A once favorable game for Atlanta on paper looks much more competitive three weeks later. The Buffalo Bills have exceeded expectations so far. If Zay Jones hauled in Tyrod Taylor’s pass against Carolina, they would be in the undefeated club with the Falcons and Chiefs. An impressive upset over Denver has created unexpected optimism in Buffalo. It’s a pretty dramatic change, considering what transpired last month. Trading Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby raised major questions about their season outlook. Instead of entering the rebuilding stage, they have remained competitive with their overachieving defense.
Sean McDermott has done an excellent job with a younger roster. The secondary hasn’t missed a beat without Darby and Stephon Gilmore. While nobody can predict what the Bills are capable of accomplishing this season, they aren’t going to be easily overwhelmed. This should be a highly contested matchup, as the Falcons look to go into an early bye week on a high note.
Finding the downfield connection
It hasn’t fully clicked yet for Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. As defenses structure their game plan around containing the superstar wide receiver, it ends up failing to hold up for all four quarters. Jones will create those big plays based on his sheer ability. There are other instances, where they can scheme him open or Ryan places the ball where only Jones can catch it. It’s usually only a matter of time before the best quarterback in franchise history and the most popular man in Atlanta link up for a highlight reel play. That hasn’t been the case yet.
In three games, Jones’ longest catch has gone for 34 yards. It occurred against Green Bay, as Ryan used a play action fake to find Jones open on a deep over. Utilizing a variety of play action designs has greatly benefited the offense. It hasn’t done much to help Jones find the end zone or connect on a deep pass. How defenses prepare for Jones isn’t the only reason behind the lack of big plays. A major part of Ryan’s erratic performance against Detroit came from his inability to connect with Jones.
Steve Sarkisian made it apparent that he wanted them to end the drought. With Darius Slay left isolated at times, the opportunities were there. Ryan couldn’t hit him in stride on any of his three downfield throws intended for Jones. A combination of underthrown balls and sailing passes out of bounds left both players puzzled. Facing McDermott should present an intriguing challenge. This is the former defensive coordinator’s first visit to Atlanta since Jones’ infamous 300-yard game. He was on the receiving end of a gruesome shellacking with Jones doing whatever he wanted against a trio of hopeless cornerbacks.
A better game plan should be implemented, as leaving inexperienced cornerbacks in man coverage against Jones is asking for cruel punishment. The history behind McDermott’s past experiences against the Falcons makes this even more compelling. He is doing a superb job building his defense to stop productive wide receivers. Whether it’s Tre’Davious White or E.J. Gaines, both cornerbacks will receive safety help at some point. This shouldn’t be viewed as a crisis. Big plays are something we’ve become accustomed to witnessing from both players. It’ll be interesting to see how aggressive Ryan is targeting Jones on Sunday.
Early litmus test for the rebuilt run defense
Since facing Chicago’s rushing attack on opening weekend, the Falcons’ defense hasn’t been really tested on the ground. Jumping out to early leads against Green Bay and Detroit certainly helped them. Both teams are known for being over reliant on throwing the ball. Aaron Rodgers controls the offense, while Jim Bob Cooter’s quick hitting passing system suits Matthew Stafford. We haven’t been able to see what Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe can do for an extended period during a game. That will finally change against the Bills.
Buffalo ranks third in the league in rushing attempts. A heavy run approach was expected following major personnel decisions. Singing Patrick DiMarco (and to a lesser extent Mike Tolbert) showed their ambitions to beat teams on the ground. With Tyrod Taylor’s unclear future and limitations as a pocket passer, it made complete sense. Not keeping Watkins validated those run-heavy intentions. A combination of Taylor, McCoy, and DiMarco should maintain their status as one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the league.
It hasn’t quite transpired yet, although the difficulty of their previous opponents should be noted. Carolina and Denver have outstanding front sevens. With game changers at both levels, it’s understandable that the Bills are only averaging 3.4 yards per carry as a team. McDermott knows how his team is going to pull off the upset. Imposing their will on the ground and controlling the clock is the best way to defeat the Falcons. McCoy has been limited over the past two weeks. A special talent like him must be itching for a heftier workload. His shiftiness could present serious problems for the Falcons, given their inconsistent tackling tendencies.
All of the attention is on how the Bills’ defense fares in their first real test of the season. The same applies to the Falcons’ run defense facing an elite running back and full back. Nobody can undervalue DiMarco’s impact in Atlanta. He wiped out linebackers on countless occasions for Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman to break loose into the open field. It’s going to take a collective effort to stop them. Winning on first down is essential for the defense to get in more favorable situations against Buffalo’s anemic passing game. This game should also give us a real first opportunity to see if signing Poe was the right decision. The two-time Pro Bowler has been quiet following an impressive opening game.
Expanded role for Tevin Coleman
With Devonta Freeman receiving a bigger workload over the past two games, it has left Coleman on the periphery. The offense has been more productive since leaning on Freeman over the past two games. It remains to be seen, if this altered approach is sustainable. Freeman did show signs of fading during the final two months of the 2015 season. Relying on a five-foot-eight running back to carry the ball between 18 to 20 times a game is risky. Let’s also take into account Freeman’s aggressive running style. To maintain a 70-30 rushing ratio seems unlikely.
Expect the drastic carry total (Freeman 52, Coleman 20) to be reduced in the coming weeks. Coleman is going to play a bigger factor at some point. This could be the week to help break down a resilient Bills’ defense. McDermott has transitioned from playing zone to a more man-heavy scheme. They are blitzing more often than any of the Carolina units he previously coordinated. His coaching style appears to be influenced from working under the late great Jim Johnson.
To counter them, Coleman could play an integral role in generating big plays. Utilizing his speed on stretch runs worked on multiple occasions against Detroit. Everyone know what he can do from a receiving standpoint. Sarkisian will need to get creative against a coach that is used to preparing for the Falcons twice a year. Featuring their most dynamic weapon more often would be a wise idea.
Quinn has probably stressed this message during the entire week. There isn’t a more elusive quarterback-running back pairing than Taylor and McCoy. Both players can flat out embarrass defenders with their wicked shiftiness. Taylor’s knack for turning doomed plays into 15-yard runs continues to haunt defenses. McCoy’s jaw-dropping moves always need to be accounted for at all times. Allowing him to get to the second level is the equivalent of playing with fire. He has still managed to make plays, despite being largely contained in the last two games. According to Pro Football Focus, McCoy gained more yards after contact than actual rushing yards against Carolina.
The Falcons’ young defense has suffered some lapses when tackling in the open field. Duke Riley is enduring a tough start to his NFL career. The third-round pick has missed several tackles in the open field. Deion Jones has missed more tackles than you would expect from a rising star. How the entire defense wraps up will be a deciding factor in the final outcome. They were fortunate to beat Chicago after missing double-digit tackles. Not finishing plays and allowing creative players to gain extra yardage is a recipe for disaster against a run-heavy offense. It doesn’t help that reliable safety Ricardo Allen will likely be sidelined. The defense needs to properly wrap up and force Buffalo’s receivers to beat them.