There is no good time to face a surging team. There are, however, really bad times to be doing so. The Atlanta Falcons are experiencing that this week.
Fresh off two ugly losses and set to bench Desmond Ridder for Taylor Heinicke, the Falcons are staring down the barrel of a losing season and facing the possibility of a big shakeup for the coaching staff at the end of the season. With that looming, they now have to host the Indianapolis Colts, a team that is 5-1 in its past six games and have beaten their past two opponents by a combined 37 points. This has the potential to be unimaginably ugly.
To win, something you can bet Arthur Smith really wants to do, the Falcons will have to be crisp, get healthy, and probably get a little luck along the way. You’ll forgive me if I’m not particularly optimistic heading into this one, but hey, that’s why they play the games.
Here’s what you should know about the matchup ahead.
Falcons - Colts head-to-head comparison
Falcons - Colts Rankings
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The Colts are a good, scrappy team, albeit far from a great one. Their offense has been keying their recent success, with Gardner Minshew doing solid work throwing to a talented set of pass catchers and a ground game fueled by Jonathan Taylor and capable fill-ins like Zack Moss and Trey Sermon doing excellent work. The defense is more opportunistic than good—which is good news for the Falcons, in some regards—but they do force a ton of turnovers. The opponent may have played a role in the team electing to bench Desmond Ridder now, though that felt like it was coming regardless.
The Falcons continue to have a very good defense despite their injuries, albeit one that has tended to wear down late in games and surrender game-winning drives. The offense, however, is a massive disappointment, with what should be one of the best ground games in football seemingly worsening by the week and the passing game continuing to be somewhere between mildly disappointing and an active liability.
The Colts will try to force the Falcons to turn the ball over and grind the defense to dust; Atlanta will hope to run the ball effectively at last and slow this productive offense down enough to give them a chance to win. It’s not an easy matchup for Atlanta.
How the Colts have changed in 2023
Considerably. The team that traded for Matt Ryan last year and then went through a slow motion implosion, hiring first-time coach Jeff Saturday partway through the season and cycling quarterbacks. They had to nail the offseason and their coaching hire, and so far so good on both those fronts.
The coach is Shane Steichen, who was imported from Philadelphia and has proven to be an adept offensive mind. The fact that the team went from Anthony Richardson to Gardner Minshew and has not only stayed afloat but thrived, even with a patchwork backfield for much of the season, speaks well to Steichen’s ability. This has been a well-coached, tough team throughout the season.
Personnel-wise, the changes have been fairly dramatic, as well. The quarterback room was entirely re-tooled, with the hyper-promising Richardson set to be the team’s long-term franchise option and Minshew coming in as the reliable backup who was pressed into action. They added Samson Ebukam to help their pass rush and he is having a career season, putting up 9.5 sacks thus far, with free agency otherwise featuring low-key depth signings that have helped.
The draft is where the Colts were hoping to re-build the team, and it was a strong initial effort. Besides Richardson, they drafted Julius Brents at cornerback (five starts thus far and an interception), wide receiver Josh Downs (57 catches, 631 yards, two touchdowns), depth tackle Blake Freeland, edge rusher Adetomiwa Adebawor (1.5 sacks as a part-time player), and cornerback Jaylon Jones (mostly a pleasant surprise as a part-time, late round starter). They made 12 picks in total and most of them look like decent depth pieces at least, which has helped fuel Indy’s 2023 rise.
What to know about Sunday’s game
The mistakes that have doomed Desmond Ridder and the offense all year doomed them against Carolina, which led to the switch to Taylor Heinicke. The veteran quarterback will be under stern orders not to turn the ball over a bunch, which may lead to the kind of ultra-conservative gameplan that somehow almost won the day against Arizona. That might make sense on paper—the Colts excel at taking the ball away, with 15 interceptions and 17 forced fumbles—but it’s unlikely to be enough against Indy.
This game’s outcome is likely to be determined by how effective this Falcons defense is against the Colts offense. With Jonathan Taylor returning, the interior of the defensive line will continue to be sorely tested, though Atlanta may be fortunate enough to get David Onyemata back to restore a stronger rotation featuring him, Calais Campbell, Ta’Quon Graham, and LaCale London. Atlanta’s cornerbacks will be tested by Michael Pittman (if he can go Sunday), Alec Pierce’s deep threat ability, and a very capable rookie receiver in Josh Downs, but the Colts will respect the strength of Atlanta’s secondary and try to run it as often as possible. They know, based on recent history, that sticking to that approach will likely bear fruit in the fourth quarter.
If Atlanta does hold the Colts to under 30 points, it’ll be on the offense to keep pace. It’s no exaggeration to say that outcome is probably entirely dependent on how well Heinicke settles in and how many starters return along the offensive line, as the team’s putrid run blocking the past three weeks has had a major impact on their ability to deliver on the ground. You’ll recall that this team put up 184 yards on the ground against the Cardinals and then bludgeoned the Saints for 228 after the bye; in the three weeks since, they’ve put up 90, 96, and 52 rushing yards. If that happens again, the Falcons are probably doomed.
For Heinicke’s part, he’ll be looking to avoid the costly turnovers and look to spread the ball around effectively. In his one full game as a starter, Heinicke looked toward Kyle Pitts and Jonnu Smith a combined 10 times, with KhaDarel Hodge tying for the team lead with six targets. If he can improve his rapport with Drake London and mix in those three players—minimize the unproductive Van Jefferson and Bijan Robinson targets, please—he’ll probably have a solid day. He just has to be careful not to fall into the bad habits that have plagued him throughout his career, which are the kinds of risky throws that Ridder routinely made, just perhaps 25% more defensible.
If none of this sounds particularly positive, it’s not hard to understand why. The Colts are a hot team featuring strong coaching and a roster maximizing the talent it does have on hand; the Falcons are ice cold and not playing or scheming for opponents at a particularly high level right now. Perhaps there’s a reversal of fortunes awaiting both teams in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but with the way the Falcons have played of late, brace for a rough game and hope for better.