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Talkin’ Trenches: Week 17 vs Arizona

If the Falcons are going to finish this season strong the last two weeks, it all starts up front.

The Falcons offensive line prepares for a play against the Ravens defensive line in Baltimore on December 24, 2022.
This could be the game where the Falcons have the advantage on both sides of the trenches...I did say “could...”
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Well Falcons fans, here we are, in a spot we know all too well. The Falcons are entering the final weeks of the regular season, and there aren’t any playoff implications on the line.

I think Grady Jarrett put it best in terms of how everyone is feeling, though be warned that it’s not safe for work.

While I know many are looking toward the draft and having the best pick possible—I’ll always say asking professional athletes to lose on purpose is one of the worst things you can do, and it just won’t happen—there is still a lot the Falcons can use these last two games to build on towards the future. The biggest focus will continue to be at the quarterback position, but here is where they can build on the line of scrimmage as well.

Offensive Line

Last Saturday’s game in Baltimore was one of the rare occasions the Falcons were outgained on the ground (184 yards to 115), and the offensive line performance was part of it. According to PFF, only one offensive lineman graded higher than a 70 in run blocking (you can guess who that was). While that doesn’t tell the whole story, it does give an indication of how the game went up front, especially in some key situations.

Sunday is an opportunity for the line to get back on track and be the unit that we’ve seen most of the year. Coming into this week, Arizona has been giving up 4.6 yards per carry on the ground, putting them in the bottom third in the league. They are also in the bottom third in the NFL in terms of tackling. Sounds like a recipe for a big rushing attack for Atlanta.

It’ll be fun to watch the Falcons go up against J.J. Watt for apparently the last time, as he announced his retirement earlier this week. I wanted to find words for exactly how good he has been throughout his career, but Mitchell Schwartz did it better than I ever could.

Even in his final year, Watt finds ways to get around the ball. He has still been really good at causing penetration by crossing the face of offensive linemen. With the zone scheme the Falcons use, that could create problems in the run game. I think the Falcons up front should dominate, but it will still be fun to watch wherever Watt lines up, and he’s still likely to impact this game.

Defensive Line

Now on their fourth (?) string quarterback in David Blough, the Cardinals present one of the few opponents where the Falcons defense should have a favorable matchup. On the outside, we all would’ve loved to see any rep where A.J. Terrell was matched up against DeAndre Hopkins, but the Cardinals ruled him out with a knee injury. Kyler Murray and even Colt McCoy aren’t available. Reliable veteran tight end Zach Ertz has been out. So, what’s the worry?

Enter the run game. James Conner had a fairly successful game on the ground last week against Tampa Bay, putting up over five yards per carry. Mix that in with the fact that the Falcons struggled defending the run last week against Baltimore, and I think that’s where the Cardinals brass will look to find success.

When it comes to passing situations, the Cardinals can be had up front. They’ve had a lot of changes and combinations, whether it has been due to injuries or even a change in offensive line coaches. While the Falcons have not been great (I’m putting it as nicely as possible) in pass rushing situations, the Cardinals probably would not feel comfortable in true dropback situations.

Look for them to take advantage of the lack of depth upfront from the Falcons like we’ve seen teams do in weeks past. Having success in early down situations on the ground will put them in third and manageable situations, where the Falcons defense has had their struggles (again, I’m being nice).

Main Takeaway

I think this week couldn’t be any more simple. The Falcons need to establish the run early to create intermediate passing windows for Desmond Ridder as the game goes on. If they get up early, maybe they can turn the Cardinals away from Conner on the ground and put them in more pass situations. Usually, I’d say that isn’t great for the Falcons, but with a fourth string quarterback in this week, what else could they ask for?

There is still a lot to play for this week, and I fully expect both sides of the ball to come out and play like it. With two games left to play, there are impressions to be made by players in terms of who will be around going into next season when the Falcons have all of that cap space. On both sides of the line of scrimmage, Sunday’s game could go a long way in terms of determining who is a part of that puzzle.

Happy New Year everyone!