The unpredictable rollercoaster doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon in Atlanta. Following a huge victory over Philadelphia, the Falcons responded with another dreadful slow start on the road. They were soundly outplayed in the first half by the Colts. Although Matt Ryan got into a rhythm in the second half and played lights out, it wasn’t enough to make up for the defense’s numerous breakdowns and frequent penalties.
A very winnable game turned into another lackluster road loss. The pressure continues to intensify going into another winnable game against the Titans. Given Tennessee’s instability, this is a “get right” matchup for the Falcons. They have the firepower offensively to score enough points on Tennessee’s sturdy defense. How the defense responds to losing one of its cornerstones is the biggest question going into a crucial game.
Containing Derrick Henry
It doesn’t take long to realize who’s the focal point in the Titans’ offense. After his late-season explosion in 2018, Mike Vrabel knew Henry needed to be used as the workhorse back. This decision hasn’t necessarily translated into sustained success. That falls more on Tennessee’s notable flaws than Henry not being good enough. It starts with their fragmented offensive line, where Taylor Lewan’s suspension and Jack Conklin’s regression has greatly affected them. Rodger Saffold has been a major disappointment so far. From allowing three sacks to not making key second level blocks, the normally reliable left guard is struggling mightily.
With Marcus Mariota looking as uncomfortable as ever, Tennessee will look to pound the ball with Henry. Challenging an undersized, inconsistent Falcons front seven appears to be their most reliable route towards success. Quinn’s defense has made strides over the past two weeks against the run. They’re still prone to major lapses, particularly on stretch plays. Although Henry is an old school bruising back, he can bounce runs to the outside and make defenders pay for taking poor angles. It will be vital for the Falcons front seven to maintain their gap integrity and keep runs inside for their rapidly improving defensive line to swallow up.
Allen Bailey and Tyeler Davison have been the Falcons’ best free agent additions. Both players are bringing power, discipline, and versatility to a defensive line that was in dire need of it. They have allowed Quinn to use more 3-4 and 5-2 looks. Pairing Bailey and Davison with Grady Jarrett creates more favorable opportunities for them to win one-on-one battles. It’s a major reason why the defense has been stout against the run on first down. Per NFL Matchup on ESPN, the Falcons are only allowing 2.8 yards per carry on first down. If they maintain their success on first down, it will put more pressure on Mariota. That results in Mariota possibly making crucial mistakes, along with Henry being fazed out of the game. Containing Henry will be pivotal for the Falcons to get off the field on third down and potentially force turnovers.
Attempting to fill Keanu Neal’s void
Trying to stop Henry is only going to get more difficult without their main enforcer. For the second consecutive season, Neal suffered a devastating season-ending injury. A torn ACL on opening night ended Neal’s season last year. After starting to look like his old self, he tore his Achilles late in the second quarter against the Colts. It was a heartbreaking moment for the entire team. Ricardo Allen’s postgame interview says it all in detailing how much Neal means to the team. To lose someone as talented and respected as him is deflating. It leaves the coaching staff weighing their options at strong safety.
Relying on Jordan Richards proved to be a costly decision last season. While Sharrod Neasman is a solid backup, it took several weeks for Quinn to insert him into the starting lineup. It’s difficult to diagnose why Quinn is stubborn when making certain personnel decisions. His tendency to rely on certain players, regardless of how much of a liability they are, has plagued the defense during difficult times. How long he’ll depend on Kemal Ishmael remains to be seen. After putting on weight and acclimating to playing linebacker in 2016, the versatile defender has reverted into playing strong safety this year. Ishamel is a dependable tackler that never shies away from contact. His lack of range and man coverage skills can be heavily exploited.
Ishmael is capable of making a difference against the run. Trusting him to cover Delanie Walker in man coverage, while asking him to remain disciplined against Tennessee’s frequent RPOs could be problematic. That’s why Neasman should be used more often. He possesses decent range, along with strong instincts and play recognition capabilities. The former undrafted safety was one of the bigger success stories for the Falcons last season. With Quinn insistent on not adding outside help, Neasman may play a bigger role going forward. How both safeties are utilized should be closely monitored in a potential scrappy game.
Offensive line faces tricky test
Despite having to shuffle the line around for the third consecutive game, the Falcons’ oft-criticized offensive line put together a strong performance last week. Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary were excellent in pass protection. Before suffering a hand injury, Jamon Brown made some fantastic blocks to help create running lanes for Devonta Freeman. Alex Mack continues to be as reliable as ever. Wes Schweitzer did have to fill in on multiple drives, which isn’t exactly ideal following two below average seasons. They still managed to hold it together by not allowing a single sack on Ryan’s 34 drop backs.
Tennessee offers much more talent up front compared to Indianapolis. Jurrell Casey hasn’t produced a sack yet this season, but still remains as one of the more dangerous and versatile defensive linemen in the league. His large frame and vicious hands give opposing guards fits. Harold Landry isn’t as consistent as the Titans had hoped for. The timing and bend he possesses off the edge does keep opposing tackles on alert at all times. The signing of Cameron Wake gives them a certified edge rusher, who can single-handedly disrupt the flow of any game.
Out of all the individual matchups, McGary versus Wake is the most fascinating battle in the trenches. An impressive rookie facing an ageless wonder should produce plenty of fireworks. McGary hasn’t looked overwhelmed in the slightest bit. While he can get caught off-balance at times, his powerful hands and firm base are evident when watching him. How he performs against a battle-tested, savvy edge rusher like Wake will give us a strong indicator of his ability to match up against top-tier pass rushers. The Falcons traded quite a bit to land the charismatic right tackle. They’ve already seen a major upgrade in what was a hugely problematic area for them last season.
Calvin Ridley’s involvement
There was plenty of buzz about Ridley following one of the best performances of his young career. The second-year receiver caught eight passes on 10 targets for 105 yards against Philadelphia. Whether it was Sidney Jones or Ronald Darby, Ridley was too quick for them coming in and out of his breaks. Everyone expected him to build on his tremendous showing. To only get targeted twice (one was negated by a holding penalty) and catch only one pass for six yards drew the ire of many people.
Although Dirk Koetter should be questioned about not trying to feature Ridley more often, the Colts’ heavy zone coverage played a significant part in his lack of production. Ridley is fully aware of it. From speaking with ESPN’s Vaughn McClure, he understood how difficult it was to get open. Indianapolis’ scheme doesn’t take chances nor gets overly creative. They prioritize on keeping plays in front of them. That is a major reason behind Austin Hooper’s productive game, as the dependable tight end was able to find openings underneath without much resistance.
This matchup will present big play opportunities for Ridley. Tennessee invested significant money and draft capital into their secondary. They aren’t shy about playing man to man with their trio of Malcolm Butler, Adoree Jackson, and Logan Ryan. All three cornerbacks are liable to getting beat deep. Butler is coming off a rough season, where he allowed the most passing touchdowns in the league. Explosive, slick route runners like Ridley can give him fits. Look no further than what Taylor Gabriel did to him in the Super Bowl two-and-a-half years ago. Jackson’s tendency of biting on double moves is something Ryan and Ridley should look to attack as well. Based on the matchups, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ridley bounce back emphatically. Expect Ryan to look for him early and often.