The Falcons (1-6) are in the midst of a 5-game losing streak, and now get to face one of the NFC’s strongest contenders in the Seahawks (5-2). Add to this the fact that Matt Ryan is injured and unlikely to play, and you have the early makings of a very unfavorable situation for the Falcons.
Atlanta has always played Seattle close while Dan Quinn has been the coach, but this year’s team is significantly different than the last time they met. The defense may go down as one of the worst in franchise history—particularly on third down—and the offense has been hamstrung by offensive line issues and Dirk Koetter’s antiquated scheme.
All that being said, there are still some intriguing storylines to keep an eye on as we head into Sunday’s game. Here are the most interesting Falcons to watch in Week 8.
My gut tells me that this is likely to be Quinn’s final game as Atlanta’s head coach, no matter the outcome. Sure, if Quinn pulls off some sort of miraculous blowout of the Seahawks, then I wouldn’t be shocked if he got more time. But in truth, this is far more likely to be a blowout in the other direction. The Seahawks are one of the NFC’s strongest contenders and are coming off a tough loss to another contender in the Ravens. I expect them to show up angry and well-prepared. Outside of the Eagles game, we haven’t seen the Falcons look like that in seven other games.
All of that falls on Quinn. It’s year 5, and by now he should have all the pieces he needs to make his defense work. Instead, it’s likely to go down as one of the worst defenses in franchise history. There’s a pretty strong indication that factions of the locker room have turned against him. As nice of a guy as Quinn is, he’s led this talented team into oblivion. I’m interested to see what his defense does this week, because it’s likely his last time coaching it.
On top of all the defensive issues, it appears that Matt Ryan is unlikely to play this week after failing to practice on Wednesday and Thursday. It’s still technically possible that he finds his way onto the field, but there’s no reason to risk aggravating his injury in a lost season. Instead, we’ll get to see Matt Schaub start his first real NFL game for the Falcons in all the years he’s been the backup QB.
Schaub has a reasonably difficult test against an average Seahawks defense. The biggest weaknesses of the Falcons offense have been pass protection and rushing, which are not Seattle’s strong points. Can Schaub keep this offense afloat with the plethora of weapons around him? If the offensive line holds up, possibly. I’m interested to see how he looks with a full week of reps with the starters.
The pass rush
I’ve been writing about this unit for several weeks now, and I’m going to keep highlighting them until somebody gets a sack. You might have heard this already, but the Falcons haven’t notched a sack in over a month. They’re the NFL’s worst pass rush with only 5 sacks on the entire season, all generated in Weeks 1-3. This is largely the same defense that managed 38 sacks in 2018 with injuries everywhere and arguably less defensive line talent.
I don’t know how you fall off a cliff in production like that, but it’s basically the same story as the rest of the defense. We’re seeing a very passive scheme from the front-7 and the secondary, and it shows in the statistics. The question is: can Quinn make the necessary adjustments to fix it? Can we see more aggression, more blitzing, more press coverage? The answers thus far have been no, but perhaps things will change this week with Quinn’s job on the line.
With Ito Smith unfortunately suffering another concussion—his second in 4 weeks—he’s almost certainly out for Sunday’s game. That means we’re likely to see Brian Hill active this week after spending most of the season on the bench. Devonta Freeman has largely had a mediocre season—though I think a lot of the blame rests with Dirk Koetter’s awful rushing scheme and the poor play of the offensive line—and Ito Smith had only been slightly more productive on his limited touches.
Hill is a different style of runner. He’s more physical at the point of attack, but has some surprising speed in the open field as well. I’m interested to see how Hill is incorporated (or if he’s incorporated) into the offense on Sunday. Will Hill get more of the short-yardage touches? Will there be any opportunities in the receiving game? How does Hill hold up in pass protection? All of these questions are important for 2020, as Freeman could very well find himself a cap casualty next season.
With Mohamed Sanu departing via trade for New England, the next man up is second-year WR Russell Gage. Gage impressed us with a productive preseason where he was one of Matt Ryan’s favorite targets, and many of us thought he might be in line for a more significant role in the offense. With the plethora of weapons at the Falcons disposal and an early injury, Gage was used sparingly at best to start the season. Now that Sanu is headed elsewhere, a big chunk of the offense has opened up.
Gage is very likely to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of Sanu’s absence. We’ve heard WR coach Raheem Morris confirm that Gage will be seeing some of Sanu’s targets. While Gage isn’t quite the physical presence in the slot that Sanu was, he’s a dynamic playmaker who offers more downfield ability. Gage also has some skill as a gadget player on jet sweeps and screens. It’ll be interesting to see how big of a role he has against Seattle.
Who are some players you’ll be watching closely when the Falcons take on the Seahawks on Sunday?