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Intriguing Falcons to watch against the Cardinals

Atlanta (1-4) heads into Week 6 facing a must-win game against a similarly desperate Cardinals (1-3-1) team on the road. Here are some of the most interesting Falcons to watch on Sunday.

NFL: DEC 16 Cardinals at Falcons

We’ve reached Week 6, and our worst nightmares have come to fruition. The Falcons are sitting at 1-4 and are at the precipice of being virtually eliminated from playoff contention before the bye. That’s just sad, no matter how you slice it.

Atlanta will get an opportunity to start righting the ship against a team that is facing similar struggles in the Cardinals (1-3-1). Arizona hasn’t had the explosive start to the season they were hoping for after bringing in college offensive mastermind Kliff Kingsbury, and the defense has been a big issue as well. They’ve got a young roster that features some pieces, but largely lacks top-end talent outside of a few names.

Here are some interesting Falcons to keep an eye on as Atlanta takes on Arizona during Week 6.

Dan Quinn

Quinn will be a fixture in this column until he proves that he can right the ship. His defensive scheme was absolutely roasted by the Texans to the tune of nearly 600 yards and 53 points (6 of which did come off a pick-six, but does it really matter). Instead of adjusting to combat the weaknesses in the personnel—the secondary has been struggling mightily through the last 3 games—Quinn has seemingly done the opposite. Against Houston, we saw more 3-man pass rushes and 8-man coverage packages than in any other game this season. Predictably, that didn’t work out against a QB as talented as Deshaun Watson.

The Falcons will have an easier opponent this week in QB Kyler Murray, who has plenty of potential but has yet to really put it all together. Quinn must deploy a more aggressive defensive scheme to take advantage of a rookie signal caller with a poor offensive line. Playing max coverage against Murray will only give him time to operate and make the secondary look worse. Another loss like the 53-point drubbing the Falcons took in Week 5 could put Quinn out of job.

Dirk Koetter

Much like Quinn, Koetter remains a significant issue for this Falcons team due to his schematic weaknesses. Unlike Quinn, however, Koetter did appear to take some steps in the right direction against Houston. We saw more 11 personnel packages, more usage of Julio, Ridley, and Sanu, and more rushing attempts out of that package. Ridley had his best game since Week 2 as a result, and the offense had their highest scoring output of the season.

Koetter’s biggest weakness remains the running game, and the Falcons’ rushing attack has completely stalled out under his leadership. We need to see more of the Shanahan zone concepts, more play-action, and more unpredictable playcalling. No, that doesn’t mean running a wildcat play with Sanu on 2nd-and-16. Koetter isn’t the biggest issue on this team, but his lack of effective personnel usage has held the offense back all season.

Devonta Freeman and Ito Smith

Speaking of the running game, it’s hard to watch Devonta Freeman have little to no success on his carries. Some of that is certainly due to the abysmal run blocking—the loss of Chris Lindstrom and Jamon Brown at RG has torpedoed what was already a mediocre run blocking unit—but Freeman seems to be a step slower than we’re used to seeing. Meanwhile, Ito Smith has continued to be more productive on his carries, but he isn’t seeing very many.

It might be time to give more of the rushing load to Ito Smith, who seems to be finding more success behind the poor blocking than Freeman. Freeman is still quite valuable in the passing game—he’s been one of Ryan’s more reliable targets, and has ripped off some pretty good plays in space. A more effective deployment of these two weapons could help the Falcons offense remain consistent against a pretty poor defense in Arizona.

The secondary

There’s no sugarcoating it: the play of the secondary has fallen far short of expectations. I personally place a lot of the blame for that squarely on Dan Quinn, but that doesn’t mean the players are blameless. Isaiah Oliver—despite being deployed very poorly and constantly drawing bad matchups—has been a disaster this season, and it appears his confidence is nearly shot. He needs to be given more opportunities in man and press-man coverage so that he can use his length to disrupt plays.

Desmond Trufant and Ricardo Allen have largely been fine, but when the coverage scheme is breaking down everyone looks bad. Strong safety is a total question mark with the recently-acquired Johnathan Cyprien already on IR and Kemal Ishmael looking lost in coverage. It’s time to give Sharrod Neasman or practice squad safety Chris Cooper some opportunities to prove themselves. Neasman, in particular, has been a solid starter when called upon—but it seems like the coaching staff loathes playing him. That could be a decision that eventually gets them all fired.

Jamon Brown

It’ll be worth monitoring as we get closer to game time, but it appears Jamon Brown is close to clearing the concussion protocol after logging a full practice on Wednesday. His return to the lineup should help the run blocking tremendously, as he’s a big upgrade over Wes Schweitzer in that area. Brown hasn’t been as reliable in pass protection, but he’ll have a pretty easy matchup this week against a Cardinals defense that has been about league-average in generating pressure.

How well Jamon Brown looks in his return to action could be a major factor for a Falcons team that is in desperate need of a spark. It’s also worth monitoring his long-term play, as Brown’s contract makes his future in Atlanta a lot more certain than someone like James Carpenter. We’ll see if Brown can provide a meaningful upgrade over Schweitzer on Sunday.

What are your thoughts on the Week 6 matchup between the Falcons and Cardinals? Who are some players and coaches you’ll be watching closely on Sunday?