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Falcons vs. Cardinals: How the game will be decided

Can the Falcons play with more discipline, organization, and aggression in a must-win game?

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Arizona Cardinals v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Falcons have officially reached crisis mode. After losing two very winnable games against the Titans and Colts, they needed some type of strong response against an ultra-talented Texans team. The offense responded well in difficult circumstances. As they put together solid drives and produced explosive plays, the defense allowed double the amount in what was their worst performance under Dan Quinn.

It was a deplorable display on every level of the defense. No pressure was generated by any player outside of Grady Jarrett. The linebackers were either consistently out of position or failed to make plays in the open field. Out of all three units, the secondary easily played the worst from their countless errors and miscommunications. The temperature keeps rising on Quinn’s hot seat. Losing to a rebuilding Cardinals team may be the final straw with the Rams and Seahawks looming.

Finding a balancing act between containing and pressuring Kyler Murray

For the second straight week, Quinn’s defense will face one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league. Kyler Murray hasn’t necessarily been lighting up the league. Between overthrowing receivers to misreading coverages, there are plenty of head-scratching moments when assessing Murray’s rookie season. He is starting to look more confident in recent weeks. His mental processing, decision making, and ball placement looked much better in an impressive performance against Cincinnati. While the Bengals are clearly a dysfunctional team at the moment, the Falcons fall into the same exact category.

They looked completely lost against Deshaun Watson. The Falcons didn’t know what the better option was between playing man or zone. Quinn’s decision to run more three-man rushes, while using Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley to spy, couldn’t have gone worse. To not have two of your main edge rushers attacking one of the worst offensive lines in the league was baffling. It gave Watson ample time to stand in the pocket and exploit Atlanta’s discombobulated secondary. Trusting a back seven filled with underachieving players and liabilities proved to be costly in what was an appalling defensive performance.

Similar to Houston, Arizona’s offensive line is one of the worst units in the league. Only the Jets, Dolphins, and Titans are allowing more sacks per game than the Cardinals. Will Quinn call fewer three-man rushes and allow his edge rushers to do what they’re best known for doing? Kingsbury’s unpredictable play calling may force McKinley and Beasley into being more positionally disciplined than usual. With a bigger emphasis on designed runs, Kingsbury is starting to use Murray as a multi-dimensional weapon. According to Pro Football Focus, he gained 49 yards on designed runs against Cincinnati. Expect him to continue getting more carries to help spark the offense. Quinn must find the right balance between trying to generate more pressure with a four-man rush and play with more gap integrity against one of the more inventive offenses.

Uncertainty at cornerback will be tested

There are numerous misevaluations the Falcons’ coaching staff has made so far this season. The youth movement at cornerback appears to be one of their biggest ones. Not signing a veteran cornerback was a strange decision, considering the personnel changes across the position. Isaiah Oliver was always bound to start on the right side. In case of things going completely awry with the former second-round pick, they should have had an experienced backup option. Blidi Wreh-Wilson isn’t capable of handling a starting role. Damontae Kazee hasn’t look comfortable shifting back towards playing corner. Kendall Sheffield and Jordan Miller are rookies who don’t appear to be ready to play significant snaps. The position couldn’t be more unsettled.

It may not matter if either rookie isn’t ready. They could get pressed into action based on Trufant’s health, Oliver’s struggles, and Arizona’s personnel usage. Opposing quarterbacks have found plenty of success targeting the embattled cornerback. Oliver is allowing a 136.0 passer rating as the closest defender according to ESPN. That’s an alarming number for anyone, let alone someone who Quinn had high expectations for. Similar to Jalen Collins, Oliver’s lack of concentration and poor technique has been frequently exploited. He has made at least one massive blunder in every game this season. If Oliver isn’t getting beat in man coverage, his inability to comprehend Cover 3 responsibilities normally results in big plays being allowed.

