The Chargers are coming to town against the Falcons, bringing a solid but unspectacular attack to Atlanta. Will the Falcons be able to stop their recent defensive woes against Los Angeles, which is good at avoiding mistakes and airing it out, but not necessarily great at running the football or scoring?
We’ll find out soon enough, but in the meantime, here’s a closer look at the matchup.
In the trenches
The Chargers have a good, young line. Pro Football Focus has them at 14th in the NFL, and rookie Jamaree Salyer is filling in admirably for Rashawn Slater at left tackle. That’s two rookies starting on the line, with Zion Johnson holding down right guard, as well as young 2019 third rounder Trey Pipkins at right tackle to go with veterans Corey Linsley at center (who is hurt) and Matt Feiler at left guard. This group has held up well all season despite the loss of Slater, but they are not a great run blocking unit and have struggled a bit the past couple of weeks to keep Herbert clean, allowing five sacks over the past two games.
The Falcons front is fresh off a hell week where they got gashed by D’Onta Foreman and couldn’t generate much pressure on P.J. Walker. Herbert and Justin Ekeler are tougher to deal with—or should be—but this Chargers line might be a little more attackable for Grady Jarrett, Arnold Ebiketie, Ta’Quon Graham and company this week. I’m going to be generous, expect a bounceback effort, and call this one fairly even, especially with the recent struggles from the Chargers.
The skill positions
Justin Herbert doesn’t have the most talented group of pass catchers in the NFL, but as a superlative talent himself, he helps make up for that. The most annoying option is Austin Ekeler, who is a terrific, shifty running back who also hoovers up targets from Herbert. Atlanta’s sometimes tackling woes and coverage issues means Ekeler could wind up busting a couple of long runs and/or turning on the jets after receptions, which is a problem.
Mike Williams is a tough challenge—especially if the Falcons don’t have A.J. Terrell back this week—and Josh Palmer and DeAndre Carter provide solid options for the team to work. Unfortunately for Herbert and company, Williams and Keenan Allen may not play Sunday. Add in Gerald Everett, a player I’ve always liked and a reliable target at tight end, and there are enough weapons here to give this defense fits if everyone’s healthy. If not, they’re going to have to lean heavily on Palmer, Everett, and Ekeler.
Atlanta’s defensive backfield remains a major weakness. Terrell didn’t practice on Wednesday, leading me to doubt his availability, and new acquisition Rashad Fenton is coming off an injury of his own. Getting Jaylinn Hawkins back this week—he did practice—will help, as well another week of good health for Dee Alford. This is still a group wracked by injuries and struggling mightily against both a very good quarterback (Joe Burrow) and a lesser if interesting one (P.J. Walker) over the past two weeks. It’s hard to see this going well without Atlanta’s pass rush having some success.
The Chargers will have looked at this Falcons defense the past two weeks and concluded that if they can give Ekeler a little room to work and attack this secondary deep, they have a chance to put up 30-plus points on Sunday.
The problem for Atlanta is that short of generating a significant pass rush, they’re unlikely to disprove that, and I sort of have my doubts about that. The Falcons didn’t get run over and torched by the Panthers by accident, but because teams are finding their weaknesses and taking full advantage of them whenever possible. If the Falcons don’t welcome Terrell back, they’ll once again be short on high-end options at cornerback, and up front they’re still heavily reliant on a small handful of players to wreak havoc. Atlanta should do better than they did against the Bengals through the air and the Panthers on the ground because I don’t think they’re that terrible, but this is a good Chargers offense that will be a legitimate problem even if they’re missing some key pieces.
Once again, Atlanta’s offense is going to be asked to do some heavy lifting, in other words. Let’s hope this turns out better than I think it will.