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Complacency is the Falcons’ biggest challenge vs. Titans

The Falcons still have much to prove, even if they’re facing an unproven Titans quarterback.

NFL: Washington Commanders at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

With expectations that the Tennessee Titans will start Will Levis this week, it would be easy to assume the Atlanta Falcons will roll to their third win against a rookie quarterback after victories against Carolina’s Bryce Young and Houston’s CJ Stroud earlier this year.

But of course the term “any given Sunday” exists and the Falcons will have to avoid falling into the trap of complacency against a Titans team that can still present a formidable challenge this weekend.

Due to starting an unproven rookie at quarterback, the Titans’ strategy will likely revolve around putting as little as possible on Levis’s plate. In fact, they can look back at the Panthers’ game plan in Week 1 as inspiration for the way to attack Atlanta. Of course, the Panthers ultimately lost that game but it was a close, competitive ballgame through three quarters.

The Panthers were able to achieve this by running the football on offense and doing their best to control the line of scrimmage on defense, which they did early on by sacking Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder four times in the first half. The Panthers racked up 154 yards on the ground, which remains the highest total the Falcons defense has allowed this season.

Outside some back-breaking turnovers, the Panthers were somewhat in control of that game. Young’s two interceptions and a third-quarter fumble by running back Miles Sanders led to all 17 of the Falcons’ points going into the fourth quarter. However, once Atlanta had gained their 17-10 fourth-quarter lead, it was all downhill for the Panthers due to relying on Young’s passing rather than their effective running game to try and climb out of that hole. That proved too much for the rookie in his first career start.

The Titans should opt to copy that strategy by relying on the run game on offense and kicking butt with their defense. They certainly have the means and personnel to achieve goals on both sides of the ball.

It starts with their run game, spearheaded by a formidable one-two punch of the powerful Derrick Henry and the explosive Tajae Spears. While the Titans run game is not as dominant as it was in the past, it’s still very capable when they’re able to commit to it. Outside Carolina, few teams have been able to produce a ton of yards against the Atlanta’s run defense, so that side of the ball should be up for the challenge. But football remains a team sport, and the Falcons offense can help alleviate some of that pressure on the defense.

The offense can aid the defense by getting off to a fast start. The Falcons have allowed just 69.7 rushing yards in their past three games, which is the fourth-best in the NFL over that span. That three-game span also marks the weeks where the Falcons’ offense has started faster than usual, with three consecutive first quarters where they’ve scored a touchdown. That may seem like a modest accomplishment, but it’s something the team had only achieved once during Ridder’s previous eight starts.

That recent early-game success is one clear indicator of Ridder’s progression as a starter, but also a sign of growth for Arthur Smith’s offense in general. In Matt Ryan’s 17 starts in 2021, the Falcons scored a total of four first-quarter touchdowns, while the 2022 Marcus Mariota-led Falcons offense was responsible for just five in his 13 starts. The Falcons have generally not been a fast-starting team under Smith, which is starting to change for the better.

A fast start from the offense matters because the opposing teams tend to run the ball less when they’re behind on the scoreboard. The Falcons would love to impose the fourth-quarter conditions they put on Young earlier this season much earlier on Levis, which could lead to the one-sided victory that many are hoping for.

While the Falcons have been better at scoring earlier in recent games, they’re not having much success sustaining those fast starts. The Falcons currently rank 31st in second-quarter points this season, averaging just 3.1 per game. That hasn’t gotten better in the least three weeks, where they’re averaging two points in that quarter per game. Even if the Falcons can score a touchdown to start the game for a fourth consecutive week, it won’t be as meaningful if they cannot build off that success.

That won’t be easy against the Titans due to the team’s formidable front, which is led by defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. Simmons is one of the best in the NFL, and will often line up against the Falcons’ weakest link along the offensive line which is rookie left guard Matthew Bergeron. While Bergeron has not been an outright disaster for the Falcons like their last rookie starting left guard, he still has struggled at times. That has been especially true against proven veteran defensive tackles like Simmons in earlier matchups against Kenny Clark, Jonathan Allen, and Vita Vea.

The Titans will hope that Simmons and their other talented players up front can do enough to stymie the Falcons offense to allow them to lean on Henry and Spears for all 60 minutes. So this game will also be a great litmus test to see Bergeron’s development midway through his rookie season, assuming he can hold up against Simmons.

Essentially, the Titans gameplan should rely on making this a grinding, low-scoring old-school football game. That’s a style of football that the Titans have had success playing over the years under head coach Mike Vrabel. However, what you like about the Smith-led Falcons is that they are built to play a similar style given his background as a former Vrabel assistant coach. The Falcons’ identity also centers on their run game, and they too now possess a stingy defense under ascending defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen.

One hopes that the Falcons can answer that challenge against the Titans if need be, but also that Ridder’s development has come along far enough that they won’t have to play that way. With the Falcons now in first place in the NFC South, the hope is that the remainder of the regular season will showcase the team’s evolution into a legit playoff contender rather than simply being the least bad team in a weak division.

One of the marks of being a good playoff team is beating the teams you’re supposed to beat. That can begin this Sunday in Nashville if the Falcons can avoid playing down to their competition and forcing the Titans to try and play up to them. If they can achieve the latter, that should be too tough a challenge for the Levis-led Titans.