If the Falcons are going to crawl back into playoff contention, it has to start this week against the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately, this is a pretty difficult match up, as Washington has one of the best defenses in the league right now. They are great at stopping the run and limiting the air attack as well. Here’s how this critical match up shakes out.
In the trenches
What was once a position of strength has suddenly become a major concern. The Falcons offensive line has now lost two starters (LG Andy Levitre and RG Brandon Fusco) and now features the two offensive guards who helped derail the Falcons offense in the playoffs in 2017 in Wes Schweitzer and Ben Garland. Both guys looked decent against the Giants, but their play going forward is definitely a concern. On the outsides, Jake Matthews has had a very good year while Ryan Schraeder has struggled to get back to form. Alex Mack isn’t as dominant as he once was, but he’s still a very good player in the middle. As it currently stands, this line has several big question marks and that does not bode well for the match up they face on Sunday.
The Redskins boast a pretty good defensive front. In the middle, rookie Daron Payne has been good as advertised. Jonathan Allen has 4 sacks on the season and is playing well, with Matt Ioannidis adding 5.5 sacks on the other side. Outside linebacker Preston Smith does not have any sacks this year and is an average player overall. On the other side, Ryan Kerrigan is a high quality starter with 4.5 sacks who plays well against the run or the pass.
If the Falcons were healthier on the line, this might be close, but the injuries to both starting guards makes this a nightmare. Say your prayers for Matt Ryan, he may need them.
The skill positions
The Falcons boast one of the best sets of offensive players in the NFL. Matt Ryan is putting up 2016-esque numbers yet again. Julio Jones is still as dominant as ever, even if the touchdown streak is maddening. Mohamed Sanu has been highly effective this year. Rookie Calvin Ridley has already showcased incredibly route running and great timing with Matt Ryan. Austin Hooper has shown he’s capable of being a top-target in this offense. When the Falcons are distributing the ball through the air, they’re incredibly dangerous. The ground game, however, is not what it should be. Tevin Coleman is capable, but has had only one very good game so far this year. Rookie Ito Smith looks like another great mid-round pick, but both players are struggling to put together a consistent ground attack, undoubtedly influenced by the regression of the offensive line. This is still a high quality unit, but it’s not perfect.
The Redskins also have a good bit of talent on the back end of this defense. Josh Norman may not be a top-tier corner, but he’s a good player. Rookie Greg Stroman is understandably struggling and could be a frequent target. Second year corner Fabian Moreau has improved, but is still going to be challenged greatly by the likes of Ridley or Sanu. Linebacker Zach Brown is playing very well this year while Mason Foster is a step behind. Safety D.J. Swearinger is playing at a Pro-Bowl level so far and new teammate Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a very good pickup, though it’s not clear how much he’ll play on Sunday.
Normally, Atlanta wins this match up pretty convincingly. However, the Redskins have the kind of talent on the back end to slow down this offense just enough to make this tough to call.
This matchup is going to come down to the trenches. If the Falcons battered offensive line can hold up well enough, there’s hope that the great receiving corps for Atlanta can come to life. However, if this match up goes “by the numbers,” Matt Ryan could be in for another long day. I’m hoping for the former, but this is a matchup that has me nervous.