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Rams - Falcons preview: How the game will be decided

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Can the Falcons exploit a few favorable matchups and somehow pull off a miraculous upset win over the NFC Champions?

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NFL: NFC Wild Card-Atlanta Falcons at Los Angeles Rams Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

After playing four of their first six games on the road, the Falcons enter a two-game home stand. That’s one of the few positives in an otherwise disastrous season. Some would argue if playing home games are even a positive. The fan base couldn’t be more discouraged with the direction of the team. Facing two playoff teams in the Rams and Seahawks makes this upcoming home stand less encouraging. It makes you question how can they beat either team given the abundance of issues surrounding the team?

The coaching staff doesn’t seem to have answers for the schematic flaws hindering the team. Younger players aren’t elevating their game as they were expected to do this season. It has left Dan Quinn in a precarious position. If the Falcons fail to win either of their next two games, the organization may have no other choice than to fire Quinn. They need to do more than “show fight” against a rebuilding Arizona team to justify not making major mid-season moves. Beating the Rams would be the first step towards keeping the coaching staff intact until the end of the season.

The continuous struggle to generate a pass rush

In a season filled with new disappointments and lows, one thing has remained the same in Atlanta. They can’t generate pressure with a four-man rush. It’s something that has plagued them for countless seasons barring some spurts in 2016 and 2017. Quinn’s defense hasn’t produced a sack since Week 3 against Indianapolis. Facing three straight elusive quarterbacks can affect your production to an extent. That said, struggling to create pressure against Houston and Arizona is a major red flag. They couldn’t capitalize on either team having a below-average offensive line.

For the third consecutive week, the Falcons have a favorable matchup against a deteriorating Rams’ offensive line. Age appears to be catching up with Andrew Whitworth. With Rob Havenstein regressing badly, a once-strength has turned into a concerning area. The instability on the interior leaves the Rams without many strengths on what had become a formidable unit. According to Pro Football Focus, Goff gets pressured on slightly over 43% of his drop backs. That is a troubling number, especially for a quarterback that can’t escape pressure and struggles to identify coverages.

Goff is also becoming a turnover machine. In the past year, he has fumbled in every game from their dramatic win over Kansas City until now. Some reports have said his hands are too small. The other reports consist of how careless he’s been. Not being able to generate pressure has been a lingering problem for years. McKinley showed glimpses of promise yesterday. Although the final product was lacking, he did create some pressure off both sides of the edge. Beasley continues to show minimal progression in his game, as the coaching staff must be fed up to keep giving him snaps. Regardless of the coaching styles and personnel groupings, this is a great matchup for the Falcons to help somewhat salvage a lost season.

Surviving Aaron Donald

When facing a dominant defensive player, there is no point in using the term “stopping (insert player name)”. The player is simply too talented to be stopped. Using the word contain is a better way to describe what needs to be done. This is a rare case, where not even containing would be a proper way to describe the task at hand. Attempting to contain a force like Donald is practically impossible. With an underwhelming offensive line like the Falcons currently have, the only logical term to use is survive.

The Falcons somehow managed to survive Donald in their previous matchup. After producing ten pressures in the first half of their playoff game back in 2018, Donald’s influence on the game was significantly reduced. Steve Sarkisian did a terrific job of calling quicker pass plays and boot leg play action designs to negate the superstar interior tackle. Running more no-huddle and stretch runs for Devonta Freeman worked wonders as well. Can Dirk Koetter do something similar? The experienced offensive coordinator must realize that he simply can’t rely on his personnel to block Donald.

After investing almost all of their off-season towards upgrading across the offensive line, they haven’t seen enough improvement from the unit. James Carpenter has struggled mightily in pass protection. While Jamon Brown is starting to play better, there are still instances of him looking clumsy as a run blocker. To make matters worse, Alex Mack has started to decline. Expecting a group of veteran guards and an aging center to keep Donald from wreaking havoc is a recipe for disaster. Koetter will need to devise a specific game plan to wear him down. Although Donald’s sack numbers are slightly down, he has still produced six hits and 21 hurries per Pro Football Focus. It will take a collective effort to survive his wrath. Running quicker, creative plays to wear him down is the best option towards keeping Donald from taking over. That can only help give Carpenter and Brown the support they need in the most difficult trench battle of the season.

