The pressure continues to ratchet up in Atlanta. With another week of devastating injury news and questions about personnel, Dan Quinn will need to steady the ship. Losing two out of three consecutive home games would leave the Falcons facing an even bigger uphill battle.
To nobody’s surprise, they have struggled to cope defensively without four starters. That total isn’t going to decrease heading into the final game of their home stretch. Facing a dangerous Cincinnati Bengals team will be a suitable test in seeing where they stand at this point.
Quinn is known for talking about his team’s resiliency. Following a demoralizing overtime defeat against their biggest rivals last week, they will need every ounce of resilience to avoid going 1-3. This is the Falcons’ worst start under Quinn. It’s a harsh reality for them, as they could very well be sitting 3-0. Starting the season against three playoff teams was always going to be difficult. Although Cincinnati is far from a pushover, this is a game where the Falcons need to prove they’re still a playoff-caliber team.
Adjusting to life without Ricardo Allen
After losing Keanu Neal for the season, the Falcons face a similar cruel situation two weeks later. They lost another valuable piece to their once-ascending defense. Ricardon Allen played a massive role in organizing the defense and covering acres of space downfield.
There once was major doubt about his ability to play in the “Earl Thomas role” in Quinn’s defense. Although he isn’t the playmaker that Thomas is (nobody is), Allen is a highly-intelligent player, who is rarely caught out of position. His surefire tackling gives Quinn security on the back-end. If the front seven gets overwhelmed or loses their gap integrity, Allen can always be depended on to stop the opposing running back from fully taking off.
It’s one thing to lose a key starter. It’s another thing to lose a true leader. Without Allen, the defense looked completely disorganized during the Saints’ game winning drive. How Damontae Kazee handles more responsibility will be vital to how the defense holds up going forward. The versatile safety bounced back nicely against New Orleans following the debacle against Carolina. It appears that Quinn found another consistent tackler, as Kazee was the only defensive back to not miss a tackle last week. There is plenty to be excited about when assessing his skillset.
Pairing him alongside Jordan Richards is the real concern. The former second round pick had another poor performance. Between missing multiple tackles and struggling in coverage, there is no evidence to suggest Richards is ready to play a full-time role. He will need to elevate his game, along with the entire secondary.
A response from an underachieving secondary
One of the most alarming statistics from Sunday’s game was how the secondary failed to make any real positive impact. On Drew Brees’ 49 pass attempts, the Falcons only produced one pass breakup. It came from Brian Poole on a deep cross intended for Benjamin Watson during overtime. To not record a single pass breakup in four quarters of action is unacceptable. While the lack of a pass rush certainly didn’t help matters, a highly-regarded secondary should be much more active against a high-octane offense. They shouldn’t be missing numerous tackles either.
Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, and Brian Poole were all responsible for failing to make plays in space. According to Marquand Manuel, the defense missed a whopping 15 tackles against New Orleans. They can’t afford another repeat performance against a well-balanced Bengals’ offense. A.J. Green can make any cornerback look silly with his physicality and slick footwork. The emergence of Tyler Boyd will need to be accounted for as well. Per NFL Matchup on ESPN, Boyd is one of the most productive receivers from the slot this season. That’s a worrying sign for Poole, who struggled mightily against the Saints. After being targeted by Brees, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Andy Dalton repeatedly test him.
Giovani Bernard’s elusiveness can pose plenty of problems. Both safeties must be prepared to quickly close him down and prevent big gains off quick completions from transpiring. Dalton won’t hesitate to take what the opposing defense gives him. By playing tighter coverage and consistently wrapping up, it will force the inconsistent quarterback into making more difficult decisions. That is where the possibility of creating turnovers greatly increases.
Offensive line faces stern challenge
Following years of having the same personnel, Cincinnati has managed to successfully bolster their defensive line. Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap are still anchoring the unit. For all the disappointing play across their defense, both franchise mainstays have been playing at a high level for years. Drafting Carl Lawson and Andrew Billings were the type of additions that they desperately needed. The defensive line needed an injection of youth, power, and speed. Although the Bengals haven’t produced many sacks this year, the talent is there to generate consistent pressure.
This is a big test for the Falcons going into a two-game stretch against AFC North opposition. They showed signs of unsteadiness against an average Saints’ front four. Wes Schweitzer’s encouraging showing against Carolina failed to transfer over. If he wasn’t struggling in pass protection, the former sixth pick was either overpowered in the running game or flagged for multiple holding penalties. Schweitzer allows opposing interior tackles to get immediate leverage on him far too often. They can’t afford to leave him isolated against Atkins on passing downs.
Ryan Schraeder’s play will need to be monitored closely as well. The normally stout right tackle has looked clumsy in pass protection at times this year. Cameron Jordan is known for getting the better of him, yet he wasn’t the only edge rusher to knock Schraeder off balance on several occasions this season. Dunlap will give him all he can handle on every snap. If Schweitzer and Schraeder stumble again, Cincinnati’s two most dangerous pass rushers can cause serious havoc.
Matt Ryan staying on course
When looking back on the biggest week one overreactions, the premature talk of Matt Ryan’s demise will forever be remembered. It was remarkable to see how many analysts were starting to seriously question his ability, even if there is no denying it was one of his worst performances ever. The former MVP has responded by scoring nine touchdowns (seven passing, two rushing) in the last two games. As injuries continue to mount, Ryan keeps elevating his play in taking command of the offense.
The obvious question is whether he can maintain this level of play. The Falcons desperately need him in order to stay competitive this season. Expectations have drastically changed over the past three weeks. Averaging between 24 to 28 points per game was required for an offense filled with premium talent to regain their place on top of the NFC. They will need to score that much to simply put themselves in a position to compete for a playoff spot.
With Steve Sarkisian starting to find his groove as a play-caller and Calvin Ridley’s astonishing rise into becoming a legitimate game-breaker, the offense is well-equipped to regain their status as one of the most prolific units in the league. It will be on Ryan (along with an inconsistent offensive line) to keep things moving in the right direction.