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Falcons will run directly at Aaron Donald to try and slow him down

Keeping Donald from wrecking the game is a top priority for Atlanta, but how to go about it?

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NFL: Super Bowl LVI-Los Angeles Rams at Cincinnati Bengals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I wrote about the need for the Atlanta Falcons to win the battle in the trenches. They certainly rose to the challenge in Week 1 despite their loss to the New Orleans Saints, which bodes well in future matchups for the remainder of the 2022 season.

Piggybacking off that, my eyes will still be glued to the trenches in this Week 2 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams, because there resides the NFL’s most dominant defensive player in Aaron Donald.

The Falcons only have to look at their Week 1 gameplan against the Saints to see one blueprint for how they can slow down Donald. That template relied on the run game and their heavy dose of play-action passing to slow down a Saints pass rush that routinely dominated them in previous matchups.

The Falcons had a league-high 48.6 percent of their pass plays involve play action last week, according to Pro Football Focus. It’s worth noting that’s nearly double the rate of the entire league’s average of 26.6 percent in Week 1.

If the Falcons can have a repeat of their 201-yard rushing performance against the Saints to facilitate and complement that high rate of play-action passing, it may be enough to stymie Donald and the rest of the Rams front.

But the team could also add a new wrinkle by borrowing a page from the Buffalo Bills’ gameplan from their opening-week win over the Rams.

Bills’ quick passing game stalled Donald and Rams

The Bills relied heavily on the quick passing game to neutralize Donald. Bills quarterback Josh Allen had an average time-to-throw of 2.43 seconds in Week 1, according to PFF. That was the fourth fastest mark among starters last week behind classic pocket passers like Tom Brady (2.19 seconds), Davis Mills (2.25 seconds), and Mac Jones (2.33 seconds).

That’s notable since Allen’s time-to-throw throughout most of his career has been among the longest among quarterbacks. A year ago, it was 2.89 seconds, the seventh longest in the NFL.

Time-to-throw is often mischaracterized as an indicator of how long a quarterback’s protection holds up before he has to get rid of the football. However, it is in fact really an indicator of which quarterbacks are prone to use their athleticism and mobility to extend plays outside the pocket.

This is why quarterbacks like Allen, Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, and Jalen Hurts in recent years have consistently topped PFF’s charts with the longest times to throw. That contrasts with statuesque pocket passers like Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers, who have consistently had the shortest times to throw in that same span.

Throughout his career, new Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota has always veered towards the Allen-Jackson end of the spectrum with longer times to throw. Against the Saints, Mariota’s time-to-throw was 2.89 seconds, the seventh longest in Week 1.

If the Falcons adopt the Bills’ strategy of getting rid of the ball quickly before Donald can get to the quarterback, then Mariota will have to do a better job operating out of the quick passing game.

Mariota needs to improve his timing to mimic Allen

PFF gave Mariota a passing grade of 58.0 (which ranked 21st) on plays where his time-to-throw was 2.5 seconds or less. His adjusted completion percentage on such plays, which discounts drops, was 61.5 percent, which tied with a struggling Dak Prescott for the third lowest in the NFL last week behind only Jackson and Justin Fields.

Comparatively, on plays where his time-to-throw was 2.5 seconds or less, Allen’s PFF grade was 85.7 (second best) and adjusted completion rate was 87 percent (fifth best) against the Rams.

Now, it would be unfair to expect Mariota to be on par with Allen, who is possibly the frontrunner to be declared the best quarterback in the NFL at this very moment. Allen’s evisceration of the Rams’ defense only buoyed his candidacy.

So while Mariota doesn’t need to be on Allen’s level when it comes to operating the quick game, expecting him to be better than he was versus Saints would benefit the Falcons this week against the Rams. But it’s unlikely that operating the quick game will be the Falcons' first option when trying to attack the Rams. Instead, they will likely rely on the running game and the play-action passing attack, as mentioned earlier.

However, should Falcons head coach Arthur Smith come across this essay, I’d personally recommend that he not put all his eggs in that basket. Given his passionate post-game commentary comparing the Saints front to the 1985 Chicago Bears defense (often regarded as the greatest defense in NFL history), it’s clear that he’s very proud of his team’s success “manhandling” the Saints front this past Sunday. So I’m sure that recommendation would fall on deaf ears.

Arthur Smith’s pride in ground game may be Falcons downfall in Week 2

Yes, the 201-yard performance against the Saints certainly inspires confidence that the team could repeat their dominance on the ground this Sunday against the Rams. But the Rams are one of the league’s premier run defenses and have made their name in recent years shutting down rushing attacks.

We’re only through one week of the 2022 season, but they currently rank atop Football Outsiders’ run defense rankings using their DVOA metric. The Rams were also the fifth-best run defense in 2021 and third best in 2020.

Granted, the Saints were the top run defense according to Football Outsiders in 2021. Thus, why Smith is so boastful about the Falcons’ performance last week. Yet doubt, mistrust, and Falcons fandom go arm in arm.

However, if I can discard the red and black shroud of skepticism for a moment, the one glimmer of hope for the Falcons to repeat their Week 1 rushing success against the Rams resides in the latter’s recent history.

Falcons may have special mix to run versus Rams

There have only been four games over the past two seasons where the Rams allowed 150 or more rushing yards.

Two of those games came against teams equipped with mobile quarterbacks. Last year, the Rams gave up a season-high 216 rushing yards against the Kyler Murray-led Arizona Cardinals with Murray contributing 39 of those yards. Their next highest rushing allowance was the 186 yards that the Baltimore Ravens accrued with Tyler Huntley bolstering that total with 54 rushing yards. Of course, Mariota is coming off a 72-yard rushing output against the Saints.

The other two games came against teams that deploy outside zone rushing attacks much like the Falcons. The Kyle Shanahan-helmed San Francisco 49ers ran for 156 yards against the Rams. In January 2021, the Matt LaFleur-led Green Bay Packers ran for 188 yards and bounced the Rams out of the playoffs. Of course, there is a direct lineage from Shanahan and LaFleur’s time in Atlanta to LaFleur and Smith’s time in Tennessee.

So perhaps the Falcons do possess a unique blend of ingredients in having a mobile quarterback playing within an outside zone blocking scheme, one that could become their recipe for success for keeping Mariota’s corpse off Donald’s highlight reel.

Do you think running the ball will be enough to stop Donald? And are you expecting the Falcons to become the fifth team to eclipse 150 rushing yards against the Rams? Or do you think the Falcons need to incorporate the Bills’ quick passing attack to achieve success on Sunday?