The Falcons dropped a very disappointing game to the Packers on Monday Night Football, falling to 0-4 for the first time since the 1999 season. For all Atlanta’s offseason hype and platitudes about continuity, the team has looked basically as dull and lifeless as they did to start the 2019 season. That’s been a very frustrating experience for all of us here at The Falcoholic, and I’m sure it’s been equally frustrating for other fans.
It’s now Week 5, and the Falcons are facing their first divisional opponent in the Carolina Panthers (2-2). The team that was supposed to be one of the worst in the NFL due to their lack of talent on defense has been surprisingly good, and the offense has been playing quite well. Here are some of the top players (and a coordinator!) to watch when the Falcons face the Panthers on Sunday.
A.J. Terrell & Kendall Sheffield
The Falcons got some positive news this week when it was announced that first-round rookie CB A.J. Terrell would be returning to the team after spending the previous two weeks on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Obviously, we aren’t sure how well conditioned Terrell will be with a significant amount of time away from the team, but his return to the lineup could be a major boost to a secondary with two key players on IR (Damontae Kazee and Darqueze Dennard).
With Kendall Sheffield back—and playing well, if his performance on Monday Night Football was any indication—we may see the Falcons utilizing Isaiah Oliver less on the outside. Atlanta has to hope that the combination of Terrell and Sheffield is more effective, because the team is near the bottom of the league in almost all pass defense statistics. The Panthers have been surprisingly good through the air, and the Falcons will have to find a way to slow them down somehow.
OK, technically not a player, but the Falcons desperately need offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to make some schematic changes to fix the issues on offense. Both myself and fellow writer David Walker have discussed these issues in some depth, but they’re all relatively easy fixes that don’t require major changes to the playbook or personnel. It should be simple enough to shift to more passing on 2nd-and-long, for instance, instead of slamming Todd Gurley into the pile for 3 yards and then facing a difficult 3rd down.
Atlanta’s offense is talented enough to be among the best in the league, but it’s become clear that Koetter’s dated offensive system and lack of feel for the run game is holding them back. That’s a big problem when the defense is giving up 30 points per game, which means there’s little-to-no room for error for Matt Ryan and company.
Speaking of Matt Ryan, he’s coming off two disappointing games in a row after a quiet 4th quarter against Chicago and a very flat effort against Green Bay on Monday Night Football. To be fair, both the Bears and Packers have solid at worst defenses, but we should expect more from Ryan and one of the top WR groups in the NFL. While it looks unlikely that Julio Jones will be returning to the lineup in Week 5—he’s officially questionable, but failed to practice at all this week—Ryan still has more than enough talent to move the ball through the air. The Panthers have surprisingly played the pass quite well on defense, so this won’t be as easy as some fans might have hoped.
Takkarist McKinley & Dante Fowler
In Week 1, we saw the Falcons unleash a fearsome pass rush that put constant pressure on Russell Wilson and inspired hope for the rest of the season. Fast forward a week, and Atlanta was facing a banged-up OL in Dallas. Everything started out great, before Takk McKinley left the game with a groin injury and failed to return. Then the pass rush quickly disappeared, and it hasn’t shown up much since.
The good news is Takk is cleared to play on Sunday against Carolina, so that could provide the missing spark for the pass rush. In other good news, Dante Fowler has been removed from the injury report. Fowler has been arguably the biggest disappointment of the defense in 2020, as the $16M free agent addition has just 1.0 sacks, 1 FF, and 2.0 TFL through 4 games. Atlanta desperately needs Fowler to start living up to that contract if they want to see meaningful defensive improvement this season.
Who are some players or matchups you’ll be watching closely when the Falcons face the Panthers in Week 5?