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Cardinals vs. Falcons: How the game will be won or lost

Can the Falcons capitalize on what appears to be a favorable matchup?

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NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

In a matchup between two of the bottom three teams in the NFC, most would consider this game to be rather meaningless. That isn’t the case for the home team.

Losing four out of their last five games by double digits leaves the Falcons in complete shambles. The lack of intensity is evident, while self-inflicted miscues and penalties continue to transpire every week. It’s gotten to the point where the plethora of injuries are no longer a reasonable defense for their recent performances.

Instead of testing defenses in the fourth quarter, Matt Ryan is becoming accustomed to compiling garbage time stats. That’s how badly the Falcons have been outplayed over the past month. With the coaching staff under major scrutiny, this isn’t your typical December game between two teams currently picking in the top five of the 2019 draft. Dan Quinn desperately needs a win to restore some faith within the organization. Facing a rebuilding Arizona team gives Quinn the best opportunity he can ask for at this stage of the season.

Youth Movement

When an underachieving team eventually falls out of the playoff race, the coaching staff is pressed into playing younger players in order for them to gain valuable experience and prove themselves as potential long-term starters. That also means benching aging players, who played a role in the team’s downfall. Asante Samuel and Thomas DeCoud were benched during the final month of the 2013 season. Mike Smith’s decision gave Robert Alford and Kemal Ishmael the chance to find their niche in the league. Both ended up becoming long-term assets on the roster. Five years later, Quinn finds himself in a similar position.

He took the first step by inserting Ty Sambrailo into the starting lineup. As startling as it was to see Ryan Schraeder benched, his poor play justified Quinn’s decision. Schraeder was long regarded as a top-five right tackle in the league. For him to regress so dramatically, particularly as a pass blocker, in one season caught everyone off guard.

Considering the Falcons traded a fifth-round pick for Sambrailo last season, it’s understandable why the coaching staff wants to see what he can offer on a decimated offensive line. His track record suggests he won’t be a long-term solution, as Denver became fed up with his inability to block speed rushers. That was on full display during Vic Beasley’s breakout party. Arizona’s group of edge rushers should provide a stern test for Sambrailo.

The changes the Falcons made defensively will be more consequential for the long haul. Isaiah Oliver played 19 snaps in last week’s game. The promising rookie showed no fear in challenging Davante Adams at the line of scrimmage. Although he allowed multiple catches, Oliver made Adams work for them more than Robert Alford. There were times Oliver played in Alford’s position, as the veteran corner watched from the sidelines. Could this be the start of something?

Similar to Schraeder, Alford’s staggering decline was unexpected following the best season of his career. Replacing a major liability with a second-round rookie seems like a logical move. The same applies to Deadrin Senat receiving more playing time than Terrell McClain, who has largely underwhelmed all season. Oliver and Senat are capable of developing into above-average starters. With three games remaining, the process of molding them into starters should begin now.

Julio Jones versus Patrick Peterson

With offensive systems becoming more complex and cornerbacks not shadowing number one receivers as much as they used to, we don’t get to witness two superstars collide often. Coaches are constantly looking to move their top wide receiver around to create mismatches across different formations. On the defensive side of the ball, coaches are hesitant to move their top cornerback around to chase the opposing top receiver in the possibility of making them uncomfortable. It’s far more difficult for cornerbacks to switch sides and adapt to different angles compared to wide receivers moving into various areas and running different routes.

These changes slightly downgrade one of the best wide receiver-cornerback matchups you can ask for. The history between Jones and Peterson is well-documented. They first squared off back in their SEC days.

After Jones was hampered by injuries in 2012 and 2013, the rivalry was truly reignited in 2014. Peterson called him out prior to the game. That ended badly for the three-time All-Pro, as Jones roasted him for 189 yards on 10 catches and one memorable touchdown down the sideline. Peterson didn’t make any excuses about his poor performance, which is commendable considering he wasn’t playing at his natural weight, due to being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes that season.

Peterson played much better against Jones in 2016, despite the extraordinary wide receiver not being greatly needed in Atlanta’s dominant win. He will be needed in what should be a relatively close game.

Based on how much Steve Sarkisian moves him around, it’ll be fascinating to see how much Steve Wilks allows Peterson to shadow Jones. Wilks prefers to play a zone-heavy scheme dating back to his days with Ron Rivera in Carolina. The schematic change hasn’t affected Peterson, who can essentially do it all on the outside.

