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What to know about Falcons - Lions in Week 3

Atlanta’s hoping to run its record to 3-0 by getting by a ferocious Lions squad.

Atlanta Falcons vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If you’re not hotly anticipating the upcoming matchup between the Falcons and Lions, you’re not in the right frame of mind. These are two teams that, if all goes well, could be among the dominant forces in the NFC in the years to come, not to mention two teams run by old school football coaches who prize physicality. It’s going to be a really good game.

Let’s dive into the matchup ahead on Sunday with a look at where these teams different, what the matchup might look like, and how Detroit has changed since we last saw them in the regular season.

2023 rankings

Falcons - Lions Week 3 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 2-0 14 15 28 4 8 3 2 22 12 6
Lions 1-1 10 3 4 14 28 22 26 9 21 25

A very good offense led by a dangerously efficient passing attack, and a shakier defense undone by big plays through the air. That’s the story of this Lions team thus far, and it explains why they’ve been so tough to beat—it took Seattle until overtime to do it—and why they’ve come close to losing both of their games.

The Lions weren’t great at holding opposing passing attacks in check last year and they’re not great this year, though playing Patrick Mahomes and Geno Smith in back-to-back weeks will do that to you. What they are excellent at is slinging it, and they’re solid enough to at holding opposing ground games in check. The pass rush is capable of big things, as well, and their own ground game has yet to stir but has considerable talent with David Montgomery (when he’s healthy) and Jahmyr Gibbs.

Atlanta is sort of the polar opposite. Their pass defense has been excellent despite a compelling pass rush, while the run defense has been a little bit of a liability through much of the young year. They run exceptionally well but the passing game, for all its talent, has not really sprung to life just yet.

The two teams will pose interesting challenges for one another given their respective strengths and weaknesses, in other words.

How the Lions have changed

With draft capital to spare, Detroit has elected to transform the team via a youth movement. The early returns are mixed, but this is a good team that got better over the long haul in April.

Their first pick was one of the draft’s biggest surprise, as the team added dynamic back Jahmyr Gibbs with the 12th overall pick in the hopes of giving Detroit the kind of electric playmaker the Falcons grabbed at 8th overall with Bijan Robinson. They turned their second first round pick into linebacker Jack Campbell, a plus run defender who the team hopes will develop into an all-around playmaker. In the second round, they grabbed Falcoholic favorite Brian Branch as a playmaking defensive back and top tight end Sam LaPorta as a receiving threat, and both of those players are off to terrific starts in 2023. The rest of their picks—quarterback Hendon Hooker, who is still recovering from a major injury, defensive tackle Brodric Martin, and a pair of late round picks—are upside dice rolls. It’s rare that a team gets a crack at four players with as much upside as Gibbs, Campbell, LaPorta, and Branch in their first four picks, and that class could be transformative for Detroit.

Beyond the draft, the Lions overhauled a secondary that was a disaster in 2023, shipping Jeff Okudah to Atlanta (and Mike Hughes, though not directly) and signing Cam Sutton at cornerback and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in addition to Branch. Otherwise, their free agency period was aimed at shoring up needs and providing depth, both of which were necessary.

Detroit’s not a drastically different team than they were a year ago; if not for injuries, you’d say they’re more talented. More on that in a minute, but the foundation of one of the NFC’s better teams is here.

What to know about Sunday’s game

You’re not going to win this one by sacking Jared Goff; fortunately, the Falcons weren’t planning on winning that way regardless.

Possibly down David Montgomery and with one of the league’s more quietly effective lines, the Lions are going to try to pass with an efficiency and efficacy that the Falcons simply haven’t seen in 2023. Goff may be a paint by the numbers passer, but with his array of weapons and protection, he can paint those numbers in damn vibrant colors, which is why he has only a single pick and is completing over 70% of his throws thus far. You can rattle Goff by pressuring him consistently, but that would require such a leap from a moribund Falcons pass rush that I’m not going to put much stock in it happening.

That means very sharp coverage, sound tackling, and yes, the occasional surprising blitz to hopefully force a big turnover or critical mistake. The name of the game for Atlanta is going to be discipline; the effort against Green Bay won’t fly against Detroit. I’ll also be interested to see how this team handles Sam LaPorta, an exciting young talent at tight end, given that they had some trouble with Luke Musgrave last week against the Packers.

That’s a little less true on the ground, where Jahmyr Gibbs is dynamic but hasn’t settled in yet. He’s fresh off an awful effort against Seattle’s defense that saw him put up just 17 yards on seven carries, and I’m far more concerned about what he can do as a pass-catching weapon out of the backfield than what he can do on the ground. That said, Atlanta can’t let this Detroit line open up big holes or missed tackles, because if Gibbs gets going he’ll be gone. This is a good offense, and while their line is banged up, they’ll make Atlanta pay for mistakes.

Offensively, Atlanta’s task is fairly straightforward: Run on a very solid Detroit defense, take advantage of a weakened Lions pass defense as they did late against Green Bay, and avoid the kinds of costly turnovers that will absolutely ruin their chances of winning this game, given how disciplined the Lions are on offense. The first part is easy—turn Bijan Robinson loose, let briskly sprinting sledgehammer Tyler Allgeier do what he does best—but the second part will require a sharper Desmond Ridder early and a commitment to giving the young quarterback good looks from the team’s array of weapons. It will also require quality pass protection against a Detroit pass rush that can cause serious problems, even if they weren’t as inspiring against Seattle as they were against the Chiefs. A sharp Falcons team can absolutely take advantage of this Detroit defense.

While it’s deeply unfortunate for the Lions, the Falcons’ fortunes will be improved by the injuries this Detroit team is dealing with. Just like the Packers were down multiple key starters, the Lions head into Sunday without Montgomery, starting safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (likely out for the year), pass rusher James Houston, starting left tackle Taylor Decker, and possibly right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, making that fierce Detroit line and defense a little less intimidating. The Lions are still a good team—they knocked off the Chiefs and took the Seahawks to overtime even with their injuries mounting—but these are holes Atlanta can and has to exploit.

The name of the game is much the same as it was last week for the Falcons, who have been absurdly great in the fourth quarter but have yet to sniff a complete game. They need to get rolling early, avoid mistakes, and lean on their strengths on offense and in coverage to defeat a Lions team that rarely beats itself. If they can play the more complete, wire-to-wire kind of game this opponent demands, they should be 3-0 and talked about as the legitimate force in the NFC that I think most of us assume they are.