Who would have expected this to be a battle of undefeated teams? Between the constant Super Bowl hangover and not-having-Kyle Shanahan discussions, there was some uncertainty surrounding the Falcons. They have maintained their focus to start 2-0 for the second time in three years under Dan Quinn. Detroit faced somewhat similar circumstances, as they were pegged as prime candidates to regress alongside Atlanta. They have responded by beating two very good defenses (and horrific offenses) in convincing fashion. It’s a welcoming transition for them after winning eight games by one-possession last season.
Both teams are facing significant injury concerns headed into Sunday. Vic Beasley is likely going to be sidelined for a month. Losing him will test a defensive line filled with depth, but not much speed off the edge. Ryan Schreader is expected to be out with a concussion. A last-minute trade for Ty Sambrailo could be shrewd business or lead to disastrous consequences. The Lions will likely be without first round pick Jarrad Davis. That leaves an already thin linebacker group in a dicey situation. Let’s not forget that Taylor Decker remains out with a shoulder injury. His absence leaves Greg Robinson at left tackle, which has gone as badly as expected. How both teams adjust without multiple key players will be one of the main deciding factors.
Remaining productive without Vic Beasley
It’s not a matter of replacing Beasley. That would be unfair on players such as Adrian Clayborn and Takkarist McKinley. They don’t possess the superhuman burst off the edge or ability to change direction in a flash. A collaborative effort will be required for the defensive line to continue their strong start to the season. There are still plenty of capable players that can make a huge impact. Clayborn caused serious havoc against Green Bay. His presence is crucial for their progression as an overall unit.
Quinn can use Clayborn in a variety of ways. As McKinley continues to develop, the veteran lineman has been used off the edge more often. His violent hand usage and explosiveness gives them a dependable pass rushing option at right defensive end. Although Clayborn struggles to bend at times, his relentless motor and power makes quarterbacks cautious when he comes racing in. Look no further than his sack on Aaron Rodgers. There is nothing fancy about his game. That’s what makes you appreciate him even more, especially after suffering countless season-ending injuries.
Clayborn’s ability to shift inside raises his value. That allows McKinley to line up alongside him on the right side. They showed immediate chemistry on a stunt last Sunday night. With Clayborn charging in, McKinley timed his jump perfectly to land a vicious hit on Rodgers. It was their first pass-rushing attempt together as a duo. Running effective stunts and twists can be an extensive process for young defensive linemen. That doesn’t seem to be the case for McKinley.
There will be more opportunities for Brooks Reed, Derrick Shelby, and Jack Crawford to make their mark. The biggest production will likely come from Clayborn and/or McKinley over the next few games. With left tackle Greg Robinson flailing at every level, they couldn’t ask for a more favorable matchup.
Potential matchups on the outside
One of the more exciting developments during Atlanta’s six game winning streak was how Quinn used his trio of cornerbacks. He focused on finding the right matchup for each player. Robert Alford followed the most explosive or productive wide receiver. Although Brian Poole primarily covers slot receivers, he was moved around quite a bit to accommodate his game plan. It allowed Jalen Collins the opportunity to stick with the biggest wide receiver to make up for his limitations. Until the entire defense gassed out in the Super Bowl, Quinn’s strategy produced fantastic results.
Based on the previous games, there wasn’t any need to implement this structured concept. Chicago has arguably the worst wide receiving group in the league. For all their talent, Green Bay’s wide receivers are inconsistent at creating separation. Detroit presents a more difficult test. They don’t have a true number one wide receiver, yet are still formidable. Each player presents a different challenge.
Golden Tate is a tricky player based on how they utilize him. Whether it comes from bubble screens or crossing patterns, Matthew Stafford is always looking to get him involved. Tate’s shiftiness and toughness makes him one of the more diverse playmakers in the league. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Desmond Trufant shadow him. Asking Poole to cover Tate in the slot on a consistent basis could be problematic. Poole would fare better against Kenny Golladay. The rookie’s knack for playing physical and making catches in traffic meshes well with Poole’s capabilities.
The final matchup would consist of Robert Alford covering Marvin Jones in a battle of two talented, inconsistent players. It would be wise to use Alford against a deep threat in Jones rather than a pesky player that can draw penalties in Tate. The secondary matches up well with Detroit’s array of playmakers. That being said, none of this may come to fruition. It does seem like the best way to prevent Stafford from getting in a rhythm. He continues to play at a high level in Jim Bob Cooter’s offense.
Right side concerns
If the Lions had a more imposing pass rush, this would have been higher. Schraeder’s likely absence is worrying, regardless of the matchup. Losing a top-tier tackle will affect any offense. Matt Ryan was getting rid of the ball quicker against Green Bay. That was based on Ty Sambrailo unsurprisingly struggling in relief. Pass protection proved to be an issue, as the former second round pick looked stiff. His slow feet allowed Clay Matthews to get around him far too easily on multiple occasions. The lack of chemistry between him and Wes Schweitzer showed on stunts. Green Bay produced two sacks when targeting them.
The coaching staff can only hope more game action will help Sambrailo get up to game speed. Detroit’s pass rush doesn’t feature any dominant players, but they’ve been surprisingly effective to start the season. Anthony Zettel is emerging as a possible second option behind Ezekiel Ansah. According to Pro Football Focus, Zettel recorded a sack and four hurries against Arizona. Cornelius Washington is another player that will challenge Sambrailo. The Lions did benefit from facing below average offensive lines in Arizona and New York. Do we know if Schweitzer and Sambrailo are any better than those teams’ offensive lines? How the right side holds up will play a significant part in what should be a highly competitive game.
Time to hit Turbo
Taylor Gabriel’s role appears to be reduced in Steve Sarkisian’s offense. After producing big plays and averaging nearly one touchdown a game last season, the dynamic wide receiver has been somewhat of an afterthought. This isn’t a knock on his performances. It mainly comes from Sarkisian prioritizing on sustaining a steady pass-run balance. Julio Jones is going to be at the forefront of the passing game, while Mohamed Sanu continues to be a dependable option. With Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman creating mismatches out of the backfield, there are only so many targets that can go around.
Let’s not discount Gabriel’s value. His blistering speed and sharp routes makes him a dangerous weapon. Facing Detroit’s slower cornerbacks should present a great opportunity for him. With Darius Slay likely shadowing Jones, a combination of Nevin Lawson and D.J Hayden will be covering Gabriel. Both corners are known for giving up big plays, as they are prone to biting on double moves. Leodis McKelvin is still recovering from Gabriel’s devastating double move. This offense isn’t designed to give Gabriel plenty of targets, but that shouldn’t put him on the peripheral. We may see Ryan target him more often in a favorable matchup.