It’s been almost a week since Atlanta’s miraculous upset over San Francisco, but I’m still enjoying mentioning it at the top of every article. In case you were unaware, the Falcons (5-9) pulled off the last-second victory over the 49ers (11-3) in Week 15, winning 29-22 after some kickoff return shenanigans.
This week, the Falcons return home to face the floundering Jaguars (5-9), who just halted their 5-game losing streak against the Raiders. Jacksonville has been known in recent memory for stout defense and a strong running game, but they haven’t been the same team in 2019. The Falcons will look to finish the season strong by piling up wins over the final two weeks, starting with the more winnable of the two against the Jaguars.
Atlanta will be favored in this game, but they’ll still need a strong effort to avoid an upset. Don’t forget how poorly Quinn tends to fare against AFC opponents. Here are some of the most interesting players to watch when Atlanta takes on Jacksonville in Week 16.
The offensive line
The Jaguars haven’t been their usual dominant selves on defense in 2019, but where they’ve continued to excel is with their pass rush. Jacksonville is among the league-leaders in sacks, and their defensive line—led by Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell—is still one of the most imposing in the NFL.
The rest of the Jaguars defense is exploitable, however. If the Falcons recently-improved offensive line can keep Ryan clean and open enough holes in the run game, Atlanta should have the advantage on offense in Week 16. Rookies Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary will certainly have their hands full on Sunday.
Devonta Freeman, Brian Hill, and Qadree Ollison
While the Jaguars pass defense is still solid at worst, their run defense has been abysmal in 2019. Jacksonville has been allowing 5.1 yards per carry and almost 140 yards per game on the ground, making them one of the NFL’s most porous rushing defenses. The Falcons have struggled mightily to run the ball throughout most of the season, but they should have an opportunity on Sunday.
Freeman, Hill, and Ollison will have their last, best chance of the season to produce an effective day. While Koetter seems to have very little feel for calling an effective rushing attack, the Jaguars are right up there with the Panthers in terms of being unable to stop the run. This should be an area of Jacksonville’s defense that the Falcons can exploit.
The run defense
On the other side of the ball, the Jaguars have some rather pronounced strengths and weaknesses. The QB position has been an up-and-down affair, and the passing game has struggled as a result. Jacksonville’s consistent engine has been the run game, which has been effective at creating yardage but far less so at creating points. The Jaguars have managed only 3 rushing TDs on the season, which is 31st in the league.
Atlanta’s run defense—which is one of the biggest strengths of the team, statistically—will have a tough challenge against RB Leonard Fournette on Sunday. The best way to limit the Jaguars offense is to limit their ability to run the ball, and the Falcons should be able to do that in Week 16.
While Jacksonville’s rushing attack has been the bread-and-butter of their offense, the passing game has come alive at times under rookie QB Gardner Minshew. Minshew was thrust into the starting lineup after an injury to Nick Foles, and had flashes of brilliance to go along with the expected rookie struggles. Foles came back and replaced Minshew, only to play extremely poorly himself. Now Minshew is back and playing relatively well once more.
The Falcons may not have to contend with the Jaguars WR1 in D.J. Chark, who was having a breakout season in 2019 before his injury. However, the Jaguars still have plenty of speed on the outside and can still make some big plays happen in the receiving game. It’ll be up to Isaiah Oliver, Kendall Sheffield, and Blidi Wreh-Wilson to limit their damage, and I believe each has fairly favorable matchups in this game.
Julio Jones, the depth WRs, and Austin Hooper
Even without CB Jalen Ramsey, the Jaguars have been fairly stout against the pass. Much of this has to do with their top-tier pass rush, but the secondary still has an excellent player in A.J. Bouye. Bouye is one of the NFL’s top young CBs, and will likely trail Julio Jones throughout the majority of the game. That should be an exciting battle, but the Falcons will need their other receivers to step up to take some of the pressure off Julio.
Russell Gage has been having a strong season since Mohamed Sanu was traded to the Patriots, and he’ll be expected to step into a much larger role with Calvin Ridley sidelined for the rest of the season. Christian Blake and Olamide Zaccheaus will see plenty of snaps in this one, and they’ll also be counted on to make plays. We should also expect Austin Hooper to take on a primary role in this game, as the Jaguars have struggled at times against TEs.
Who are some players you’ll be watching closely when the Falcons take on the Jaguars on Sunday?