Benching Oliver isn’t an option yet, especially with how Kingsbury runs his offense. They fully embody the concept of spreading the field and stretching defenses. According to Sharp Football Snaps, Arizona has used 10 personnel on a league-leading 172 plays this season. Kingsbury loves using four wide receivers to keep defenses off balance, while giving his biggest weapon David Johnson more space to flourish. Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk, KeeSean Johnson, and Damiere Byrd make up the majority of Arizona’s 10 personnel. They possess the explosiveness, physicality, and route-running ability to create mismatches across the board. Quinn mentioned Sheffield is ready to play more going forward. Whether he takes more snaps from Oliver or Kazee will be determined in the upcoming weeks. For now, all three young cornerbacks and Desmond Trufant — if he’s healthy enough to play after missing practice on Wednesday and Thursday with a toe injury — must show substantial improvement.

Kaleb McGary’s recovery from multiple rough games

The rookie right tackle has endured a tumultuous start to his NFL career. Before stepping onto the field, he underwent a cardiac ablation procedure, missing almost all of preseason. He managed to play in the regular season opener against Minnesota. After managing his snaps in the first two games, the coaching staff allowed him to take over the full reins at right tackle in Week 3. A strong showing against Indianapolis seems long forgotten following his previous two games.

McGary has been largely responsible for the pressure allowed in losses versus Tennessee and Houston. Whether it was being unable to prevent Cameron Wake to get around him or not combating J.J. Watt’s violent hand usage, he looked overmatched when trying to block both defensive linemen. Both players were going to give him fits. For McGary to get beat so frequently must be concerning, especially on an underperforming offensive line. He allowed one sack, two hits, and two hurries on 54 pass-blocking snaps against Houston per Pro Football Focus. While it may not be a significant amount of pressure, McGary looked sluggish and awkward coming out of his sets. It was reminiscent of watching Ryan Schraeder last season.

The matchups aren’t going to get any easier. McGary struggled against a savvy, ageless veteran and ferocious, premier pass rusher in recent weeks. Arizona has two edge rushers who fit the bill. Chandler Jones continues to showcase himself as one of the most frightening edge rushers in the league. On the other side, Terrell Suggs continues to bull rush his way into opposing quarterbacks’ laps. Both edge rushers are moved around often, which means McGary can expect to see Jones and Suggs. He will need to be prepared to cope with the contrasting styles of both edge rushers.

Avoiding play calling habits

Despite scoring more than 30 points for the first time this season, the Falcons still had their issues offensively. It wasn’t surprising to see the offensive line have their problems, considering the difficult matchup and instability on the right side. The more notable issue was Dirk Koetter’s continuous, predictable play calling. It’s become a recurring theme since his return to Atlanta. It’s been a constant criticism of Koetter over the years. Based on the first five games of the season, the critiques are valid.

Koetter called five runs on first-and-ten during the first quarter last week. Four of those runs went to Devonta Freeman, who received little to no blocking on those carries. None of those runs gained more than three yards. Most of those runs were out of 12 or 21 personnel, where they couldn’t have made their intentions clearer. As offenses are spreading their formations to create more space for their running back, the Falcons are condensing themselves. They don’t have the offensive line to overwhelm opposing fronts. They also don’t appear to have a play caller good enough to out-scheme opposing coaches.

The stubbornness of Koetter has hindered the offense. His necessity to run draws out of shotgun with Freeman remains baffling. There were concerns Koetter would move away from Atlanta’s more traditional zone-blocking scheme. That has been the case for the most part, which isn’t ideal for Freeman or Ito Smith. Instead of resting on his laurels, Koetter needs to show he can evolve with a league that continues to grow with creative play callers. Watching someone like Kingsbury operate should open the eyes of not only Koetter, but the entire coaching staff. There are numerous players currently underachieving. The lack of progressive, forward-thinking coaching hasn’t helped matters. It starts with Koetter, who needs to do more to bring the best out of playmakers like Freeman and Calvin Ridley.