There is, I swear, an ideal version of the Falcons defense. That defense contests passes, prevents yards after the catch through savvy positioning and great tackling, and keeps plays in front of them. You’ll complete passes underneath, but you’ll have to earn them, and you won’t beat them deep because you won’t have time to, owing to pressure and excellent coverage.
That version of the defense has been theoretical basically since Dan Quinn arrived, with games or stretches of games here and there where it looks like they might actually be as fast and physical as they’d like to be. Even a halfway decent version of that defense can keep teams in games, but too often they look like they did against the Seahawks.
According to @NextGenStats, Russell Wilson was the only QB who didn't throw into a tight window in Week 1.— Steven Ruiz (@theStevenRuiz) September 16, 2020
This is probably a "Falcons defense is very bad" stat
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the team’s #1 priority is not letting Dak Prescott do what Russell Wilson just did to them. Wilson threw 31 of his 35 passes on target with just two bad throws, completed nearly 89% of his throws, and wasn’t shy about throwing downfield when he needed to, as he did on the 38 yard touchdown to DK Metcalf. The Falcons did a pretty good job of tackling on Sunday, but didn’t matter because they couldn’t contest any throws, couldn’t force Wilson into many inaccurate passes, and allowed a handful of very cringeworthy gains after the catch, especially to Chris Carson. Wilson did whatever he wanted, and that translated into a game that got very out of hand.
The problem the Falcons face this upcoming Sunday is that Prescott is capable of the same sort of effort. In 2019, Prescott was 5th in the NFL in intended air yards per attempt and 4th in completed air yards per attempt (Wilson was 4th and 5th, respectively, while Ryan was 15th and 6th), and was also 1st in on-target throws in the entire NFL (Wilson was 13th, Ryan was 2nd). He’s an accurate passer who can air it out, and if push comes to shove he can also hurt you with his legs, making him extremely difficult to defend. Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup are hardly slouches as receiving options, either.
What are the bright notes here, you ask? The first is that the Cowboys are dreadfully thin at tight end, which won’t entirely eliminate that position from the equation but will greatly cut down on the threat. Foye Oluokun had a solid day in coverage against Seattle and can easily handle the collection of backups he’ll be facing off against Sunday. The second is that Raheem Morris has identified a clear cause of Wilson’s day and will presumably have a better plan for Prescott, though the temptation to key in on Elliott is likely strong.
Falcons defensive coordinator Raheem Morris says he didn't do enough to disguise defensive coverages against Russell Wilson. Says the defense affected the QB physically but not mentally, and he blames himself for that.— William McFadden (@willmcfadden) September 16, 2020
The third and best reason to feel a little optimism, however, might be Prescott’s history against the Falcons. The Cowboys quarterback has completed nearly 68% of his passes in two games (2017 and 2018), but he also has zero touchdowns to his name, has been sacked 10 times, and has fumbled twice. He’s 10 for 47 with two touchdowns on the ground, but through the air he’s been solid but unspectacular. You have to believe there’s some magic to stopping Prescott that the Falcons haven’t forgotten since moving from Marquand Manuel to Dan Quinn to Raheem Morris, but at least they’ve shown they can prevent him from destroying them in the recent past.
The Falcons have some matchup advantages in this, including their pass rush against a sneakily banged up Dallas offensive line and their receivers against a solid but green group of cornerbacks, but none of that will prove decisive if Atlanta can’t put the brakes on Prescott. Let’s hope the thought of him looking anything like Wilson did in Week 1 looks silly in hindsight.