Kendall Sheffield’s emergence

The coaching staff was hoping to see one young cornerback emerge into a capable starter. Instead of their second-round draft pick from last year, their fourth-round pick from this year’s draft has shown more promise. As Isaiah Oliver continues to allow big plays and commit careless penalties, the coaching staff has started to assess their options. That was evident against Houston with Sheffield replacing Oliver near the end of the game. Due to Desmond Trufant’s toe injury, Oliver and Sheffield are both currently starting on the outside. Only Sheffield has performed like a potential long-term starter.

The former Buckeye looked impressive in his first NFL start. When Kyler Murray threw towards his direction, he failed to complete any of his pass attempts. Sheffield showed excellent awareness and positioning in man coverage. There were also moments of him evading blockers and closing down receivers on screens. Scouting reports raved about his athletic traits coming out of college. His fluidity, acceleration, and aggressiveness made him an intriguing prospect. It’s what the Falcons have been missing when drafting cornerbacks during Quinn’s tenure.

With Trufant likely to be sidelined for another week, Sheffield will play every snap once again. Facing one of the top-receiving trios in the league should provide a stern test for the rookie. Based on the individual matchups, Sheffield is best suited to cover Cooper Kupp. Oliver’s stiff movement and tendency to get grabby would be problematic against a receiver as clever as Kupp. While Damontae Kazee isn’t as stiff, he is another corner that relies more on hand fighting than movement and positioning. Sheffield appears to be their best hope in containing the star receiver. Only Michael Thomas and Amari Cooper have a higher reception rate per route run than Kupp according to ESPN’s NFL Matchup. Expect Goff to look for Kupp often in order to get out of his slump. This matchup should give the coaching staff a better look at Sheffield’s capabilities when faring against top-tier receivers.

Julio Jones vs. Jalen Ramsey

All indications are pointing to Ramsey making his Rams’ debut on Sunday. Sometimes, it takes a long-awaited trade to heal a lingering back problem. The benefits of this move lead to an enticing individual matchup. It just so happens Ramsey will be facing the best wide receiver in the NFL. Besides Xavier Rhodes, Jones hasn’t been matched up against any premier corners this season. Most of the defenses have played primarily zone against Atlanta’s group of playmakers. Not many defenses prefer to play man more than Wade Phillips’ group. That makes a phenomenal matchup on paper even more exciting.

Ramsey always plays with a chip on his shoulder. The polarizing corner never shies away from confrontation. Between jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage to challenging them across the field on vertical routes, it’s a constant battle with Ramsey. Unless you schematically devise plays away from him, there is no escaping his presence. Koetter isn’t the type of offensive coordinator that structures his game plans around avoiding players. Trusting his personnel to win individual matchups is how he normally operates. While Koetter has attempted to be more creative in recent weeks, there is still an over-dependence on his playmakers to find space or create separation.

This has all the makings of a classic matchup between two superstars. With Aqib Talib being placed on injured reserve and Marcus Peters sent to Baltimore, the Rams need Ramsey to make an immediate impact. They desperately need to bounce back from three consecutive defeats. Jones is always capable of exploding for a 200-yard plus game. Not having Ramsey on the field increases the odds greatly of Jones adding to his monster home performances. Regardless of Ramsey’s status, Jones should be heavily targeted in what could very well be a shootout. The Rams are producing three-and-outs at a rate of 32% per ESPN’s NFL Matchup. Getting Jones as involved as possible is one of the best ways to produce explosive plays and sustainable drives, while not putting additional pressure on an overmatched defense in the process.