At 1-3 and dead last in the NFC South, the Falcons now have a fanbase openly wondering if Dan Quinn is going to even make it to the end of the season, while they also talk about who they would take with their top-5 draft pick. Things have gone horribly, horribly wrong for this team, and it’s not going to get much easier in Houston this weekend. Let’s take a look at how Atlanta’s struggling defense matches up with the Texans and Deshaun Watson.
Note: Assessments partially based on PFF scores.
In the trenches
If there’s a bright spot on this Falcons defense, it’s in the interior of the defensive line. They’ve been stout against the run (up the middle at least) and have been generating pressure on opposing QBs far more than in 2018. Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison anchor the middle, with Jarrett being a consistent nuisance to opposing quarterbacks. Adrian Clayborn can still get after the QB as well. On the edges, Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley are both playing decent and have been generating pressure even if the sacks aren’t adding up just yet.
Houston features an offensive line that is struggling to consistently protect Deshaun Watson. As a unit, they’ve given up 18 sacks and 32 hits - second only to the Dolphins. Laremy Tunsil was an upgrade at LT for them, but he’s arguably performed thus far as just a decent player at the position. Center Nick Martin is a quality starter and the second best lineman of the unit. After those two, though, things get dicey. Rookie Max Scharping is struggling at left guard while Zach Fulton continues to build on his poor season last year at right guard. Rookie first round right tackle Tytus Howard looks like ... well, a rookie.
The Falcons have faced some pretty good offensive lines early. This is arguably the first underwhelming unit they’ve been seen this year. We may finally get a real feel for how good this Falcons defensive front could be. I like this match up for Atlanta.
The skill positions
Unfortunately for Atlanta, the Texans feature some great players outside the trenches. Deshaun Watson is quickly becoming a star in this league. Deandre Hopkins is easily one of the best receivers in the league while Will Fuller is a really solid WR2 on the other side. Carlos Hyde is a good running back who is off to a good start this year. Duke Johnson is also averaging over 6 yards per carry in relief duty.
At tight end, Jordan Akins has had a decent start to the season, including a 73 yard, 2 touchdown game against the Chargers two weeks ago. Veteran TE Darren Fells is also seeing targets, though his best receiving years are behind him at this point. This is a good unit with a good QB. If you’re concerned about the quality on this side of the ball, you should be.
The Falcons secondary is a frustrating unit right now. Desmond Trufant has played well most of the season but was burned alive by the Titans. Isaiah Oliver was improving the first 3 weeks, then suddenly took a step back last week. Demontae Kazee is still getting used to the nickel spot as well. Ricardo Allen is clearly a leader on this defense, but he’s also struggling while Kemal Ishmael is a solid tackler but a nightmare in coverage.
At least Deion Jones is a star in the middle of the field and De’Vondre Campbell had his first really good game last week. Second year linebacker Foye Oluokun has been good, but has also been prone for the periodic awful missed tackle. This unit really looks like they could play much better, but the Titans game was a setback for nearly everybody. I have no idea what this group is really capable of anymore.
In case you couldn’t tell, this match up swings pretty solidly in the other direction. Watson is athletic enough to buy time when his OL breaks down, which is pretty often. With weapons like Deandre Hopkins, you have to give the Texans the edge here especially with how inconsistent Atlanta has been on the other side.
This match up is ultimately going to come down to whether the Falcons defensive front can consistently pressure Watson. There’s reason to believe they can, but Deshaun is capable of making something out of nothing. Atlanta has an opportunity here to bounce back from a disastrous performance against the Titans. If they can do that, they’ll have a chance. As it stands, their inconsistency makes this too close to call.