The Falcons and Broncos are not all that evenly matched on paper. The Broncos have the more productive pass rush and a better defense overall, but their offense is orders of magnitude less productive than Atlanta’s offense, which isn’t even firing on all cylinders right now. What will this matchup hinge on, you ask?
This one comes down to pressure, for me. Let’s get into why.
Worry about protecting Matt Ryan
This is not merely an academic worry. The Falcons have seen far too many drives doomed by sacks this season, a combination of pass protection that breaks down on third down and Ryan not getting rid of the ball quickly enough. Ryan has been sacked once on first and fourth downs this season but 5 times on seconds downs and 10 times on third down, an indicator that this team too often lacks a compelling plan for third downs.
The Broncos are 4th in the NFL in hurries and 5th in hurry percentage, as they’re hurrying an opposing quarterback 12.2% of the time. They’re 8th in sacks, 7th in pressures, and 7th in pressure rate, all the signs of a quality pass rush. They don’t have a great secondary, but it is good enough to allow that talented pass rush to get home.
This combination is a dangerous one for Atlanta. Matt Ryan has only fumbled once on a sack this year, but those third down sacks are obvious drive killers and they’ve been happening more frequently than I’d like in 2020. Denver’s perfectly capable of taking advantage of an off day from the line or hesitation from Ryan to pile up a few sacks and impact a few throws. Given that Atlanta has not lately resembled an elite offense, those plays could add up and keep Denver in this one.
Feel confident about pressuring Drew Lock
The Falcons don’t have the same caliber of pass rush as Denver, to put it mildly. They’re 15th in hurries, 20th in hurry percentage and 23rd in sacks. They do, however, lead the entire NFL in quarterback knockdowns and boast the 10th best pressure rate, meaning they’re faring quite a bit better this year than they have in the past. That’s only going to get better if the team continues to blitz more frequently, something they did to great effect against the Carolina Panthers last week.
Enter Drew Lock. His accuracy has plummeted this season and he’s taking a sack on 5.3% of his dropbacks, struggling mightily with pressure along the way. Per Pro Football Reference, Lock leads the entire NFL in bad throw percentage, with 24.6% of his tosses categorized as lousy. As you’d expected, he’s last in the NFL in his on target throw percentage, and the combination of these statistics paint a compelling picture of a young, struggling quarterback who isn’t very accurate right now and becomes less accurate under pressure.
Given that Grady Jarrett leads the NFL in win rate as a pass rusher at the defensive tackle position and that the Falcons have actually been quietly good at getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, you should feel confident that they’ll be able to get to Lock and make him screw up, even if they don’t put up a bunch of sacks. That holds true even without Takk McKinley and Dante Fowler, especially with the return of John Cominsky and Marlon Davidson potentially boosting that interior pass rush further. That could very well put the brakes on a lackluster Broncos offense.