Since they last faced a team from the AFC North on the road, the Atlanta Falcons have made considerable strides in reviving their season. What seemed like a lost team after getting trounced by Pittsburgh is currently in the thick of the NFC playoff conversation following three consecutive wins. For all of their injuries, Dan Quinn’s group continues to show tremendous fortitude in overcoming numerous early-season setbacks. Most teams would crumble in their situation. Unlike most teams, the Falcons are battle-tested and well equipped to be competitive against any opponent.
They have an excellent opportunity to build on their most impressive win of the season against one of the most dysfunctional teams in the league. There is no telling how Cleveland is operating at the moment. After firing Hue Jackson and Todd Haley, the front office’s intentions were clear in wanting to eradicate every ounce of turmoil within their coaching staff. Choosing Gregg Williams to be their interim head coach guarantees that chaos will remain for another two months. While Cleveland is waiting to see who will be its next head coach in January, Atlanta is trending in the right direction to play football in January.
Containing Cleveland’s dangerous front four
The biggest surprise coming out of the Falcons’ best performance of the season was how they shut down Washington’s ferocious defensive line. Matt Ryan was only sacked twice and hit four times on 40 drop backs. It was by far the offensive line’s most impressive showing of the season. They remained solidified in stopping the likes of Ryan Kerrigan and Jonathan Allen. When the Redskins decided to get creative with their blitzes, the offense received a huge contribution from Tevin Coleman, who handled several blitz pickups extremely well.
A dominant performance like that should be a major confidence booster going into another difficult matchup. For all the chaos in Cleveland, the front office is building something special up front. Myles Garrett is tied for the third in the NFL with nine sacks. After all the pre-draft hype, the highly decorated edge rusher has been as good as advertised. Larry Ogunjobi is developing into one of the better nose tackles in the league. Right tackles will face serious consequences if they sleep on Emmanuel Ogbah’s speed off the edge. They don’t have the quality of depth that Washington has, but they’re equally as dangerous with Garrett leading the charge.
The lack of depth could eventually begin to hurt them. Rotoworld’s Evan Silva recently highlighted Cleveland’s dependence of Garrett and Ogunjobi. In unsurprising fashion, the coaching staff is overusing them. Garrett has played 110 more snaps than any other defensive end in the league, while Ogunjobi has played 121 more snaps than any other defensive tackle in the league. Between overly relying on both star players and still calling outdated preposterous blitzes in 2018, Williams isn’t doing his defense any favors. That could bode well for Steve Sarkisian, who knows how to wear down aggressive defenses. Look no further than what he did to the Rams’ talented front four in the playoffs. It wouldn’t be surprising to see a repeat performance.
Bruce Irvin provides a much-needed jolt to an anemic pass rush
After being linked with a rumored trade to the Falcons in 2015, Irvin is finally where he always wanted to be. The Atlanta-born edge rusher signed with his favorite childhood team three days ago. By turning down New England and Pittsburgh, his desire to play for his home city and former defensive coordinator couldn’t be more evident. It also shows that the Falcons are ready to compete for a playoff spot.
Irvin turned 31 years old last week. As great as the feeling is to play in your hometown coached by someone you appreciate, a veteran pass rusher like Irvin doesn’t have time to waste. He clearly believes the Falcons are ready to make serious moves.
It will be fascinating to see how Irvin is utilized in Quinn’s defense. Following two months of coping with Jon Gruden’s wasteland, you’d expect the former first-round pick to be rejuvenated. Playing on a defense filled with speed and talent will present better opportunities to rush the passer. The possibility of using Irvin with Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, and Grady Jarrett must be very enticing for the coaching staff. To establish their own version of the NASCAR package could give offensive lines significant problems. Lining up Irvin alongside McKinley creates an ultra-explosive, violent pairing capable of wrecking offenses.
Most successful defensive lines thrive off their flexibility in using different alignments to generate pressure. Signing Irvin gives them more opportunities to be creative on passing downs. Per ESPN’s NFL Matchup, the Falcons have the fourth-lowest pressure rate in the league. Irvin isn’t a game-changing player, but his impressive get off and power off the edge will give a defense in dire need of another pass rusher more productivity.
Pressure mounts on Vic Beasley
As Irvin prepares to make his debut, questions about Beasley’s outlook will continue to increase. Ian Rapoport reported last Sunday that multiple teams were interested in Beasley. Although the front office ultimately rejected those offers, it does speak volumes about where Beasley stands within the organization. The once rapidly rising star’s development has badly stagnated over the past year. From single-handedly wrecking games to being crowned as the sack king, everyone expected Beasley to progress following his absurd 2016 season. That hasn’t transpired in the slightest.
The former first-round pick simply isn’t evolving as a pass rusher. There aren’t many legitimate moves in his arsenal. If Beasley can’t win within the first half-second of his rush, opposing tackles will stone wall him with their superior strength advantage. Beasley’s poor hand usage and inability to utilize a spin move leaves him hopeless at times coming off the edge. Despite showing some promise over the past few games, a fourth-year player with high expectations placed on him needs to start producing big-time moments instead of showing mere glimpses of hope.
A favorable matchup against Cleveland’s group of overmatched tackles could be what he needs to start making a genuine impact. They haven’t decided on who will start at left tackle between Desmond Harrison and Greg Robinson. Both tackles are known for their issues against speed rushers. Chris Hubbard isn’t much better on the right side either. There is some concern about how Beasley, Irvin, and McKinley will be utilized. ESPN’s Vaughn McClure broke down their recent usage in explaining why the coaching staff feels confident about getting the most out of each player. Slightly cutting down Beasley’s snaps may be what he needs to stay fresh to exploit tiring tackles in the second half of games.
Tackling improvements will be tested
One of the biggest factors behind the defense’s recent success consists of finishing plays in the open field. After being one of the worst tackling teams in the league to start the season, they’ve made great strides in all phases of tackling. Not allowing Saquon Barkley to get into the open field disrupted the Giants’ game plan. Although they were aided by the offense’s roaring start last week, there was still plenty to be encouraged about by them shutting down Adrian Peterson. Taking out two consecutive running games featuring two exceptional running backs deserves to be praised.
The challenges aren’t stopping anytime soon. Similar to Washington, Cleveland has one of the more unique running back tandems in the league. Unlike Washington, both of them are expected to play. Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson are two of the few bright spots in Cleveland’s erratic offense.
Chubb’s burst, sharp cuts, and patience makes him more than your standard power back. Coaches are quickly recognizing his versatility as a pure all-around runner after replacing Carlos Hyde as their starting running back. What Chubb does best involves running through contact. According to ESPN’s NFL Matchup, the former Georgia Bulldog leads the league in yards per carry after first contact. He is averaging 0.6 yards more than the next-closest running back.
When the Browns need something quick out of their backfield, they can turn to one of the most dynamic receiving backs in the league. Johnson’s pass catching ability and elusiveness makes him someone that needs to be accounted for at all times. Whether it’s lining up in the slot or being used on screens, he finds a way to make defenders look silly. The Falcons must continue to stay fundamentally sound in containing one of the few dangerous aspects of Cleveland’s offense.