Under Dirk Koetter, the Falcons offense hinges almost completely on the health of star Julio Jones. When he’s in, the offense is moving and scoring. When he’s not ... well, they struggle. If he plays on Sunday, will Atlanta face another favorable set of matchups in the Detroit secondary? Let’s take a look.
In the trenches
Right now, the Falcons offensive line is strongest on the outside with Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary both playing well this year. Both are solid in pass blocking, but McGary has been killing it as a run blocker. The inside has been hit and miss, though. James Carpenter is just not good while Alex Mack is good, but not playing to his normal elite levels. Chris Lindstrom is also doing well in pass blocking, but he’s not quite the “perennial pro bowler” that many thought he’d be. It’s just year 2 for him, however. In total, this is a good unit but there are weaknesses that can be taken advantage of.
The Lions best player up front is Trey Flowers, who did not practice on Wednesday. While he only has 2 sacks so far, he’s been more disruptive than that stat shows. His health could be a major factor in the game. The remainder of the defensive line for the Lions is ... not nearly as good. Nick Williams and Danny Shelton are not having good years in the middle while Romeo Okwara is also struggling. Even if Flowers does end up playing, this defensive front has a lot of issues.
While Atlanta’s OL has been up and down this year, the Detroit defensive line is just not good, even with their best player in. The Falcons should take advantage of this matchup.
The skill positions
Right now, the trio of Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Russell Gage is one of the best starting 3 wide receiving groups in the NFL. Ridley and Jones rank 7th and 8th respectively by PFF, while Gage is 33 (out of 120). As long as Julio can play, this is a very dangerous group, especially with Matt Ryan tossing the ball. He has had an up and down season, but his game against the Vikings was a reminder of what he can do when given protection and he’s playing with confidence. Hayden Hurst hasn’t quite been a replacement for Austin Hooper just yet, but his athleticism has stood out. Todd Gurley has been more effective as the season has gone on and Koetter is finally getting him to the outside runs more often, where he excels. Brian Hill and Ito Smith offer decent productivity behind him as well. This is a very strong group t hat few defenses in the NFL can truly match up against when they’re fully healthy.
The back end of the Lions defense is anchored by safety Duron Harmon who is one of the best in the league. Next to him, Tracy Walker has been better in the past but is struggling in coverage this year. Watch out for him on the blitz, though. The linebackers are a good unit overall, with Jamie Collins Sr., Jarrad Davis and Reggie Ragland all being quite good in coverage. Their run defense, however, has not been nearly as solid. The cornerback rotation may be down a man, as Desmond Trufant is still not practicing. He’s having his worst season ever and is still not their worst corner. That honor belongs to first round pick Jeffrey Okudah, who is struggling mightily in his first year. Second year corner Amani Oruwariye is playing decently, but a matchup against Julio or Ridley could set that back quickly.
The Lions defense has some good players on the back end, but their corner situation is not good. If Julio plays and Ryan has time in the pocket, it could be a very long day for this defense.
As always, the health of Julio Jones looms large. Given how he looked against the Vikings, his lack of participation in practice isn’t as concerning. If he’s out there, this is a good match up for Atlanta. The Lions could additionally be missing some key players, which will only bolster the chances for the Falcons to put up points.