It has been a tumultuous season for the Atlanta Falcons. Despite enduring a difficult October and multiple grueling defeats in December, they did something no other previous NFC playoff team managed to accomplish. Dan Quinn’s squad is back in the playoffs. Overcoming offensive instability proved to be a difficult task at times. In a make-or-break game, the Falcons beat Carolina on the back of their speedy defense. It was another terrific performance that showcased the organization’s brilliant draft day decisions.
Limiting New Orleans and Carolina has created some buzz for Atlanta’s defense. Is this a legitimate top-ten unit? They finished ninth in total yards allowed per game. Due to not forcing enough turnovers or generating consistent pressure, it’s fair to dismiss the notion of them being an upper echelon defense.
They are on the verge of joining that class. Facing the NFL’s most creative offense will prove to be their biggest test of the season. How they fare will not only determine their fate, but where the defense stands as a group. It will also reveal how the offense responds after a month of underwhelming performances.
Steve Sarkisian vs. Wade Phillips
It’s rare to feature a battle between two coordinators heading into a playoff game. Since both head coaches focus primarily on one side of the ball, what many view as a lopsided matchup becomes more important. Phillips is undoubtedly the best defensive coordinator in the league. His knack for fluctuating between 4-3 and 3-4 looks keeps offenses guessing. The Rams never lacked talent in the front four. What they were missing was proper direction from the coaching staff. Instead of blitzing relentlessly without any sense of a plan like Gregg Williams, Phillips is using more five-man fronts to fluster opposing quarterbacks. It has translated into 48 sacks, which marks a drastic improvement from last year’s disorder.
As Phillips elevated a talented underachieving group, Sarkisian played an integral role in a talented overachieving offense’s regression. The inability to adapt and scheme open players were the biggest critiques during a roller coaster season. That remains as a lingering concern, especially in the red zone. Atlanta has only converted two out of their last nine red zone opportunities. Some of them can be considered as unfortunate moments, but there were still plenty of poor decisions and low-percentage play calls. The embattled offensive coordinator is starting to learn from prior mistakes. Utilizing both running backs in the passing game has proven to be effective over the past three games. The long cries to make Julio Jones a focal point every week is slowly starting to be heard. These are basic adjustments that a NFL offensive coordinator should be able to make within their philosophy.
The real challenge will come down to preparing for an ultra-aggressive defense. According to ESPN’s NFL Matchup, the Rams are fourth best at applying pressure. Aaron Donald is the terrifying force that will be deservingly highlighted on every network. Expecting the Falcons’ interior line to stop him is nothing more than a pipe dream. Rather than ponder about Ben Garland or Wes Schweitzer attempting him to slow him down, it will be on Sarkisian to put them in the best position to survive against the defensive player of the year favorite. They may opt to use Alex Mack for support, although the Pro Bowl center won’t have the luxury of doing it on a consistent basis. Phillips will get creative by using Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin on twists. Allowing linebacker Alec Ogletree to blitz is another possible option to create havoc. The chaos starts with Donald, who lines up 46.7 percent of the time across the opposing left guard per Next Gen stats. That should give Sarkisian some idea behind devising plays away from the dominant interior tackle.
Matt Ryan did face a similar style defense in Carolina. Handling the blitz can be extremely overwhelming, yet Ryan has played well under duress over the past two weeks. A similar game plan to last week could be their best option. A short, quick striking passing game may give a maddeningly inconsistent offense some rhythm. That will be connected with a stronger commitment to the running game. It can only help them exploit the Rams Achilles' heel and win the time of possession battle.
Containing Todd Gurley
Nobody picks up chunk plays more often than Gurley. When you watch highlights of the Rams’ offense, there are at least two plays of him running 20 yards downfield untouched every week. How Gurley went from being a major question mark to potential MVP candidate should confirm Sean McVay’s status as coach of the year. By using him in a plethora of ways within different formations, McVay has awakened a multi-dimensional monster. What makes Gurley’s work even more impressive is his strong finish to the season. While many running backs begin to slow down in December, he gained 440 rushing yards and five touchdowns in the last four games. Gurley also caught 22 passes for 302 yards and three touchdowns during that span. Those preposterous numbers earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Month.
