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Jaguars vs. Falcons: The most compelling story lines for Week 16

Can the Falcons continue their push to keep Dan Quinn as their leader into the season’s final weeks?

Atlanta Falcons v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Two years ago, both the Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars were among the top teams in the NFL. Dan Quinn’s team looked prime and ready for another Super Bowl push following a phenomenal 2016 season. After being considered as one of the biggest laughingstocks in the NFL, the Jaguars had constructed a historically great defense to carry them into contention. Both teams were on the cusp of playing in the Super Bowl. A few freak accidents left them wondering what could have been.

Keanu Neal’s stunning botch on a Nick Foles throw and Steve Sarkisian’s incompetence ended the Falcons’ championship aspirations. A crucial mistake by the officiating crew on a forced fumble by Myles Jack played a major role in Jacksonville’s demise against New England. Two years later, both teams are considering overhauling the core of their organization.

The Jaguars have already started the process with Tom Coughlin’s firing. Things aren’t quite the same in Atlanta, as Quinn is starting to give Arthur Blank reasons to maintain his belief in him. Wins over New Orleans and San Francisco has generated buzz about Quinn keeping his job. Could another win lead to the improbable happening?

Quinn’s status

The final two games will be pivotal for the fiery head coach. After being touted as the next coach to be fired in October and November, Quinn could potentially defy the odds. The Falcons have won four out of their last six games after an abysmal 1-7 start to the season.

The decision to allocate defensive play calling duties to Jeff Ulbrich and Raheem Morris has made a significant difference. Shifting Damontae Kazee back to free safety is working wonders for one of their most promising players. Underachieving players such as Vic Beasley and De’Vondre Campbell are playing substantially better in recent weeks. The defense’s overall improvement must be somewhat accredited to Quinn’s coaching.

What can’t be ignored is the disastrous start to the season, or how the Falcons defense was repeatedly out of position and failed to communicate before the snap, both of which were troubling signs. The inability to generate pressure, tackle consistently in the open field, and handle coverage responsibilities must fall partially on Quinn. The same applies to the incessant amount of careless penalties committed on a weekly basis.

No team can afford to make the same mistakes every week, let alone one coached by a defensive-minded head coach. That’s what makes this recent successful run furthermore frustrating. It took two months for Quinn to start getting the best out of the defense. For it to take that long must raise questions about him remaining as the man to lead the franchise.

All Quinn can do at this point is to continue making the right adjustments and beat whoever is across the field from him. Jacksonville presents a favorable opponent for him going into the final home game of the season. Doug Marrone’s fate has essentially been sealed, which means there is an opportunity to feast on a wounded opponent. How the coaching staff replaces Takkarist McKinley will be something to monitor, considering how much they relied on him. Allen Bailey and John Cominsky are expected to be back. It will take more than those two players returning to cause havoc. They need to concoct a proper game plan to rattle Gardner Minshew and force him into taking risks.

Rookie duo continues to build chemistry

One of the most encouraging things about the Falcons’ upset last week was the offensive line’s play. The sight of Kaleb McGary and Chris Lindstrom working together to shut down Nick Bosa was something fans have been clamoring for. Shutting down the likely defensive rookie of the year was a satisfying feeling for the front office. They’ve been lambasted all season for the offensive line’s dreadful showings. The signings of Jamon Brown and James Carpenter couldn’t have been more disappointing.

Combining two free agent flops with McGary’s pass protection woes created huge backlash towards the organization. Since Lindstrom returned against Carolina, the offensive line has performed drastically better. The first-round pick is bringing much-needed stability to the most problematic position on the roster.

Lindstrom has shone as a run blocker. With Dirk Koetter running more gap scheme-designed runs, it allows the athletic guard to pull across and take out linebackers. These blocks have produced some of Devonta Freeman’s better runs over the past two games. Brown was unable to make these blocks forcing Freeman to be brought down for a minimal gain. His return has also brought the best out of McGary. The embattled rookie tackle looks more comfortable handling stunts alongside Lindstrom.

After Cameron Jordan tore him apart on Thanksgiving, McGary has bounced back to have two of his best games of the season. His pass sets look more fluid in recent weeks, along with him holding up better against edge defenders on running plays.

For all of Jacksonville’s problems, they still possess a very talented front four. Calais Campbell is one of the most ferocious defensive linemen in the league. His enormously long arms and violent hand usage makes him a matchup nightmare for practically anyone. Josh Allen and Yannick Ngakoue form an incredibly dangerous edge-rushing tandem. Ngakoue’s get-off and freakish athletic traits makes him one of the most explosive edge rushers in the league. Both edge rushers rotate around the line of scrimmage, which means McGary can expect to see both edge rushers.

This is one of the most imposing matchups both rookies can ask for. How they step up to the challenge will be fascinating to watch in a game lacking of much interest.

Celebrating Grady Jarrett

The stellar defensive tackle received the payday he deserved last July. He is now receiving the national recognition he long deserved. After putting together his best season yet, Jarrett was selected for his first Pro Bowl. Analysts would put him alongside Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox when it comes to assessing the best interior linemen in the league. Due to not putting up gaudy sack numbers and playing for a below-average defense, Jarrett didn’t receive the acknowledgement he deserved. For all his hard work, the national public overlooked him. It wasn’t until this season where everyone had to recognize his greatness.

Jarrett is the complete package as a defensive tackle. His ability to blow past guards and centers in a flash is extraordinary. Not many interior linemen can destroy runs quite like him. To change direction and use a swift swim move sounds easy. It takes timing with an explosive burst to wreck opposing linemen consistently. Jarrett possesses the get-off, burst, and hand usage to terrorize teams. Per Next Gen Stats, Jarrett leads the league in run stuffs. For him to have 20 tackles on run plays that went for no gain or loss of yardage is a remarkable stat. It displays what Jarrett does on a weekly basis. Whether it’s on first down or third and short, he is going to either greatly affect or ruin a drive. That’s a terrific asset to have, especially on a defense in dire need of difference-makers.

Sunday should be a moment of celebration for him. As players fail to evolve or be questioned for their lack of effort, Jarrett continues to grow and play with a relentless motor. His development as a pass rusher deserves to be applauded. While officials will try to take away his tremendous work, people who watch the game closely recognize his improvement getting after opposing quarterbacks. The former fifth round pick is no longer relying on his quickness and motor to generate pressure. He’s developed legitimate pass-rushing moves to beat guards at the point of attack. When it comes to the most valuable players on the roster, Jarrett’s name must be mentioned after Matt Ryan and Julio Jones. That’s how indispensable he is an overall player.