The Falcons enter Week 2 at 0-1 with a vital divisional match-up against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. Things aren’t dire yet for the team—though the recent string of injuries certainly hasn’t helped us feel confident. Regardless of the Week 1 loss to the Eagles, Atlanta needs to step up and take care of business at home this week against the Panthers if they want to have any shot at a divisional crown.
Luckily, the Panthers are also banged up heading into this match-up. The Falcons should have the advantage on both sides of the ball, but there are still some key players that we should keep a close eye on during the game. Below are five players and/or position groups that I believe will play a huge part in the outcome of Sunday’s game.
As you’ve probably heard, the Falcons will be without the services of star LB Deion Jones until at least Week 10. In the meantime, Atlanta will be depending on their LB depth to step up and fill the void—and the first man up is sophomore LB and noted fan punching bag Duke Riley.
Riley had a shaky rookie season that was also impacted by an injury. This preseason, he paired a frightful opening performance with a few solid ones. Against the Eagles, Riley played limited snaps but had a good rep in coverage against Zach Ertz and didn’t make any notable mistakes. He’s not going to replicate Deion Jones on the field—nobody really can. We just have to hope that Riley has grown enough to assume a starting role on this team without causing the whole unit to fall off. For what it’s worth, I think Riley has shown some gradual improvement. Now is the time to take the next step.
While Duke Riley will be stepping into the hole vacated by Deion Jones, fellow sophomore player Damontae Kazee is being asked to fill the void left by Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal. Kazee didn’t get much playing time outside of special teams in 2017, but made a huge impact during the 2018 preseason—where he looked like the best player on the field throughout the first three games.
Kazee stepped in after Neal’s exit in Week 1 and looked quite competent. While he isn’t the same style of player as Neal—he won’t be as much of an asset against the run or as a coverage option against TEs—he does have his own unique talents. Kazee is a phenomenal ballhawk and a very competent player in coverage against WRs and RBs. My level of trust in Kazee is fairly high following his impressive preseason and Week 1. We’ll just have to see if the rest of the Falcons’ defense can pick up the slack in the running game.
Tevin Coleman & Ito Smith
It’s looking more and more likely that RB Devonta Freeman will miss Sunday’s game against the Panthers after being held out of practice on both Wednesday and Thursday. For many teams, losing your starting RB would be a big issue—but not for the Falcons. Atlanta has the talented, starting-caliber Tevin Coleman waiting in the wings, and we’ve already seen what he is capable of when he’s given a full workload.
Coleman lacks Freeman’s elite vision, balance, and shiftiness, but makes up for it with great long speed and superior size. He’s also developed into a deadly receiving option, and his pass blocking has improved tremendously since his rookie season. Coleman will be expected to carry the load against Carolina if Freeman can’t go, but don’t forget about rookie RB Ito Smith. Smith had an up-and-down preseason, but he should have an opportunity to play some meaningful snaps on Sunday. Hopefully that duo can do enough to help the Falcons come away with a win against a division opponent this weekend.
The Falcons’ pass rush
Atlanta’s defensive line actually generated pretty decent pressure against the Eagles—who might have the most talented offensive line in the NFL. But can they translate that performance into a dominant showing against what may be the worst OL in the league? Carolina will be missing LT Matt Kalil (IR), RT Darryl Williams (IR), and also possibly RG Trai Turner—who is currently in the concussion protocol. The Panthers were able to plug in sophomore Taylor Moton at LT, but they are quickly running out of options elsewhere.
Now is the time for the Falcons defensive line to show how dominant they can be against an inferior opponent. With Turner more than likely out, the only good player left on that offensive line is C Ryan Kalil. Vic Beasley, Takk McKinley, Grady Jarrett, and Jack Crawford need to show that they can take advantage of a completely depleted offensive line. This group is talented enough to cause serious issues for Carolina—we just need to see them put it all together on the field.
Everyone is piling on offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian for Thursday’s pitiful red zone performance—and, to an extent, it is entirely justified. However, a good deal of the blame lies squarely with QB Matt Ryan. Ryan, who is normally a top-5 QB, had arguably his worst game in several years against the Eagles. He had poor accuracy, took several sacks that he really didn’t need to, and generally made poor decisions with the football.
The good news with Matt Ryan is that, despite a poor Week 1 showing, he really is a top-5 QB. He tends to bounce back in a big way when he has these sorts of “down games”, so I’m expecting a much better game from him on Sunday. That’ll be very important, as the Falcons should consider these next two divisional games to be vitally important to their postseason hopes. The Panthers are vulnerable and reeling from their own injuries—a strong game from Ryan and the offense would go a long way towards getting the win on Sunday.
Here’s to hoping that the Falcons put together a much better performance in Week 2. Who are some players you’ll be watching closely on Sunday? Any particular match-ups that stand out? Will the Falcons’ defense take a big step back without Deion Jones and Keanu Neal, or do you have faith in Riley and Kazee to hold down the fort?