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Falcons vs. Steelers: Arrow up, arrow down for several Falcons heading into Week 5

These are the Falcons to watch closely heading into the Steelers game.

Carolina Panthers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Each week, we’ll take a look at who is trending up and trending downward as we head into the next game. This week, the names won’t surprise you.

Arrow Up

QB Matt Ryan

Ryan couldn’t be much hotter right now. While offenses across the NFL look better in 2018 than they ever have before (literally, given points and yardage pacing), Ryan’s still standing out from the pack. He’s hitting deep throws, intermediate throws, spreading the ball around, and moving in the pocket well behind an offensive line that has been up-and-down in pass protection. He’s led the offense to 104 points over the last three weeks, and with two lousy defenses on the docket, he could be most of the way to his 2017 touchdown pass total (20) in just six weeks.

The arrow just keeps pointing up. The road trip is a bit of a concern, and Ryan can’t feast on lousy defenses all year, but he’s looked great and comfortable in this offense, and that should continue.

WRs Calvin Ridley, Mohamed Sanu, and Julio Jones

The dynamic trio lit up the Bengals in Week 4, with Julio and Sanu going for over 100 yards and Ridley dominating in the red zone. Sanu had been quiet leading up to last week, but we all know he’s a talented possession option, and this looks like the best wide receiving trio in football outside of the Rams and maybe Steelers. All three are going to be asked to dominate against putrid pass defenses the next two weeks, so I expect very little fall-off, though their target counts and productivity will vary from week-to-week.

DE Takkarist McKinley

Takk is every bit as good as he was advertised to be. We saw how much the defense missed him last week, when he lined up at defensive end and defensive tackle and managed three sacks. He’s a powerful defender and solid against the run, but he’s also one of the league’s most productive pass rushers already.

The Steelers have a solid enough offensive line and the Buccaneers should, but Takk doesn’t concern himself with that sort of thing. Even if he’s not putting up multiple sacks per week, I like his chances of putting pressure on Ben Roethlisberger and Jameis Winston, and his arrow is definitely pointing up.

LB Duke Riley

For the second straight week, we saw Riley turn in a solid performance despite the large-scale crumbling going on around him. I’d like to see him make some impact plays—I have lofty goals—but a version of Riley that tackles well, keeps the play in front of him and doesn’t embarrass himself in coverage is welcome.

For Riley to look better than he has, he probably needs the defense around him to improve. But the arrow’s still pointing up for him, as he’s gone from unplayable to solid enough in short order.

KR Marvin Hall

Hall is where he should be: Returning the football. I like Justin Hardy but was a little surprised he won the job coming out of preseason, and the Falcons had to have seen enough after a handful of tepid returns and interesting decisions that were reminiscent of the worst of the 2016 and 2017 return games.

Hall offers a lot more speed, and he showed that in the Bengals game, particularly on the first return of the game. If he can break a couple and make good decisions with the football, Hall should have the job for the rest of the year.

Arrow Down

RBs Tevin Coleman & Ito Smith

Both players have been solid at worst and downright terrific during their best moments, but they’re coming off two straight weeks of the Falcons not exactly tearing it up on the ground. If Devonta Freeman is back in action, as I’m hopeful he will be, both will see hits to their carry counts and target shares, and Smith in particular seems likely to see his snaps dialed back.

TE Austin Hooper

With Calvin Ridley emerging, Hooper is sort of an after-thought in this passing game. Matt Ryan has simply missed him on a pair of red zone targets this year, but Hooper’s at just 12 receptions for 125 yards and a touchdown, or 3 grabs and 30ish yards per game. That doesn’t seem likely to change with the receiving trio doing well, other receiving options to mix in and Freeman/Coleman/Smith on the field, leaving Hooper as a useful blocker and part-time receiver.

That’s useful, but it’s yet another data point that suggests that Hooper is rarely going to be prominent part of this passing game.

CBs Desmond Trufant & Robert Alford

Trufant and Alford are very good cornerbacks who tend to have at least one or two rough outings per year. Unfortunately for the Falcons and all of us, they had one of those games at the same time against the Bengals.

Two things can simultaneously be true: Alford and Trufant are generally very good, and they were downright bad against Cincinnati. Given that Cincy doesn’t even have the most initimidating receiving options the Falcons have faced and are going to face over the first six weeks of the season, that arrow’s pointing down until they rebound.