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What to know about Falcons vs. Commanders in Week 6

It’s a clash between a struggling team with a great pass rush and a quarterback who’s easily disrupted.

NFL: NOV 27 Falcons at Commanders Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Commanders find themselves on the path the Falcons might have taken a week off, with three straight losses and plenty of questions brewing about the team’s viability and immediate future. The Falcons, blessedly, took another path by sneaking past a game Texans team and moving to 3-2.

While perceptions are different and justifiably so, the Falcons have to be wary of a Commanders team capable of big plays and ferocious, unrelenting pressure on a resurgent Desmond Ridder. This is an opportunity for the Falcons to run their record to 4-2, a mark that puts them in a very comfortable position with games against flawed teams like the Buccaneers, Titans, Vikings, and Cardinals up next, and to show that last week’s startling improvement from Ridder and this passing offense were the ringing of a bell no one in the NFL wants to hear, and not just the lonely toot of a one-week kazoo.

To do so, they’ll need to don the red helmets and push past this struggling Washington team, and they’ll need to do so both by reviving their quiet rushing attack and finding a way to keep Montez Sweat and Chase Young out of Desmond Ridder’s face. They’ll also have to hope that this isn’t the kind of week where a scuffling opponent with real talent puts it all together, as we’ve seen in the past. Here’s what you should know about the matchup ahead.

Falcons - Commanders Rankings


Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Team Record Points For Yardage For Passing Yards Rushing Yards Points Against Yardage Against Passing Yards Against Rushing Yardage Against Turnovers Created Turnovers Surrendered
Falcons 3-2 27 19 23 12 10 8 8 15 23 17
Commanders 2-3 17 18 12 24 31 25 21 24 13 28

Atlanta’s fortunes are improving, even if the offense is still only a modest success in terms of scoring and overall yardage. If the passing game is headed in the right direction, upcoming games against the Commanders, Vikings, and other teams with soft underbellies ought to help them climb the rankings. Defensively, Atlanta’s doing a really nice job, and legitimately belongs in the conversation among the top half (or better) of units on that side of the ball thus far in 2023. It’s a growing team that’s thankfully 3-2 as they work out the kinks.

The Commanders are just so-so in nearly every way, with a passing game that puts up empty calorie yardage, a ground game that sits firmly in the bottom third of the league, and a defense that just finished allowing the formerly scuffling Bears to set them on fire. They have a tremendous pass rush that the Falcons have to be wary of and Sam Howell and this passing game are capable of lighting up secondaries when given the chance, but this Washington team has not lived up to their talent level to this point. More on that in a bit.

How the Commanders have changed

The big thing, since we last saw them, is that Taylor Heinicke is now on this team and Sam Howell is under center for Washington. Big change!

Washington did mention to add to the roster this offseason after locking up Daron Payne, adding Nick Gates and Andrew Wylie as starting offensive linemen, picking up Falcoholic favorite Jacoby Brissett as their backup quarterback, and adding Cody Barton to the middle of the defense. Gates and Wylie have been perfectly cromulent starters, and Barton has graded out as a massive liability per Pro Football Focus, if you put stock into that. Quite a few solid players departed in free agency, including Heinicke, former Falcon Wes Schweitzer and other key offensive linemen, and useful special teamers like wide receiver Cam Sims.

The draft brought in players Washington probably likes over the long haul, but only one immediate starter in cornerback Emmanuel Forbes. The rookie corner may well turn out to be a great pick down the line, but he’s getting cooked often in the early going, something the Falcons will want to take full advantage of.

This is a team that’s better than the Giants by a country mile but also seemingly swimming in place a bit in a competitive NFC East, with the pieces of a quality defense and some interesting players on offense that have yet to add up to great things. If Howell hits and Forbes improves on top of the foundation here, Wahsington should at least be competitive the rest of the way. Otherwise, they’re similar to the team the Falcons faced the past couple of seasons: Talented enough to give you a real headache on any given Sunday, but not talented enough to push their way past the NFC’s better teams.

What to know about Sunday’s game

Last week I noted that I felt Desmond Ridder’s back was to the wall and that he and this passing game couldn’t play as poorly as they had in Weeks 3 and 4 forever. To say Sunday’s performance was still a surprise would be to really understate things.

Ridder playing a game that was in line with the potential the Falcons have long felt he had was thrilling, and seeing Drake London and Kyle Pitts deliver as Arthur Smith and company cooked up an effective gameplan was a very good sign. While there’s going to be some week-to-week variance—Ridder has always been a slow-starting, somewhat streaky passer by nature—it feels like the Falcons are starting to figure out how to get things cooking.

To keep it rolling this week, though, they’ll have to overcome a formidable challenge. Ridder wilted under pressure at times in Weeks 1 through 4, wandering into sacks and making risky throws as high-caliber pass rushers got close. The team’s shaky pass protection hurt the offense and the quarterback throughout that stretch, and until we see some chaining together of quality efforts, you have to assume that Week 5 was somewhat of an outlier. That’s unfortunate with Washington coming to town, because Montez Sweat and Chase Young have been an unbelievably effective duo for the Commanders, who are tied for 5th in the NFL with 16 sacks and boast a top ten pressure count per Pro Football Reference. Adding the stellar Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne in the middle of that line is a recipe for a long day.

Atlanta’s going to need to mitigate that by keeping the likes of Keith Smith and MyCole Pruitt in to chip, and they’re going to need to get rid of the ball quickly and lean on the run more heavily this week to take advantage of a so-so Washington defense on the ground. This is an attackable secondary—Emmanuel Forbes has allowed the second-highest yardage total in the NFL and an eye-popping 21.5 yards per reception and frequently loses deep—and overall this is not the kind of defense that should be able to stymie a sharp Falcons attack. As we all know, pressure that kills drives and forces turnovers can put the brakes on our favorite football team, and it’s Washington’s path to victory. Mitigating it is the priority this week.

On the other side of the ball, Atlanta’s pass rush will need to get home this week. Sam Howell has been sacked more than any other quarterback in the NFL—29 times!—and has the highest percentage of pressure on him that turns into sacks for any NFL starter, which tell you both that the pass protection is not stellar and that Howell tends to blunder into those sacks. The Falcons pass rush has been subtly impacting games but it hasn’t added up to many actual sacks; that ought to change this week with Howell struggling in that specific regard. The other tricky piece of this matchup is that Terry McLaurin and Logan Thomas in particular and the entire pass-catching corps to a lesser extent are quality players who have hurt Atlanta in the recent past, which means coverage busts the likes of which we’ve seen in recent weeks are going to be tough to survive. Sam Howell is, if nothing else, an enthusiastic thrower of the football, and if given time and comfort he will give this team headaches.

Otherwise, everything here is straightforward. The Commanders don’t run the ball particularly effectively or efficiently, while the Falcons do. The Commanders don’t have a great run defense or stellar pass defense if you can mitigate that pass rush, and I’m more confident in this coaching staff being able to make in-game adjustments to help the Falcons out than I was a few weeks ago (or certainly in 2021 and 2022, when Atlanta lost to them). The biggest fear here is that the passing game turns back into a pumpkin and Atlanta slips up in a close game; if that doesn’t happen, the Falcons really ought to win this one and break a losing streak to Washington.