The Atlanta Falcons (3-2) bounced back against the Houston Texans in Week 5, snapping a two-game losing streak as Desmond Ridder played his best-ever NFL game. Next up are the Washington Commanders (2-3), a team that also started 2-0 before a multiple-game losing streak. This is an important game for both teams, as Atlanta looks to seize control of the NFC South race while Washington looks to snap out of their funk.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Commanders, so I’ve enlisted the help of Washington expert LASkin. LASkin is a writer over at Hogs Haven, SB Nation’s site covering all things Washington Commanders.
I brought five questions to LASkin on a variety of topics, including the play of Sam Howell, the surprising struggles of Washington’s lauded defense, and a whole lot more.
1) The Commanders are in a similar situation to the Falcons: starting a young quarterback who wasn’t highly drafted. Sam Howell appears to be on a similar trajectory to Desmond Ridder, with his share of boneheaded mistakes but also some encouraging flashes that give you hope for the future. What’s your take on Howell through five games in 2023?
LASkin: I doubt the fans in Washington and Atlanta realize how similar these two young QBs are, down to being right next to each other in the QB Rating leaderboard. You’ve put it well. I personally take it for granted that almost any young QB in this league is going to advance in fits and starts and that they are to make mistakes for some time. But many in Washington – including me – think we might have ourselves the franchise QB that we’ve wanted for years.
Here’s what I like about Howell: he has a very strong arm, can make any throw, is very smart and learns from his mistakes, is tough as nails and can get up after taking a big hit and throw a TD, he’s mobile (relatively slow but good instincts and a bit nifty as a runner), and he loves to make the long kill shot pass that most QBs who have played in Washington for the past 20 years could not make and rarely tried. He is humble and a leader and players rally around him. As with Ridder, it will take at least a full year or more of playing time to evaluate him. He certainly must continue to work on reading the defense fast and throwing the ball quickly, but I think his ceiling is high. Since he’s a work in progress, how will he do on Sunday? We’ll see. I’m happy that Atlanta doesn’t have a ferocious pass rush.
2) Once a strength of the team, it seems like Washington’s offensive line has been a liability in pass protection through the first five games. Are the sacks all on the offensive line, or is Sam Howell partially to blame? How well has the unit functioned in run blocking thus far?
LASkin: If you think they’re bad at pass protection, you should see them try to open holes in the running game. They are better at pass pro than run blocking.
In fact, the quality of the pass protection is a matter of fierce debate on Hogs Haven, with most posters seeing the OL as a huge problem. Yet, for a few weeks, the line was giving Howell more time than the league average, and Howell was still taking sacks. As you might expect when the team is a pace to break the sacks against record, there is plenty of blame to go around. The OL has broken down too often. Howell clearly was holding the ball too long. And Eric Bieniemy’s play calls were too complex and slow to develop. They’ve partly corrected course on the last two issues and Howell getting the ball out faster and more decisively, and the plays are more quick hitting.
3) I’m still trying to figure out what exactly has gone wrong for Washington’s defense. Going into the season, most expected the unit to be one of the NFL’s best thanks to a lethal defensive line and some improvements elsewhere on the roster. Instead, Washington has allowed 30+ points in each of the last four games and is currently among the NFL’s worst in both scoring defense and total yardage allowed. What’s causing these defensive issues, and can they be corrected?
LASkin: If you figure it out, will you please tell Washington Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio? The defense was supposed to carry the team while a young QB got his sea legs and a revamped OL learned to play together. Instead, his defense is giving up a horrific 33 points per game, including a blowout against a weak Chicago offense in which the team surrendered 40. The offense is carrying the team, and that’s not fair to Howell and it’s maddening for a defense that returned nearly everyone and added draft capital in the first two rounds.
Fans are steaming because we’ve seen this movie before. Every year in the Del Rio – Rivera era, they have started slowly and given up over 30 points per game in the first 5 games. Then somehow, they make a few changes and the defense then plays very well (or it has in 2 of the 3 prior full years under this regime). The coaches did not keep promises that this season would be different, and that the defense would play well from the start.
No level of the defense has played that well. The DL has four starters who were #1 draft picks, and it is supposed to be the strength of the entire team. For whatever reason it has not looked at all dominant, even though Chase Young is healthy after recovering from a late-season ACL injury two years ago and has been playing relatively well. The linebackers have been mediocre to poor, and Cody Barton at Mike has gotten a lot of fan wrath. The defensive backfield has played badly, and now the starting Free Safety is out for a long time with a broken shoulder. The #1 pick, Emmanuel Forbes, has been burned repeatedly and has been benched, but almost everyone in the secondary has given up long TDs.
4) It’s no secret that the Falcons want to run the ball as much as possible. With the Commanders’ struggles stopping the run (24th in rushing yardage allowed and 27th in yards per carry allowed), how much concern do you have about Atlanta’s prowess on the ground and slowing down the RB duo of Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier?
LASkin: Personally, I’m terrified of the Atlanta running game. Several people on our board advocated drafting Allgeier and we saw him play well against us last year, and Robinson looks like the real deal. We’ll find out what the Washington defense is made of as it tries to stop the run. If the Falcons run wild, Ridder will gain plenty of opportunities to sit back and pick the secondary apart. The game could be won or lost right there.
5) The Falcons are currently 2.5-point home favorites heading into Week 6 according to DraftKings Sportsbook. What’s your prediction for Sunday’s game?
LASkin: It’s anybody’s game, and the eventual winner could blow out its opponent or win a close match. Washington is reeling, but Rivera have a history of playing well for a few weeks just when it seems that all is lost after playing poorly in the first few weeks of the season. If I go based on momentum, I pick Atlanta. If I go based on who is more desperate for a win, I go with Washington. In the end, I’m picking Washington mostly because they’re my team and it’s a 50-50 game. I think Washington will win a close contest, say 24-23. However, I have no confidence at all in my prediction on this game and I wouldn’t bet a dollar on it.
Many thanks to LASkin for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’re in the mood for a Commanders perspective on things, follow Hogs Haven at @HogsHaven. You can see my answers to LASkin’s questions here.
Looking for more Falcons-Commanders coverage? Check out our Dirty Birds & Brews game preview show.