He hasn’t allowed more than 80 receiving yards in his last 67 games per Pro Football Focus. The last receiver to gain more than 80 yards was Jones from that infamous game. Peterson’s remarkable consistency is one of the biggest reasons why his name gets mentioned in the best cornerback conversation. Only the best players are capable of getting the better of Peterson. Will Jones do it again? His massive frame, sheer explosiveness, and tremendous route-running ability gives him a great chance to put Peterson on his highlight reel once again.

Blitzing Intentions

One of the more common complaints about the Falcons’ defense consists of how vanilla they are schematically. It’s primarily a Cover 3-based scheme designed to limit big plays and rely on a four-man rush to generate pressure. By allowing the fifth-most passing touchdowns and producing the sixth-fewest sacks in the league, their objectives haven’t been met this season.

Quarterbacks are standing in the pocket with plenty of time and throwing all over Atlanta’s overmatched back seven. In an attempt to present different looks, Quinn will occasionally drop eight into coverage on third down. That hasn’t exactly translated to great success. Drew Brees, Dak Prescott, and Aaron Rodgers found openings downfield without much resistance.

The coaching staff decided to go with a more aggressive approach against Green Bay. Calling more blitzes and twists created better opportunities to fluster Aaron Rodgers. Out of the Falcons’ four sacks, two of them came off blitzes. Both sacks came on third down with Desmond Trufant and De’Vondre Campbell reaping the rewards.

Trufant charged in from the front side to bring down Rodgers. On the next drive, Campbell ran a twist with Deion Jones up the middle. The classic double A-Gap blitz forced Rodgers to take another sack. This kind of creativity has been missing all season. It makes you wonder why they haven’t utilized these types of blitzes more often to compensate for an ineffective four-man rush.

As effective as their strategy was, it endured a major setback. Using Brian Poole on a corner blitz forced Sharrod Neasman to cover Randall Cobb in the slot. Rodgers quickly identified the mismatch and hit Cobb in stride on an out-and-up for a touchdown.

They’ll need to moderate how often they want to blitz with their corners, especially with Josh Rosen possessing a quick release and excellent awareness. It’s not the only thing the Falcons must account for with Larry Fitzgerald still playing at a high level. There are still ways Quinn and Marquand Manuel can design effective blitzes.

Forcing Rosen to leave the pocket and play on the move is something that should be prioritized. According to ESPN’s NFL Matchup, Rosen’s passer rating outside of the pocket is 52.8, which ranks fourth-worst in the league. Making the rookie quarterback throw off-balance outside of the pocket could go a long way in securing a much-needed victory.

Jake Matthews’ toughest test

On a crumbling offensive line filled with underperforming players and career backups, Matthews has managed to shine by producing his finest season yet. The under-appreciated left tackle signed a contract extension last July. It wasn’t met with a rousing approval based on his previous inconsistent play. Although Matthews solidified himself as a consistent player, he hasn’t quite lived up to his sixth overall pick status.

His issues against power rushers translated into committing more holding penalties. Not faring particularly well against top competition affected his reputation as well. In a league where your offense must be solidified at both tackle positions to flourish, Matthews had done enough to justify getting a major contract extension. He has turned “doing enough” into becoming completely worth the premium price. From his improvement in pass protection to excelling out in space on outside runs, the former first round pick is playing at a high level. It’s not gone unnoticed either. Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner ranked him 14th on PFF’s top 25 offensive lineman of the season list.

The next step in Matthews’ progression will be how he performs against elite edge rushers. In a game without many compelling storylines or matchups, his battle with Chandler Jones should be fascinating.

The explosive pass rusher leads the Cardinals with 12 sacks to go along with 17 quarterback hits. For all of the instability and lackluster play in Arizona, Jones hasn’t been affected in the slightest. His wicked first step and long arms continue to give left tackles nightmares.

Unlike most productive pass rushers, Jones doesn’t shift across the line. He stays primarily on the right to create more turnovers. It’s paid off by forcing three fumbles and recovering one this season. Given the current state of the Falcons’ offensive line, they need Matthews to be at his best against one of the league’s most terrifying edge rushers.

And given the current state of this season, the rest of the team needs to be at their best, too.