The end of an era might be near. The Falcons are off to their worst start since Bobby Petrino was head coach in 2007. While Dan Quinn isn’t likely to leave a phony letter in every player’s locker and show up on television doing some ridiculous dance for a college program, it does seem imminent that he will lose his job, especially after the Falcons looked lifeless for most of the game against the Rams last week. It was the second consecutive home game where they were soundly outplayed and outcoached. Facing a team as well-coached and well-drilled as Seattle isn’t ideal given the circumstances.
Trading Mohamed Sanu was a clear indication that the Falcons are looking towards 2020. They knew it would have practically impossible to keep the fan favorite around next season. Nevertheless, the charismatic receiver will be sorely missed in a locker room of not many leaders. He will also be missed on the field, especially with the defense struggling to hold offenses under 34 points. There isn’t much to be optimistic about it in Atlanta. Finding compelling significant parts to the game is the ultimate goal when assessing how the game will be decided.
Quinn’s potential final stand
It’s impossible to preview this game without focusing on the embattled head coach. There’s no denying Quinn’s hot seat is currently burning. Currently on a five-game losing streak with multiple embarrassing defeats, a mid-season change seems to be on the horizon. Quinn’s Cover 3 based scheme has been figured out across the league. Not being able to adapt and make schematic adjustments continues to leave a below-average defense disorganized. To make matters worse, the players Quinn trusted to deliver have underachieved. Vic Beasley, Takkarist McKinley, De’Vondre Campbell, and Isaiah Oliver are the notable players who have struggled this season. All four players were expected to produce in prominent roles. None of them have come close to reaching expectations.
The bye week is approaching for the Falcons. That gives them time to strongly consider making a change. The Falcons facing the team that helped propel Quinn into becoming a head coach is a storyline in itself. Quinn’s ties to Seattle are well-documented. He was the defensive coordinator during The Legion of Boom’s glory years in 2013 and 2014. Two seasons later, Quinn’s defense rattled Russell Wilson on their way to the Super Bowl. They also beat Seattle the following season in what proved to be a crucial win to make the playoffs. His past success against Seattle is impressive, especially when you consider how Seattle has established themselves as one of few consistently good teams in the league. It won’t likely make much of a difference in this lopsided matchup.
Matt Ryan’s status is currently unknown. Grady Jarrett and Desmond Trufant missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday. The possibility of starting Matt Schaub, along with missing two cornerstones of the defense, against a likely playoff team is frightening. Facing Russell Wilson is another terrifying element to this matchup. The current MVP favorite will be on a mission following last week’s subpar showing against Baltimore.
That’s concerning for a defense who hasn’t produced a sack or interception since Week 3. It’s also problematic for the worst third down defense in the league. Wilson’s passer rating is 112.9 according to NFL Matchup on ESPN. His ability to make out of structure plays makes him nearly impossible to contain. Unless Quinn’s familiarity with him makes a difference, it’s difficult to see how the Falcons could prevent him from putting on a spectacular performance. They also need to be wary of the threat of what he can do with his feet.
Coping with Seattle’s persistent ground game
Besides the Ravens, there is no team more committed to running the ball than Seattle. It has always been Brian Schottenheimer’s philosophy. For better or worse, his outdated approach continues to translate into success. While Wilson does get hindered at times as a passer, he is still extremely dangerous as a runner. Teams are constantly caught off balance when they run read option. Whether Wilson holds onto the ball and takes off or Chris Carson gets the carry, Seattle keeps defenses guessing on a consistent basis. It starts from how much they run out of shotgun. Per NFL Matchup on ESPN, no team has attempted more shotgun runs than Seattle. They are fully dedicated to utilizing their two biggest playmakers in a multitude of ways.
Carson is developing into one of the most underrated players in the league. It’s remarkable that he doesn’t receive more attention for what he does as a runner. There aren’t many running backs who run more violently than him. Between lowering his shoulder and dropping defensive backs to the ground to stiff arming linebackers into an oblivion, Carson picks up yards after contact consistently. The dynamic back isn’t reliant on his power either. His ability to evade and hurdle defenders makes him a nightmare to tackle in the open field. Considering how much the Falcons have struggled bringing down skill position players this season, Carson is the type of player who can run all over them.
Seattle does possess one of the bigger offensive lines in the league. A left side of Duane Brown and Mike Iupati is imposing for most fronts. With the Falcons’ front being undersized and undisciplined, they could be in for a long day against both veterans. Justin Britt is also one of the top centers in the league. After having one of the worst offensive lines in the league for years, Seattle is slowly building a fairly capable one. They can overwhelm smaller, poorly positioned front sevens. Both issues apply to Quinn’s discombobulated defense. If they can’t hold up against the run, Seattle will dictate the pace of the game with their commitment to running the ball.
Engaging Russell Gage
One of the biggest positives about trading Sanu is the opportunity for younger players to get extended looks. The first player to be featured often should be Gage. Most considered the promising prospect to be a gadget player coming out of LSU. Based on limited reps, the Falcons have someone who can be a legitimate receiver. Gage possesses strong hands, blistering speed, and knack for making difficult catches. Look no further than him extending and holding on after taking a crushing hit from Eric Weddle. Despite barley seeing the field last season, there was a strong push to see him receive more chances. Gage should have that opportunity now.
It will be interesting to see how Koetter integrates him into the offense. Someone will need to replace Sanu in the slot. Sanu lined up 84.4% of the time in the slot per Rotoworld. While Julio Jones is expected to receive more reps in the slot, Gage should be utilized there often. His explosiveness and change-of-direction ability could create fits for opposing slot corners. There are moments when Gage creates separation effortlessly at the top of his route. Combine his quickness with a strong willingness to make catches across the middle, and the Falcons could have a potential playmaker for the future.
What will also be fascinating is how much they try to creative with him. Gage excelled at running jet sweeps, reverses, and other creative play designs at LSU. Although Koetter’s future is in doubt, the pressure to be more unpredictable and imaginative is clearly on. The Falcons don’t have much wide receiver depth behind Jones and Calvin Ridley. Justin Hardy is a solid role player for what he offers as a possession receiver and blocker. There is also a chance Koetter may use more two tight end sets to mitigate the loss of Sanu. There still should be plenty of opportunities for Gage to find his niche in the offense. Focusing on the future must be the priority going forward for the Falcons. Gage deserves the opportunity to be featured in their two-month assessment period.