Sometimes, all it takes is one win over a perennial contender to help a team get back on track. That’s what the Falcons are hoping for following last Sunday’s thrilling victory over the Eagles. After a disappointing 2018 season and dreadful opening week loss to Minnesota, the pressure was on Dan Quinn’s team. They needed some type of response to show they’re capable of competing with the NFC’s top teams. Although it was more difficult than it should have been, the Falcons impressed and ultimately prevailed in a massive win.
They now start a three-game stretch against the AFC South. A road trip to Indianapolis presents plenty of intrigue. Nobody knows what to make of the Colts, considering the face of their franchise retired two weeks before the season. They still feature a roster filled with talent, along with one of the top coaching staffs in the league. Will the Falcons make sure they don’t suffer a letdown on the road?
Receiving much-needed production from the running game
Most of the discussion about the Falcons’ major investments on their offensive line was about protecting Matt Ryan. Providing ample protection for the former MVP winner is clearly going to be the main objective behind building a top-tier offensive line. How the new additions were going to affect the running game wasn’t discussed at all. Adding mammoth guards in Jamon Brown and James Carpenter was meant to add competency to the biggest problematic area on the roster, while bringing nastiness and size to the lightest offensive line in the league. The decision to draft Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary was to add long-term athleticism and technical prowess to the offensive line.
This influx of talent, along with nearly a year of recovery from multiple injuries, was supposed to help Devonta Freeman get back to his best. That hasn’t come close to happening following two difficult games. The dynamic running back isn’t getting the holes he needs to accelerate into the open field. While the blocking has been substandard against two terrific fronts, Freeman isn’t making defenders miss or breaking tackles like his old self. Not making that first defender in space has prevented him from producing a big play on multiple occasions. It’s those kind of plays that Freeman made in highlight-reel fashion from 2015 to 2017.
They need Freeman to get going in this game. He is too special of a talent not to depend on. Facing a lighter, much less-talented front seven could be what he needs to start being productive. It may also mean more reps for Ito Smith to keep Freeman fresh. The second-year back has already produced multiple impressive runs this season. Although he doesn’t quite run with the same violent edge as Freeman does, Smith’s patience and vision makes him an excellent second option. Utilizing him more often going forward should make the offense even more dangerous. For now, the running game needs to get going led by their star running back and enigmatic offensive line.
Remaining disciplined against the run
One of the biggest positives coming out of Sunday night’s dramatic victory was how the entire defense contributed towards shutting down Philadelphia’s rushing attack. It wasn’t simply the front seven who didn’t allow a run longer than five yards. Isaiah Oliver and Keanu Neal both made a noticeable impact against the run. Whether it was Oliver closing down the corner or Neal exploding past Mack Hollins to blow up a run, the secondary did their fair share in forcing Doug Pederson to become more one-dimensional.
The front seven obviously did the heavy lifting led by Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison. It’s not a surprise to see Jarrett continue to play at an elite level. How well Davison has shifted into the nose tackle role is the most pleasant surprise so far this season. The former Saint commands double teams effectively, while being agile enough to disengage in one on one situations. How Quinn is using Jarrett, Davison, and Allen Bailey in multiple schematic fronts has flustered Minnesota (to some extent) and Philadelphia. To create havoc against another tremendous offensive line will be a major challenge for them.
Indianapolis’ front office put serious investment into revamping the offensive line. It ended up being one of the main catalysts behind their immediate success. Quenton Nelson is already one of the best guards in the league. With a formidable right side of Braden Smith and Mark Glowinski next to underrated center Ryan Kelly, the Colts have quickly built a top-five caliber offensive line. Considering the uncertainty surrounding the passing game following Andrew Luck’s stunning retirement, they will look to lean on the running game with Marlon Mack. Maintaining gap integrity and making open field tackles will be vital for the defense to get stops. Per Pro Football Focus’ Louis Benjamin, the Falcons are tied for third-best in tackle percentage this season. The return of Neal, Deion Jones, and Ricardo Allen has clearly made a massive difference. They must continue making open field tackles behind a slowly improving front four.
The continued progression of Takkarist McKinley
Despite not recording a sack against Philadelphia, Takkarist McKinley had arguably the best game of his career. It can be disputed that his two-and-half sack performance against Cincinnati last season was slightly more impressive. In terms of making a consistent impact, McKinley did that more often last Sunday than he had ever done in a previous game. The charismatic pass rusher produced eight quarterback pressures according to PFF. From accelerating past Jason Peters off the edge or bulldozing past Issac Semualo, McKinley created a heavy dose of chaos across the line of scrimmage.
The big question facing McKinley is can he become more consistent? There have been plenty of flashes over his first two seasons in the league. His get off can give opposing tackles all sorts of fits. Nobody can deny his raw power and relentless motor. It comes down to refining his technique, while not being overly reliant on his bull rush. McKinley is always going to cause problems based on his sheer attributes and desire. Improving his hand usage and bend around the edge is what will take him to the next level.
If there is one potential weakness on the Colts’ offensive line, left tackle Anthony Castonzo is prone to lapses in pass protection. His tendency to hold is something that should be monitored. Based on his get off and ability to obtain leverage, McKinley can cause the veteran left tackle to get reckless. Combine his issues with Jacoby Brissett being prone to turning the ball over, and McKinley could be the one to make a game-changing play. There were instances last week of him nearly sacking Wentz twice on third down. His improvement could finally translate into sacks and forced fumbles with a more favorable matchup.
Finding openings against Indianapolis’ zone coverage
The Colts run one of the more simplistic defensive schemes in the league. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus prefers keeping plays in front of his unit, while mixing in Cover-2 and Cover-3 looks. In 2018, they only played man coverage on 13 percent of their opponents’ drop backs. Not allowing yards after the catch or receivers get behind them is what they specialize in. That’s going to be a challenge against Atlanta’s stellar receiving group.
Julio Jones is more than capable of finding the soft spots in a defense’s zone. The same applies to Mohamed Sanu, who is the type of savvy receiver that can turn quick six-yard hitches into 12-yard gains. From Calvin Ridley’s ability to stretch the field to Austin Hooper making defenders miss in the open field, Indianapolis’ defensive principles will be tested. What can’t be overlooked is their ball-hawking secondary. Malik Hooker isn’t the only young playmaker on the back end. Kenny Moore and Pierre Desir are instinctive cornerbacks that make quarterbacks pay for being overly aggressive and making reckless reads.
While stud linebacker Darrius Leonard doesn’t seem likely to play, Ryan must be wary of the Colts’ rangy defense. The franchise quarterback has been uncharacteristically careless to start the season. Four of his five interceptions are from inaccurate throws or baffling decisions. Two-game blips are bound to occasionally happen, especially when facing two stout defenses in Minnesota and Philadelphia. Ryan will need to be more willing to take what the defense gives him and trust his playmakers. There will also be added responsibility on Dirk Koetter to find where the Colts are most vulnerable to produce long-sustaining successful drives.