It’s Week 4, and the Falcons have thus far left us with more questions than answers. At 1-2, the season is still very much TBD, but the margin for error is a lot smaller than it would be at 2-1. Atlanta has an opportunity to rebound this week against the Tennessee Titans (1-2), who are coming off a pretty thorough beating at the hands of the Jaguars on Thursday Night Football.
We’ve seen some good football, and some pretty bad football from this Falcons team through three games. Sunday’s game provides a beatable opponent that Atlanta should be able to take advantage of, particularly in their home stadium. With that being said, here are some of the most interesting Falcons to watch as Atlanta takes on Tennessee in Week 4.
The Falcons defense is in a puzzling position heading into Week 4. Statistically, they’re pretty good overall: 9th in yards per play, T-12th in yards per passing attempt, and T-6th in yards per carry. Atlanta has struggled in two major areas, however: third down defense (T-29th), and points (21st). The points likely have a lot to do with the team’s awful turnover margin (-4 through 3 games), but the third down defense has been killed repeatedly by penalties and schematic errors.
We saw the Colts take advantage of the Falcons’ vanilla Cover 3 in the first half, dinking-and-dunking down the field to a 20-3 halftime lead. Atlanta adjusted and tightened up in the second half, but it was too little, too late. Quinn took over the defensive playcalling this season, and it’s time for him to prove that he’s actually good at the job. The Falcons need to mix it up on defense, throwing in more press and man-coverage looks, and being less rigid with their CBs. Desmond Trufant should be moved around to neutralize the opponent’s top WR, while Isaiah Oliver should be utilized more on the bigger receiving options. The Titans aren’t exactly a fearsome passing offense, but Marcus Mariota will thrive if he’s given easy dump-off opportunities all game.
Matt Ryan has had a error-filled start to the season, leading the NFL with 6 INTs through three games. That’s...bad, no matter how you slice it. Thankfully, Ryan is also T-3rd in the NFL with 8 passing TDs, and Atlanta is currently 6th in passing yardage. After a poor decision early against the Colts, Ryan rebounded and had an elite second half that was almost enough to dig the Falcons out of a 17-point hole.
Ryan’s performance against Indianapolis was his best of the season, and it seems like he’s beginning to “settle down” in the kind of new, kind of old offensive scheme. Ryan playing mistake-free (or just mistake-limited) football will be a key to this Falcons team competing over the course of the season. Tennessee has been very good against the pass thus far, although it’s worth noting that they haven’t been tested by an offense as talented as Atlanta’s. If Ryan can get the Falcons out to an early lead, it’ll be a big help against a Titans offense that would prefer to run the ball and control the clock.
The pass rush
After an extremely encouraging pass rushing performance against the Eagles, the Falcons struggled to get pressure on Jacoby Brissett. That isn’t entirely unexpected: the Colts have one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines, and utilized a quick-strike passing game that limited opportunities for the defense. This week, however, Atlanta gets the ailing offensive line of the Titans—who are coming off a 9 sack game to Jacksonville on Thursday Night Football.
This Falcons defense is going to look their best when they’re able to get consistent pressure on the QB, and they must do so against Tennessee. Thankfully, it sounds like Grady Jarrett will be a full-go for the game, so Atlanta should be at full pass-rushing strength. We saw how bad Mariota looked last week against the Jaguars when under pressure, and the Falcons will need to do something similar to keep the Titans passing game in check.
The offensive line
On the flip side, the Falcons are facing a defense that has been above-average at generating sacks thus far—the Titans have 8 through three games, good for T-13th in the NFL. Keeping Matt Ryan clean will allow for more deep shots downfield, and will hopefully prevent him from being forced into errant throws against an opportunistic Tennessee secondary led by elite S Kevin Byard.
The Titans’ biggest weakness thus far has been stopping the run, which should give Atlanta another opportunity to get Freeman going. The Falcons had their best game of the season on the ground against Indianapolis, but largely had to abandon the run due to the aforementioned 17-point deficit heading into halftime. Against the Titans, a consistent rushing attack could go a long way in helping the Falcons stay ahead of schedule.
The run defense
It’s no secret: the Titans want to run the ball with RB Derrick Henry, and they want to do it a lot. QB Marcus Mariota had a good game in Week 1 against the Browns, but has struggled mightily ever since. Tennessee is going to want to get the ball in Henry’s hands as much as possible—ideally, probably more than 30 times. One way the Falcons can prevent that is by getting out to a lead on offense, of course. But if that should fail, it’ll be up to Atlanta’s run defense to answer the call.
After a tough performance in Week 1, Atlanta has actually been very good overall at stopping the run: the Falcons are currently 12th in rushing yardage allowed and T-6th in yards per carry (just 3.6). The team has been good at shutting down the majority of runs for minimal yardage, but they’ve simply allowed too many big plays. Atlanta gets another opportunity to prove themselves against a Titans rushing attack that is 12th in the league in yardage. If the front-7 can make life hard for Henry, the Falcons will be well on their way to getting their second win of the season.
What are your thoughts on this Week 4 matchup? Who are some Falcons you’ll be keeping a close eye on against the Titans?