Atlanta will end its opening seven-game stretch – largely believed to be the toughest such run on the team’s schedule – with the opportunity to emerge with a winning record. To improve to 4-3 on the season, the Falcons will need to upend the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals on the road.
The Falcons haven’t appeared intimidated by any opponent so far this season, including the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. That contest, also on the road, was arguably the team’s worst performance through an entire game, but this weekend offers a measuring stick of sorts to see just how far this squad has come since then.
Defensively, they will be tested by a flood of offensive weapons. Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins – who has been nursing an ankle injury – are among the best secondary options at wide receiver in the NFL. The team also added Hayden Hurst this offseason, giving Joe Burrow a nice safety option, and Joe Mixon remains a multi-faceted threat out of the backfield.
However, no skill player on the Bengals’ offense poses as big of a threat as second-year phenom Ja’Marr Chase. The former LSU Tiger finished fourth in receiving yards (1,455) and third in touchdown receptions (13) as a rookie, and he’s off to another great start.
So far this year, Chase has 475 yards and four touchdowns. He was vital to the Bengals’ winning effort against the New Orleans Saints in Week 6, catching seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns, including a 60-yard scoring grab that would prove to be the game-winner.
Chase is the prototypical No. 1 receiver in today’s NFL. Possessing a similar skillset to Odell Beckham Jr. in a larger package, Chase’s physical abilities are maximized by the mind-meld that he has with Burrow. The Falcons’ secondary has done a fairly admirable job of making plays in key situations as the season has gone along, but on paper, this is their biggest test yet.
Cooper Kupp, who the Falcons faced in Week 2, is the closest comp for Chase in terms of production among the receivers Atlanta has played so far, and he caught 11 passes for 108 yards and two touchdowns. Outside of Kupp, and particularly of late, the Falcons have gotten the job done and largely limited the top receivers of other teams.
In their narrow victory against Cleveland, the Falcons held Amari Cooper to just one catch for 9 yards after he’d had back-to-back outings with more than 100 yards and a touchdown. Mike Evans gained 81 yards but was held out of the end zone for Tampa Bay, and the Falcons had a similar result against Deebo Samuel, who gained 79 yards but managed no scoreds.
This week’s challenge is different due to the frequency with which the Bengals, who rank sixth in pass attempts per game, throw the ball. Cincinnati likes to air it out, and Chase is like the latest military fighter plane equipped with all the bells and whistles.
According to Next Gen Stats, Chase has one of the smallest cushions of all receivers in the league, indicating teams try to stop him before he gets started. But that number is also indicative of how the Bengals are using Chase this season.
Teams are actively trying to limit Chase downfield, so the Bengals have also expanded his usage. After an average depth of target of 12.6 yards as a rookie, he currently sits at 8.9 yards. His yards before catch per reception has dropped from about 10 yards last year to just 6.2 this year, but Chase’s 1.8 yards after catch above expected shows how dangerous he is with the ball in his hands. And, now, the Bengals are getting him the ball quicker.
To make matters worse, the Falcons are going to be down No. 2 corner Casey Hayward Jr., who has been placed on Injured Reserve. Starter A.J. Terrell also sustained an injury during Atlanta’s win in Week 6, but he logged a limited practice session on Wednesday. He will be incredibly important for the Falcons, as will some of the young players like Darren Hall and Dee Alford, who have stepped up in recent weeks.
This is a prime opportunity for the Falcons to make a statement on the road after making a clear one at home. However, to do so they will need to slow down the Bengals’ apex predator.