Naming five Atlanta Falcons is already a challenging task. Doing so while also looking for intrigue at the same time makes it nearly impossible. Almost as preposterous as the Falcons actually living up to expectations in a year brimming with playoff potential.
Yet, here we are looking to overcome such impossibilities amidst the Falcons’ playoff hopes shriveling as they’re set to face the Indianapolis Colts. This week’s intrigue involves several familiar faces that will need to finish the season strong if the Falcons hope to turn their disappointing season around.
The Falcons' slim playoff hopes now rest on quarterback Taylor Heinicke. This is Heinicke’s second stint as the starter and the hope is that it goes better than it did the first time around. Heinicke’s performance during the second half versus the Tennessee Titans was impressive. But it was downhill thereafter, with quarterback play that wasn’t better than Ridder’s. That trend needs to reverse itself on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, with Heinicke playing like the upgrade at quarterback the Falcons so desperately need if they have any chance of finishing 2023 on a strong note.
But Heinicke can’t be expected to carry the offense without getting more support from the Falcons’ ground game.
If the Falcons are going to be more balanced offensively against the Colts, it’ll start up front with center Drew Dalman. His return to the lineup after missing the last two games with an ankle injury should help take a lot of pressure off Heinicke. Dalman’s absence has coincided with a three-game stretch where the Falcons' run game has stagnated since the dominant day on the ground in their Week 12 win over the New Orleans Saints.
Dalman will be critical to the Falcons’ rushing success if he can win his matchup against Colts nose tackle Grover Stewart. Stewart’s presence has dramatically impacted the capabilities of the Colts' run defense, making neutralizing him a priority for the Falcons if they wish to give their offense the balance it so desperately needs.
Right tackle Kaleb McGary also is a critical element to the Falcons’ rushing success and could potentially make his return this week against the Colts. McGary is listed as questionable with a knee injury that could cause him to miss his third consecutive game. It’s no coincidence that since McGary went down early against the New York Jets, the Falcons run game has fallen off a cliff.
Looking at some of the numbers from PFF illustrates exactly how impactful McGary is to the Falcons’ rushing success. Going into the Jets game, the Falcons ran about 29 percent of their run plays to the right side behind McGary and were averaging 5.1 yards per carry on those runs. Over the last three games mostly without McGary, the Falcons run only about 18 percent of the time to the right and are averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. If the Falcons want to get their ground game going in these final three weeks, the sooner that McGary returns, the better.
With fullback Keith Smith done for the remainder of the year with an ankle injury, the Falcons will need better play from his replacement. Despite the obvious option of promoting Parker Hesse from the practice squad, the Falcons have opted for Tucker Fisk to suit up against the Colts.
This will mark Fisk’s fourth game filling in for Smith and he’s been mostly serviceable in that capacity. Yet, he’ll need to be better if he’s going to fill the void left by Smith’s absence and also justify his promotion ahead of Hesse. That would also help lift the run game.
The Falcons need more from their pass rush during this closing three-game stretch and that means more heavy lifting from outside linebacker Arnold Ebieketie. The Falcons’ current sack leader (5.5) needs to take the next step to become a more consistent threat off the edge. There’s a prime opportunity to exploit this matchup against the Colts since the only glaring weakness along their offensive line is rookie right tackle Blake Freeland. Freeland is also a backup, and it’s worth noting that most games where Ebiketie registered a sack featured backup tackles lining up against him.
A strong finish for Ebiketie not only helps the defense in the short term but also enhances Ebiketie’s long-term future in Atlanta as someone capable of becoming more than a complementary pass-rusher.
Can you name any other Atlanta Falcons that intrigue you in this Colts matchup?