When looking at the Falcons’ schedule before this season started, the Week 3 game against the Detroit Lions was one that I admittedly skimmed over quickly, confidently scribbling a presumptuous win on the team calendar stuck up on my fridge.
“The Lions? Didn’t they go 0-16 once? That’s a win,” I may have said aloud.
But then I realized—darn it, I just did what seemingly everyone does who doesn’t pay close to attention to the Falcons: recall the last real memory stored of that team and assume it’s still somehow relevant to the present day. Yes, the Lions went 0-16 once—but they’re not half bad these days.
Like the Falcons, the Lions are a tortured franchise with a fanbase dying for its first taste of sweet Super Bowl victory. (The Lions did win an NFL Championship back in 1957, but that was before the Super Bowl era and nobody really cares or even remembers that.)
The Lions have never appeared in a Super Bowl—heck, they haven’t even won a playoff game since 1991. They’re ailing worse than Falcons fans, and don’t let any of them tell you any different. As bad as last season ended for the Falcons, so many teams would rather have...never mind, you get it.
Enough about the past. The 2017 Lions aren’t a bad team—they’re nicked up, just like our beloved Falcons. They’re also undefeated, akin to our 2-0 Dirty Birds.
In Week 1, the Lions surprised the Arizona Cardinals 35-23, who appear destined for another disappointing season after giving Atlanta the business in the third preseason game. 2016 MVP-candidate Matthew Stafford threw for four touchdowns against a defense featuring Tyrann Mathieu and Patrick Peterson—that’s enough to raise an eyebrow.
The Lions then went on the road to face the New York Giants, a team who made the playoffs last year and feature a stout defense—Detroit cruised right past them. The Lions’ pass rush made the Giants’ offensive line seem like a revolving door leading directly to a skittish Eli Manning. They had my curiosity—now they have my attention.
This Lions team has some legit talent on their roster, but they haven’t been able to put it all together for full season yet. Could this be their year? Time will tell, starting with this battle of the un-beatens at Ford Field—the following matchups could be the deciding factors.
Ezekiel Ansah vs. Falcons’ tackles
Jake Matthews has been been on the cusp of the elite for a few years now. When he was drafted sixth overall back in 2014, many proclaimed him as the next Joe Thomas. It’s clear he may never become that good, but Matthews has incrementally improved each year he’s been in the league. He has all the tools to be elite, but a poorly-timed holding penalty or sack given up have often plagued him. Against another guy with all the tools, Ezekiel Ansah, Matthews will have to be at his best to keep Matt Ryan clean.
Matthews has typically struggled with power rushers, but he’s shown improvement in the area early on this year. Perhaps seeing the best bull rusher on the team in Takkarist McKinley every day in practice has helped Matthews overcome that deficiency.
Ansah had a down year in 2016 (two sacks), but he’s already surpassed that number this season. As much as Giants’ tackle Ereck Flowers is to blame for that, three sacks in one game is still super impressive no matter who it’s against. When Vic Beasley annihilated Ty Sambrailo for nearly four sacks in Denver last year, the majority of the credit went to Beasley for a heck of a game.
Sambrailo is now a Falcon, thrust into the starting lineup with RT Ryan Schraeder ruled out with a concussion. Sambrailo will likely see Ansah if the Lions move around the versatile defender. Against the Packers, Sambrailo flashed in the run game but had too many lapses in pass protection. He’ll need to be much better to avoid a massive drop-off in pass protection on the right side.
Lions’ running backs vs. Falcons’ linebackers
Although they are called running backs, the Lions’ RBs are much more dangerous in the pass game. Theo Riddick has often been called the best receiving back in the game, and his 142 receptions in 28 games since 2015 make it easy to see why. Riddick’s fluidity and comfort running routes is impressive to watch, and he’ll be a tough draw for whichever Falcons’ linebacker he lines up against.
Ameer Abdullah has been waiting to break out for the longest time, but thanks to a myriad of injuries, it just hasn’t happened yet. Abdullah was a superstar at the University of Nebraska, prompting the Lions to spend a 2015 second-round pick on him. Another guy with all of the tools to be among the elite, Abdullah could have a breakout game at any time.
The Lions haven’t had a 100-yard rusher since the 2013 season—that rusher was Reggie Bush. If the Falcons want to avoid the embarrassment of being the first team in more than three seasons to let that happen, they need to maintain solid gap discipline and cut down on the broken tackles. Atlanta allowed more than 10 missed tackles in Week 1, but they got that number down into the single digits against the Packers.
Deion Jones and Duke Riley have both had their fair share of misses this season, and they’ll need to be at their best to avoid letting the elusive Lions’ backs pick up any unnecessary yardage. In his new SAM role, De’Vondre Campbell has been tremendous so far. Look for him to continue his stellar start to the season and set a strong edge against the run.
Lions’ receivers vs. Falcons’ cornerbacks
As good as the Falcons’ secondary has been for most of this season, this is one game where they may miss Jalen Collins. The Lions will trot out the shifty Golden Tate, the deep-threat Marvin Jones, and the big rookie Kenny Golloday against Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Brian Poole.
Tate is one of the best receivers in the game when it comes to breaking tackles, so NFC Defensive Player of the Week Desmond Trufant will need to be sound in his tackling technique. Trufant is one of the best tackling cornerbacks in the game, but something will have to give in this matchup.
Assuming Trufant checks Tate, that leaves Jones or Golloday against Robert Alford. Alford has a tendency to give up the deep ball, so lining up against Jones could be playing with fire. The 6’4’’ Golloday presents another challenge—with already two touchdowns on the year, he’s already proven he can score in this league. Lining up the 5’10’’ Alford or Poole on Golloday leaves the Falcons with a big size disadvantage—this is where Collins would have been helpful.
The Falcons could get creative and have CJ Goodwin shadow Golloday, but Goodwin has had somewhat of a slow start to the year, and Poole is clearly a better overall cornerback despite his size.
Also to be considered is that the Falcons often do not let the opponent dictate where they align their coverage—they just take their positions and play ball. This matchup is a unique challenge for which Marquand Manuel and Dan Quinn will undoubtedly be prepared.
However the Falcons line up, they’ll need to cover until the whistle blows and wrap up when the play comes their way. With Stafford known to extend plays, the Falcons can’t let up at any point.
Which matchups are you looking forward to the most?