After a much-needed bye week, the Atlanta Falcons begin a two-game road stretch in Washington. It’s also the start of a tricky second half of the season featuring six away games in nine weeks. Although they have fared better on the road under Dan Quinn, there are going to be lingering questions about how this team can handle playing in other environments. Will a shattered yet slowly recovering defense start to show genuine improvement? Can the offensive line show more solidity following two horrific showings on the road?
These are some of the more prevalent questions surrounding the Falcons. Facing the NFC’s most overachieving team should give a fair indication on where Quinn’s squad is headed. Not many teams are capable of smashing their opponents in the mouth on both sides of the ball, while succeeding without being reliant on explosive plays through the air. As ugly as it may look, the Redskins have found their identity. Preventing them from imposing their will and exploiting the limitations of their personnel is how the Falcons can earn their most impressive win of the season.
Facing a relentless pass rush
The biggest reason behind Washington’s success consists of having one of the deepest defensive lines in the league. What makes their rise even more impressive is how they built this formidable group. It all comes from the draft starting with franchise mainstay Ryan Kerrigan. His power and instincts gives them a true presence off the edge. Targeting Alabama’s finest interior talent in the past two drafts was a wise strategy by selecting Jonathan Allen and Da’Ron Payne. To draft both players showed the front office’s intentions in wanting to shed their defense’s reputation of being soft.
It’s one thing to nail each first round pick. Hitting on first round picks gives you a foundation up front. Adding talent in the later rounds is what turns a talented defensive line into a potentially terrifying defensive line. That is what the Redskins exactly did in drafting Matt Ioannidis and Ryan Anderson. Both players have developed into key contributors. Ioannidis’ transformation from being a hard-working fun-loving player into their current sack leader is another indicator of how well they drafted. It runs so deep that Preston Smith hasn’t even been mentioned yet. Under Jim Tomsula’s guidance, they’re more than capable of wrecking offensive lines and taking over games.
After being on the receiving end of multiple one-sided beatings in the trenches on the road, this is a worrying matchup for the Falcons. They have struggled to keep Matt Ryan clean for the majority of the season. Their pass protection woes skyrocket when playing on the road. Per ESPN’s Vaughn McClure, Ryan has been sacked 10 times and hit 27 times in two games. Losing another starter in Brandon Fusco only creates more concern about the under-performing offensive line. If the offense is going to thrive in difficult games on the road, it starts with giving Ryan enough time in the pocket. Adding different schematic looks to limit the Redskins’ pass rush would be another step in the right direction to compensate for the loss of both starting guards and relieve some pressure off Ryan.
Prospering off play action
To counter their ferocious front four, Steve Sarkisian should continue utilizing play action as much as possible. It was at the forefront of their success against the Giants. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Ryan completed 13 of 14 pass attempts for 189 yards off play action. It was also used on his lone touchdown pass to Marvin Hall on a wonderfully designed play. By adding some RPO elements to his game plan, Sarkisian has helped Ryan get back to playing at an elite level.
ESPN’s Bill Barnwell compared his last five games with his best five-game stretch from his 2016 MVP season. It’s scary how his recent stat totals are better in every major category. Who would have thought Ryan is actually a terrific quarterback rather than being a product of Kyle Shanahan’s system? From gaining a strong rapport with Austin Hooper and Calvin Ridley to throwing with better anticipation this season, the eternally under-appreciated quarterback hasn’t looked fazed in having to lead the offense to 30 or more points per game.
It all begins with using play action to create misdirection and manipulate defenses with their variety of playmakers. They have ran the fourth most play action plays per ESPN’s NFL Matchup. Only the Rams are currently more productive at an astounding 12.2 yards per pass attempt. Washington’s secondary is prone to being over-aggressive. With their overall back seven being average at best, teams have found plenty of success stretching the field. Applying more max protections and bunch formations, to go along with running several different types of play action designs, should help them in wearing down Tomsula’s high-powered defensive line.
Finding clarity at linebacker and strong safety
Following a slew of injuries, the coaching staff was forced into taking drastic measures in trying to repair a once-promising defense. They couldn’t continue playing overwhelmed young players as full-time starters, regardless of their draft status or how they were acquired. Allowing over 30 points in three consecutive games was the breaking point. It was time to commit to the “next man up” approach in trying to find solutions across a decimated group.
Duke Riley and Jordan Richards weren’t good enough to handle such demanding roles. Their disappointing play forced the coaching staff into giving more snaps to players signed off the street. Adding Bruce Carter and (re-signing) Sharrod Neasman gave them slightly more stability at what were becoming hugely problematic areas. Carter’s athleticism and experience eased some pressure off promising rookie Foye Oluokun. On the backend, Neasman’s experience and hard-hitting ability makes him a better fit alongside Damontae Kazee.
It will be interesting to see if they stick with playing several different players at two crucial positions. Quinn is known for having multiple set alignments on the defensive line. For him to implement a rotational system at other positions seems risky, given how important chemistry and communication are on the back end. Washington’s quietly efficient offense can exploit mismatches in the short and intermediate areas of the field. At some point, the coaching staff will need to decide which young players or recent signings can hold their own playing 40 to 45 snaps a game. They can’t afford to wait until Deion Jones makes his long-awaited return to make these decisive decisions.
Continued improvement in the tackling department
One of the more pleasant surprises about the Falcons’ win over the Giants was how well they tackled. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that Saquon Barkley was going to tear them apart. A matchup featuring one of the most elusive running backs in the league against one of the worst tackling teams in the league usually ends in a predictable manner. Quinn’s defense flipped the script by showing tremendous composure and discipline in preventing Barkley from getting into the open field. By pressing him to the outside, they used the sidelines as an extra defender to nullify any potential big play opportunity.
For all of the coaching staff’s game planning, the defense needed to elevate their game. Season best performances from Riley and Brian Poole were required in earning a vital win. They must continue to overcome their previous tackling woes in order for the defense to keep offenses under 30 points. Washington’s unlikely duo of Adrian Peterson and Chris Thompson presents a fascinating challenge. Peterson has received 50 carries over the last two games. How a 33-year-old running back, who was signed in August, can still be effective with such a hefty workload is extraordinary.
Jay Gruden will continue to ride the ageless wonder, especially against undersized fronts. Thompson’s playmaking ability after the catch could also cause fits for a defense that normally struggles to contain receiving backs. Between his shiftiness and Peterson’s power, they will wear defenses down if Washington is playing with a lead. The Falcons can’t afford to get sloppy against this unique running back tandem.