, vision, footwork, and hands are all among the game’s best at his position. The Falcons did well to limit Johnson as much as possible in their Week 12 blowout win, but he still accumulated over 150 total yards and scored once.
Jones manning up against David Johnson is sure to please, but should Riley find himself in space against Johnson, the rookie will learn on the fly about how to stop one of the NFL’s truly elite backs.
Falcons’ receivers vs. Cardinals’ secondary
The Cardinals really don’t want to see Taylor Gabriel again after what he did to them last season. As scary as that thought is for them, imagine what they’re thinking knowing that the best receiver in the game could also be making his return from injury. Probably, “thank goodness this game doesn’t count”, to be honest.
Patrick Peterson is perceived as one of the best cornerbacks in all of football, but Julio Jones has made Peterson look absolutely silly at times. That’s not a knock on Peterson, because Jones can do that to just about anyone. When these two line up across from each other, you can bet nearly every eye in Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be on them. With Jones slated to see his first action after offseason toe surgery, this matchup could be over after only a snap or two, so be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.
Peterson is not the only star in the Cardinals’ secondary. Tyrann Mathieu is one of the best safeties in the league and is known for his propensity to force turnovers. Justin Bethel is an underrated corner, but he’s earned the starting job across from Peterson.
Arizona improved their secondary with the additions of second-round pick Budda Baker (a draft crush of many a Falcons fan), Tramon Williams, Antoine Bethea, and some guy literally named Ironhead Gallon. This secondary is one of the deepest in the league, and if the Falcons get both Gabriel and Jones back, they’ll have more than enough firepower to put on a show.
Falcons’ pass rush vs. Cardinals’ offensive line
This is a matchup that should have the Falcons licking their chops. The Falcons’ pass rush hasn’t been bad this preseason. They’ve generated pressure, but actually closing and sacking the quarterback has been too rare an occurrence—that should change against Arizona.
The Cards list (from left to right) D.J. Humpries, Mike Iupati, A.Q. Shipley, Evan Boehm, and Jared Veldheer as their starting offensive line, and Iupati has already been ruled out. This is a line that screams mediocre, and the Falcons should use this opportunity to get their pass rush revved up and ready to go for the regular season.
Vic Beasley was a terror against the Cardinals last season, and with Takkarist McKinley expected to see more snaps after making his NFL debut, I would not want to be a Cardinals quarterback in this game.
Jack Crawford has looked great so far at defensive tackle, and we caught a glimpse of regular-season Grady Jarrett last week. With Dontari Poe getting more comfortable and Adrian Clayborn and Derrick Shelby on the mend from injury, this is a pass rush that still has a lot of untapped potential. That’s a scary thought for Arizona—and a thrilling one for Falcons fans everywhere.
Which matchups are you looking forward to the most?