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Falcons defense can’t let Chargers offense ‘get right’ on Sunday

Recent opponents have impressed versus the Falcons defense thanks to explosive plays. That can’t happen against the Chargers.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Atlanta Falcons in their Week 9 matchup versus the Los Angeles Chargers is avoiding the “get right” game.

There have been more times than I count over the past several years when teams and players that were in slumps broke out of them the minute they stepped onto the field to face the Falcons.

You can certainly argue that was the case two weeks ago when the Falcons got blasted 35-17 by the Cincinnati Bengals. Up to that point, the defending AFC Champions hadn’t quite looked like the impossible-to-contain explosive offense they were known for being last year. Entering Week 7, the Bengals ranked 24th with 18 explosive plays of 20 yards or more. Yet suddenly, they generated 10 such plays against the Falcons.

The Bengals benefited from facing a beat-up Falcons secondary, yet it should be noted that the vast majority of those explosive plays weren’t against backup cornerbacks Darren Hall and Cornell Armstrong. Yes, both of Ja’Marr Chase’s touchdowns came against those two, but that still leaves eight other plays (seven through the air) that went against the Falcons' other starters.

The Bengals were already a bad matchup for the Falcons even before the explosive plays. They entered Week 7 as the league’s third-ranked third-down offense and were tied for eighth in red-zone efficiency. Given that the Falcons play a “bend but don’t break” style of defense, it was always going to be very tough to get off the field against the Bengals.

That defensive style is willing to concede yards but hopes to get off the field on third downs and force teams to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns if/when they enter the red zone. The Falcons have struggled to get stops on third downs, entering that Week 7 matchup against the Bengals ranked 30th in that category.

Their red-zone defense wasn’t much better, allowing touchdowns at the 20th highest rate, however that had been improving in recent weeks after a very slow start the first few games. But the Bengals proved to be a significant mismatch given the Falcons’ defensive weaknesses were also their offensive strengths.

Chargers’ offense shouldn’t be too scary given injuries

The Falcons will have to try to avoid a similar fate this week against the Los Angeles Chargers. Fortunately, the Chargers' offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders this year on third downs and in the red zone. They rank 13th in third-down efficiency and 18th in red-zone efficiency. Good, but not great. Like the Bengals a few weeks ago, the Chargers have also struggled to generate explosive plays this year. They currently are tied for 23rd in the NFL in terms of explosive plays.

And the Chargers have struggled to hit on those explosive plays even with a healthy Mike Williams in the lineup. Williams accounts for a quarter (six) of the Chargers’ 24 explosive plays. So at least on paper, with Williams sidelined, the Falcons shouldn’t have to worry too much about the Chargers' offense discovering their explosive potential.

But of course, it wasn’t just the Bengals who gashed the Falcons for big plays. They also gave up seven explosive plays in their win over the Carolina Panthers last week, another team that up until two weeks ago also struggled to generate big plays. The Falcons cannot allow a third consecutive team to be able to “get right” against their defense, especially on explosive plays.

I fully expect the Chargers to string together a number of long drives, dinking and dunking while moving the chains on third downs on throws to running back Austin Ekeler and tight end Gerald Everett, especially due to the absences of wide receivers Williams and Keenan Allen.

But I also expect the Falcons to stymie the Chargers upon reaching the red zone, forcing them to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns. The Falcons are currently tied with the Seattle Seahawks for giving up the most drives this year that included 10 or more plays. Yet, the Falcons have given up touchdowns on 39 percent of those drives, which is very close to the league average of 38 percent. That obviously leaves room for improvement, but I suspect the Falcons are more than content to continue playing that way. That style becomes increasingly harder to maintain if the defense is giving up big plays left and right.

Prior to Week 7, the Falcons were one of five NFL teams that hadn’t given up a touchdown on a passing play that went for more than 20 yards. But in the past two weeks, they’ve given up four such plays, which is tied for the most in the NFL in that span.

Despite a rough start in the first few games, the Falcons’ red-zone defense has been pretty good as of late. They rank in the Top 10 in defensive red-zone efficiency over their last six games. But getting those red-zone stops becomes impossible if/when the offense isn’t even making it there because they’re able to score from 30 or more yards away. That’s not bending, that’s breaking.

A stingy Falcons defense benefits their offense

Atlanta’s preferred defensive style benefits the team’s offense by slowing down the pace of the game, which allows the offense to stick with their run-heavy approach. So if you’re watching Sunday and seeing Herbert and the Chargers' offense move the ball up and down the field against the Falcons' defense, don’t fret too much. The truly worrisome problems arise if the Chargers are converting those long drives into touchdowns in the red zone and/or gashing the Falcons for big plays.

Given this is just only one phase of the game, successfully slowing down the Chargers won’t guarantee victory, since the Falcons' offense still needs to take care of its business. But should the Falcons' defense keep the Chargers' offense from breaking out of their slump, it will at the very least slowly start to kill the narrative that the Falcons are a perfect “get right” opponent.

Do you expect the Falcons’ recent woes of giving up explosive plays will continue or end on Sunday?