While the Falcons have to worry about even a depleted Chargers offense blowing them off the field, given their recent defensive struggles, the Los Angeles defense presents a better matchup.
A defense that has allowed over 500 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground in the past three weeks would seem to be a very favorable opponent for a Falcons rushing attack set to potentially bring Cordarrelle Patterson into the fold, but can Atlanta take full advantage and pass effectively a week after what was arguably Marcus Mariota’s best game of the season as a passer?
Let’s take a closer look.
In the trenches
The Chargers are not amazing here the way they would be with a healthy Joey Bosa, but they’re still a capable front. Khalil Mack remains a scary pass rusher who is very capable of causing problems for this Falcons offense, as he’s piled up six sacks already. Morgan Fox is also quite capable, and Joseph Sebastian-Day is a stout defender in the middle of that line. The worst thing you can say about this group, crucially, is that it’s not particularly great at stopping the run, but Mack alone makes them problematic.
Atlanta has been able to bully teams on the ground all year, which is a credit to the offensive line and a cast of skill position players who are willing blockers. Against a good-but-not-amazing Los Angeles front that has surrendered 213 yards in two out of the last three games and the highest yards per carry average in the NFL, I’m not thinking that’s suddenly going to change. Pass protection, especially with Mack lurking on that Chargers defense and even with Bosa shelved, is the bigger concern.
If Matt Hennessy or Colby Gossett has to start at left guard for Elijah Wilkinson, I would be a bit concerned about running, but the Falcons should be able to get the push they need up front regardless. The bigger question is whether a potentially disruptive pass rush gets home.
The skill positions
The Chargers have one of the better young secondaries in football. Asante Samuel Jr. and Derwin James are just stellar defenders, period, and Nasir Adderley is a very solid safety. Bryce Callahan has been underrated for years, and that group (plus quality young depth) sets this team up for success. They have the 9th-stingiest passing defense in terms of yards and have allowed the fewest yards after the catch in football, a product of a quality and disciplined group. They have, however, broken down a bit in the red zone, allowing the 9th-most touchdowns in the NFL.
The Falcons have one of the league’s most interesting and frustrating passing attacks, because it is loaded with yards after the catch weapons (Drake London, Kyle Pitts, Cordarrelle Patterson, Tyler Allgeier) and some devastating speed (Damiere Byrd, mostly) but has been extremely up-and-down for reasons of gameflow, quarterback play, and the struggles of the offensive line. They have the fourth-fewest passing yards, a middle-of-the-pack touchdown number and interceptions, and last week was the first time the offense cleared 250 yards through the air. They can do a lot of damage, but they usually do not. The ground game, meanwhile, has been one you can lean on, and they have the physicality to get the job done against most teams. Against the Chargers, who seem vulnerable, they might literally just run it all day.
For all that, when it’s firing it’s an efficient attack, and the Falcons have an encouraging number of quality players to work with. If Cordarrelle Patterson returns this week, it just adds to a cast of playmakers through the air, and I haven’t even mentioned a ground attack that could have Patterson, useful all-around rookie back Allgeier, and rough and ready train-made-of-hammers Caleb Huntley. The Chargers secondary is so good that I’d give them a slight edge on holding all of that in check, but if Mariota is sharp and the line does its job, the Falcons offense is still going to find a way to eat.
Advantage: Chargers. slightly
It’s pretty simple: The Falcons would prefer to pass less frequently and generate explosive plays, and they’re facing a Chargers defense that allows a lot of yards per play through the air. The Falcons would like to run a lot, and no team in the NFL allows more yards per carry than Los Angeles. The Chargers don’t have a bad defense at all, but over the course of the season it has struggled in ways that the Falcons can exploit, from a weak run defense to red zone woes.
If Atlanta’s on and doesn’t become too hyper-reliant on their passing attack, they shouldn’t struggle to score points against Los Angeles. Fortunately, Arthur Smith’s Falcons never seem to have to worry all that much about running the ball effectively, and the Chargers front is not going to be the team to put the brakes on this rushing attack.