Only Minnesota and Seattle managed to contain the explosive back this season. How they kept him from taking over involves preventing him from getting into space. Gurley isn’t a powerful, downhill back that wears down front sevens. He is at his best running to the outside and finding open creases. Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner wrote an insightful piece about Gurley’s startling season. It highlighted his staggering numbers when running to the outside. Gurley gained 5.6 yards per carry when running wide left, while picking up 4.2 yards running wide right. That puts pressure on opposing edge defenders and linebackers. Derrick Shelby and Brooks Reed are capable run stoppers. Trying to cope with Los Angeles’ massively improved offensive line could be too much to overcome. McVay knows how to get defenses to stay in their nickel formation as well, which allows them to abuse pure pass rushers on outside runs. Remaining disciplined in their run fits will be essential for Quinn’s defense.
To make matters worse for opposing defenses, Gurley is just as prolific in the passing game. His blistering speed and fantastic vision makes him a genuine nightmare. Other than New Orleans, no team is better at executing screens than the Rams. They will punish teams with their deceptive play designs and savvy offensive line. It doesn’t take long to realize how cohesive they are when executing screens. Tennessee found out the hard way on an 80-yard touchdown. McVay has started to split Gurley out wide, along with putting him inside within bunch formations. That allows him to find open space in a flash, as Tennessee was on the receiving end of another touchdown. Deion Jones and Keanu Neal have played exceptionally well over the past month. Stopping the likes of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey from producing explosive plays showed their capabilities against highly regarded running backs. How they (along with the entire back seven) keep Gurley from running wild in the open field will play a major factor in the final outcome.
Forcing Jared Goff to play fast
The second-year quarterback has shown tremendous improvement following a dreadful rookie season. Under the tutelage of McVay, he is playing far more composed. One of the main reasons behind the Rams’ incredible season comes from their strong rapport. They are constantly communicating, including near the line of scrimmage. No offense is centered on making the quarterback’s life easier than McVay's system. A combination of play action designs and bunch formations makes them an extremely difficult matchup. It has propelled Goff into becoming the most efficient quarterback in the league according to Football Perspective.
Despite those incredible numbers, there is no denying how a major upgrade in talent around him and scheme elevated his performances. Most of his big-time passes consists of high percentage throws in clean pockets. When Goff faced intense pressure against top-tier defenses such as Seattle and Minnesota, he faltered in tough situations. Forcing him to play quicker is vital for the Falcons’ chances of slowing down an offensive juggernaut. That will be challenging against Los Angeles’ rebuilt offensive line. Andrew Whitworth and Rodger Saffold form the best left side in the league. John Sullivan is enjoying a late-career resurgence. With McVay’s cunning play calling, it’s going to be an uphill battle for an enigmatic front four.
They do have one potential favorable matchup. Vic Beasley will be facing Rob Havenstein. The last meeting proved to be a one-sided beating, as Beasley produced three sacks with one forced fumble and a touchdown. It’s been a tough season for the 2016 sack king. After playing him at strongside linebacker, Quinn has inserted Beasley back into a preferred primary pass-rushing role at left defensive end. The positional switch is starting to pay off with Beasley making more plays in recent weeks. Based on Quinn’s hesitancy to blitz often and Gurley being so lethal as a pass catcher, the front four will need to generate pressure on their own. Beasley must be at the forefront of their attack.
Staying committed to the positive running back usage
There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated about the Falcons’ offense. They have only scored 20 or more points in three of the past five games. That statistic should raise eyebrows. It’s nearly as painful as the previously mentioned appalling red zone conversion rate over the past two games. For all their shortcomings, one encouraging development has recently transpired. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are being utilized in the passing game. It started in Freeman’s monster performance against Tampa Bay. That continued against New Orleans, as both running backs were targeted quite a bit. Ryan hit Coleman on a wheel route for their only touchdown in an emotional defeat.
In their pivotal victory against Carolina, Freeman received a whopping eleven targets. What made it even more significant was that these plays were designed for him. It wasn’t off a mere check down or broken play. Sarkisian wanted to get both running backs involved. From using Freeman on crossing patterns to Coleman on a wheel route reminiscent of the prior touchdown, the dynamic running back duo combined to catch 11 passes for 99 yards. Freeman did most of the work, but that could change this week.
The two-time Pro Bowler is dealing with a knee injury. While he is scheduled to play, it could mean a slightly reduced role. That puts Coleman in an intriguing spot. Besides Taylor Gabriel, no player’s role has been more questioned this season. Football Outsiders’ Charles McDonald posted a running back chart highlighting Coleman’s tremendous efficiency as a receiver. He is the ultimate X-Factor against the Rams’ undisciplined linebackers.