The odds are quickly becoming stacked against the Falcons. Following another slow start leading to a one-sided loss, they find themselves in a major predicament. Trying to avoid going 1-4 against one of the most explosive offenses in the league is far from ideal. The Texans possess a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball. With one of the most electrifying quarterbacks in the league leading the charge, they present numerous problems for a stumbling Falcons’ defense.
There isn’t much reason for optimism in Atlanta at the moment. For all their roster talent, their flaws are becoming more noticeable and exploitable after each game. The offensive line hasn’t shown much improvement from last season’s debacle. The same can be said about the defensive line, particularly when it comes to generating pressure. Combine personnel issues with a lack of preparation and discipline, and Dan Quinn’s team is in a rough state. Will they step up for what can be perceived as a must-win game?
Capitalizing on a favorable matchup
It doesn’t take much to recognize Houston’s biggest weakness. Bill O’Brien’s questionable play calling has limited their high-flying offense to an extent, yet their offensive line is easily the biggest reason behind their unit not being more productive. A team with the talent level of Houston should be one of the highest-scoring teams in the league.
Due to an offensive line filled with liabilities, Deshaun Watson hasn’t been able to dominate like he should be with his capabilities. Only Arizona and Cincinnati are allowing more sacks per game than Houston. Although Watson tends to hold the ball for too long, it’s evident that Houston’s offensive line can get overwhelmed against most defensive fronts.
This is a matchup for the defensive line to generate a heavy dosage of pressure. They’ve been largely underwhelming for the past two weeks, as Jacoby Brissett and Marcus Mariota were barely touched when standing in the pocket. With Quinn integrating more 3-4 and 5-2 fronts to stop the run, it does hinder their ability to get after the quarterback.
Takkarist McKinley, Adrian Clayborn, and Vic Beasley are standing up as edge defenders rather than lining up in a traditional three-point stance. Finding the right balance between trying to stop the run and generate pressure with a four-man rush will be vital for their chances of rebounding after two bad defeats.
There will be opportunities to rattle Watson. While the phenomenal quarterback is as resilient as it gets, he can become erratic with his ball placement. That was evident against Carolina, as Watson overthrew his intended targets on multiple occasions downfield. A few hits could disrupt Watson’s rhythm and timing with his receivers. How they create pressure on third down will be essential, given how efficient Houston is on third down.
They currently ranked ninth best in third down conversion rate per NFL Matchup on ESPN. With their extraordinary skill position players and Watson’s ability to escape pressure, it’s not surprising to see them near the top of the league in that category. It will be on the front four to generate pressure, along with Quinn possibly using Deion Jones or Beasley to shadow Watson, in order to get off the field on third down.
Cornerback group under fire
One of the more under-the-radar questions about the Falcons going into the season concerned the personnel turnover at cornerback. Despite Robert Alford and Brian Poole struggling mightily in 2018, there was no telling if the players replacing them would be upgrades. Isaiah Oliver was highly regarded coming out of college. After developing into a ball hawking free safety last season, the coaching staff decided to shift Damontae Kazee back into playing corner. Both players were expected to replace Alford and Poole. They have failed to make a positive impact so far.
Oliver continues to make critical mistakes. Whether it’s biting on a play action fake and letting Zach Pascal get behind him in the fourth quarter against Indianapolis or allowing Corey Davis to get past him with ease, the second-year corner keeps giving up big plays. His errors come from a lack of concentration and lackluster technique.
While Oliver has shown promise, a starter can’t afford to continue making game-changing mistakes. The Falcons don’t have any suitable replacements either. Kazee hasn’t looked comfortable covering slot receivers. With Kendall Sheffield still relatively raw, this is a group that needs to progress quickly.
Facing one of the deepest wide receiver groups in the league will give them all they could handle. DeAndre Hopkins is a matchup nightmare for any cornerback. There aren’t many vertical threats like Will Fuller, and pairing him with Kenny Stills has all the makings of causing chaos. The return of Keke Coutee gives Watson a crafty possession receiver to work with. All four wide receivers are capable of producing big plays.
