The Atlanta Falcons are back in the spotlight. After entering their first primetime game in Philadelphia with Super Bowl aspirations, expectations have drastically changed for Dan Quinn’s squad.
A plethora of devastating injuries leaves them fighting for relevancy in the NFC. They are in the midst of a crucial two-game stretch before going into a much-needed bye. Beating Tampa Bay was the first step in attempting to salvage their season. To beat a dysfunctional Giants team would be a massive step in the right direction going into November.
That will be easier said than done for this unbalanced team. For all the issues in New York, there is no denying their exceptional skill position players can tear apart any defense. Saquon Barkley, Odell Beckham Jr., and Evan Engram will present loads of problems for Quinn’s overmatched defense.
While the Giants’ current quarterback situation limits their capabilities, the Falcons haven’t exactly made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger broke out of his slump. Jameis Winston didn’t miss a beat coming off suspension. Will Eli Manning be the latest quarterback to regain some confidence against a defense allowing big plays at a staggering rate? It wouldn’t surprise anyone if the aging quarterback has his best game of the season.
Limiting Barkley, the rookie sensation
There are many disappointing aspects about the Falcons’ current injury list. It begins with Deion Jones, especially in matchups like this. Could you imagine Jones chasing Barkley across the field for four quarters? To witness one of the most complete three-down linebackers track one of the most electrifying players in the league would have been fantastic. Jones is one of the few linebackers capable of holding his own against any running back. Unfortunately, this doesn’t matter with him sidelined for at least another month.
The entire defense will need to elevate their game against the phenomenal running back. According to Pro Football Focus, Barkley forced a whopping 10 missed tackles against Philadelphia. If any team knows how good the Eagles defense is, it would be the Falcons.
For Barkley to be so productive against a stout defense in a terrible situation is remarkable. His sharp cutting ability and tremendous balance makes him a nightmare in the open field. This is a troubling matchup for a defense structured to allow running backs space underneath on passing plays without their stellar middle linebacker. It’s also concerning for a defense that has missed the fifth-most tackles in the league per NFL Research.
The coaching staff continues to look for solutions across the defense, as Foye Oluokun played a career-high 40 snaps. Time will tell if he can be a serviceable fit. It’s become evident that Duke Riley isn’t the answer, which led to him only receiving 28 snaps. Every linebacker on the roster will receive playing time.
The same may start applying at safety following another abysmal performance from Jordan Richards. A total team effort will be required to prevent Barkley from getting loose in the open field. Grady Jarrett and Derrick Shelby will play their part up front by making their long-awaited returns. It’s up to the linebackers and safeties to prevent Barkley from turning check downs into explosive plays.
Containing the most unpredictable wide receiver in the league
It seems harsh to put Beckham below Barkley in the biggest threat department. Due to the clear limitations in the Giants’ offense, he isn’t nearly as capable of shredding defenses compared to past seasons. That is primarily because of it being a minor miracle when Manning completes a pass over 20 yards.
There is no decline in Beckham’s overall play. His slick route running, absurd footwork, and unbelievable hands will give any cornerback fits. In an offense with a below-average quarterback and substandard offensive line, he struggles to turn the yards of separation he creates into big plays.
If there is a matchup for Beckham to run wild in, it would be against the Falcons. Pat Shurmur has shown more of a willingness to use the superstar wide receiver in the slot. That was rarely the case with Tom Coughlin or Ben McAdoo. Putting him in the slot creates an immediate mismatch, especially in this matchup.
Brian Poole’s regression into becoming a real liability must be concerning for the coaching staff. Despite never being the quickest slot corner, Poole made up for it with his awareness and consistent open-field tackling. Neither of those qualities have been on display this season. Coaches are noticing how much Poole struggles in man coverage. An offensive-minded coach like Shurmur won’t hesitate to use Beckham there to give Manning more high-percentage looks.
The Falcons may opt to play more zone in trying to prevent Beckham from getting behind the secondary. With his history of repeatedly beating Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant’s tendency of getting grabby, it’s difficult to see any individual player keeping pace with Beckham. Playing more zone and implementing some exotic blitzes to rattle Manning could be the best recipe in keeping Beckham from putting on a show.
Fixing the running game woes
For all of the offense’s success, most of their productivity has come from Matt Ryan’s arm. Steve Sarkisian deserves credit for staying committed to the running game. It would have been easy to abandon it during some games, which raises a popular question. If the passing game is firing on all cylinders, why wouldn’t Sarkisian be more dependent of it?
It’s mostly because the Falcons are at their best when they stay balanced. A one-dimensional approach has doomed them in the past. Throwing the ball more than 35 times per game also puts added pressure on a decimated defense. All of these factors make running the ball effectively more essential.
With an extra day of preparation, Quinn made it a point of emphasis to focus on the running game. How can they find ways to create space for their explosive duo? Diversifying the playbook would be helpful. Sarkisian’s insistence on running tosses and sweeps are starting to become predictable. Although Tevin Coleman is at his best when he turns the corner and accelerates into the open field, it’s not something that can be solely relied upon.
Defenses are starting to pick up on Atlanta’s tendencies. That comes from them running outside zone on more than half of their runs. No team runs more outside zone per Pro Football Focus. The blocking certainly needs to improve, but the offense needs to be put in better positions to punish teams on the ground. That starts with not being entirely reliant on targeting defenses off the outside.
Red zone success may be the ultimate difference
From assessing both teams’ strengths and deficiencies, all indicators point towards another shootout taking place in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A couple of plays will likely decide if the Falcons can continue to prevail in these high-paced games. That makes red zone efficiency even more crucial.
Despite reaching the red zone six times, Tampa Bay only converted on four of those opportunities. The Falcons were a perfect three-for-three, which is becoming the standard for them. Their tremendous improvement wouldn’t have mattered in the win column, if it wasn’t for Jack Crawford’s big third down sack and Jameis Winston’s fastball hitting Riley directly in the helmet to cause a bizarre interception.
The offense can’t be solely responsible for the team’s overall success in the red zone. They are tied for fourth in the league in red zone conversion rate per ESPN’s NFL Matchup. To be that consistent and only win two games is the latest revelation of how horrific the Falcons’ defense has been this season. A favorable matchup could benefit them following difficult games against prolific offenses like New Orleans, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Tampa Bay. Facing the fourth-worst team in the red zone could be what they need to win in a somewhat convincing manner.
Manning’s lack of velocity makes it difficult for him to make those necessary tight window throws in the red zone. Not being able to run the ball in short-yardage situations is another reason behind their dreadful conversion rate. These issues could play into the Falcons’ hands by holding them to field goals, while the offense looks to score more than 30 points for the fifth time this season.