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Falcons poised for another trench battle in Buffalo

The Falcons need their front five to step up in a big way in Week 17.

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NFL: Atlanta Falcons at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

If the Atlanta Falcons stand any chance of upsetting the Buffalo Bills this weekend on the road, it’ll rest on their ability to win in the trenches.

Current weather projections indicate that snow is likely on Sunday, which usually translates to a more conservative approach featuring more running the football on offense. That likely jibes with head coach Arthur Smith’s goals, as he is already gaining a reputation for being very conservative on offense. Smith’s desire to have the Falcons foster a physical identity will be tested on Sunday given the expected conditions.

This puts a lot more focus on the offensive line, which has been the team’s most glaring offensive weakness this season. The Falcons blocking struggled during the early part of the season but seemed to improve during the middle portion. However, over the last six or so weeks, there have been too many games where the line once again proved to be a liability.

Although that has mostly been in regards to poor pass protection rather than run blocking. The Falcons had a nice three-game stretch after Thanksgiving that saw them rush for over 100 yards in consecutive weeks. But the past two weeks, the team hasn’t been able to surpass 62 yards rushing.

Given the expected conditions in Buffalo, it’ll be important that the Falcons get back to running the ball effectively, given that they likely won’t be able to rely as much on the passing game to move the ball.

But a second reason to focus on the run game is it may prove their best defense to slow down Buffalo’s offense. The Falcons defense has a very unfavorable matchup against the Bills.

Given the Falcons have the league’s worst pass rush, it’s unlikely they’ll do much to affect Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who has been one of the league’s top passers this year. Allen also is a threat to run the football, another issue that the Falcons defense has struggled to handle this season.

You couple that with the issues the Falcons are likely to experience on the back-end facing a top-notch trio of receivers in Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, and Emmanuel Sanders, when the team is potentially going to be depleted at the cornerback position, and things are more grim. Fabian Moreau is dealing with a rib injury and slot defender Richie Grant went on the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier this week. Even at full strength, the Falcons were already likely to struggle matching up with the Bills receivers, and these potential absences only exacerbate the situation.

It all paints a picture that the Falcons are unlikely to keep pace with a Bills offense that ranks third in the NFL in scoring output. So the best strategy will be to control time of possession to keep that Bills offense on the sideline.

This was the exact strategy that the Detroit Lions employed last week against the Falcons with backup quarterback Tim Boyle. But the Lions weren’t just running the ball every snap. In fact, they came out throwing the ball, as Boyle attempted passes on the Lions’ first four plays, But all of them were short, high-percentage throws designed to help Boyle get into a rhythm and also to supplement the run game.

Nine of the Lions' first 15 plays, typically those that are scripted ahead of kickoff, were pass plays. They utilized play action and screens, with none of Boyle’s first five passes traveling more than six yards in the air.

As it applies to the Falcons, utilizing those short, quick throws can complement the run game. So if you were hoping for this weekend to be the one where the Falcons open up their passing attack to take advantage of Matt Ryan’s deep-ball efficiency, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

Yet the Falcons have not utilized many screens this year. According to Pro Football Focus, only 5.6 percent of Ryan’s throws this year have been screens. The only passers with a lower rate than that are the ones who play for the Baltimore Ravens.

This may be a good week for the Falcons to dial up more screens. Cordarrelle Patterson has been excellent on the occasional screen this year, but it hasn’t been an extensive part of the offense. The Falcons did break out a tight end screen to Hayden Hurst against the Carolina Panthers two weeks ago, so perhaps it’s now time to run one with rookie tight end Kyle Pitts on Sunday.

But even screen passes put more emphasis on the blocking since their effectiveness is reliant on the guys up front hitting their blocks downfield.

Everything points back to the blocking upfront. Whether it’s the run game, pass protection, or in the screen game, if the Falcons have any hopes of beating the Bills this weekend to keep their slim playoff hopes alive, the guys in the trenches upfront will have to take care of business.

Do you expect the Falcons’ front five to step up and take care of business on Sunday against the Bills, or will this be another game in an ever-growing list of bad performances in the trenches? Do you think a conservative game plan is a good strategy or should the Falcons let it fly?