How Quinn rotates between man and zone coverage looks will be fascinating after the last few weeks. Regardless of how often he depends on his Cover 3 scheme, he will need his cornerbacks to elevate their respective games. That includes Desmond Trufant, who is coming off his worst showing of the season.
Injuries and poor performances are mounting across the offensive line
While it’s impossible to control injuries, the Falcons’ offensive line has been a major letdown so far. That’s a major disappointment for the entire organization, considering how much they invested in upgrading the biggest problem area on the roster.
Losing Kaleb McGary for most of the preseason and Chris Lindstrom for two months in Week 2 clearly affected them. It forced Jamon Brown and Ty Sambrailo into prominent roles. That hasn’t led to much success with Brown being heavily penalized and inconsistent in pass protection. Sambrailo’s role has mostly evaporated with McGary being fit to handle full-time starter duties. The mammoth right guard isn’t the only offensive lineman under-performing.
Although McGary managed to be ready in time for opening day, he hasn’t been as good as advertised. His slow feet and hands have been exploited by edge rushers such as Cameron Wake. The same issues are evident when watching James Carpenter. The veteran left guard was abysmal against Tennessee. Between Jurrell Casey wrecking him in the running game to not picking up twists in pass protection, he hasn’t been the upgrade at left guard the coaching staff was hoping for. With Alex Mack starting to decline and Jake Matthews not building on his tremendous 2018 season, there aren’t many bright spots on what was supposed to be a much-improved unit.
Houston’s front four is filled with exceptional talent. J.J. Watt still commands double teams more than almost any defensive lineman in the league. His power and versatility to excel in multiple areas creates more one on one opportunities for edge rushers like Whitney Mercilus. The perennially underappreciated pass rusher already has five sacks and four forced fumbles this season. His ability to convert speed into power could pose major problems for Matthews. It doesn’t end there with the Texans, as D.J. Reader is developing into a legitimate interior force. Pro Football Focus named him as one of the defensive linemen on their first quarter All-Pro team.
Facing three game-wrecking defensive linemen is concerning for any offensive line. For an offensive line as fragmented as the Falcons currently are, it could result in another long painful day for Matt Ryan.
The Calvin Ridley conundrum
In the previous two games, Ridley has caught a combined four passes for 38 yards on seven targets. This was coming off Ridley’s tremendous performance against Philadelphia, where he produced eight receptions on ten targets for 105 yards and one touchdown. Everyone expected Ridley to continue prospering after stepping up in a big spot for the Falcons in Week 2. To see him virtually become a non-factor is not only frustrating for him, but it’s also impeding Ryan’s ability to throw the ball downfield.
Some questioned if Ridley’s hip injury has played a role in his low production. That doesn’t appear to be case with Ridley still playing full-time starter snaps. Not connecting with Ryan and Koetter’s overall usage of him are the biggest issues currently surrounding the rising star receiver.
Indianapolis’ heavy zone defense had a major impact in Ridley being anonymous. That defense’s ability to keep plays in front of them gave Austin Hooper and Mohamed Sanu more opportunities to make plays across the middle of the field. Tennessee was supposed to be the matchup for Ridley to get back on track. He was expected to be isolated against Malcolm Butler and Adoree Jackson on the outside.
With his route-running ability and quick release off the line of scrimmage, Ridley should have found success against both cornerbacks. That didn’t come to fruition for multiple reasons. While he struggled to create separation against Jackson, Ryan failed to connect with him when the opportunity was there. Ridley got a step on Jackson running a deep post. Due to Ryan being clearly rattled from the pressure he faced, he abandoned a clean pocket and missed him downfield.
There needs to be more emphasis on featuring Ridley in the game plan. Utilizing a talent like him as a secondary weapon is nonsensical. Whether it’s running more rub route concepts or using him in bunch formations alongside Sanu and Julio Jones, Koetter must find ways to create more space for Ridley. There are moments when Ridley can struggle against press corners who don’t shy away from being physical at the line of scrimmage. It’s not to the extent of where it’s a clear deficiency in Ridley’s game. Koetter can’t be solely dependent on Ridley winning on the outside. A more proactive approach using him in a multitude of ways can help the offense get back to their explosive ways.