Justin Fields has been terrorizing opposing defenses, and the Falcons haven’t dealt with many effective running quarterbacks in 2022.
The Falcons have long struggled to contain quarterbacks who can run the ball. Whether it was Jalen Hurts or Sam Darnold in 2021, Taysom Hill (who only loosely fits the definition of a quarterback, but whatever) multiple times in recent years, or Cam Newton throughout the years, quarterbacks who were willing and able to tuck the ball in and take off running generally found themselves able to do so against our favorite football team.
That hasn’t really changed this year so much as it has ceased to be a factor. Unusually, the Falcons haven’t played any great runners at quarterback all season, with Hill ripping off a few big gains in Week 1, P.J. Walker and Joe Burrow taking off and rolling up a couple of nice scrambles each, and not much else. Aside from Hill’s 80 yard explosion in Week 1, the Falcons have allowed just 89 yards on 27 carries to every other quarterback they’ve faced thus far.
That will change in a major way in Week 11, which means we’ll get to see how much facing Marcus Mariota and Desmond Ridder in practice has helped this defense. Justin Fields has been a true dual threat, punishing teams who underestimate his arm and finding his way to several efficient performances of late, with eight touchdowns versus just two interceptions over the past four weeks. He’s averaging just a click over 20 passing attempts and is comfortably near the top of the league in intended air yards per attempt, in the same neighborhood as Marcus Mariota. The saving grace for this pass defense might be the return of A.J. Terrell and Fields’ penchant for missed throws, as he’s also currently in the same neighborhood as Mariota (Fields is 8th, Mariota is 5th) in terms of percentage of bad throws per Pro Football Reference, and is credited with the lowest on-target throw percentage in the NFL this season.
The Falcons need to be wary of his arm and his growing rapport with weapons like Chase Claypool and young tight end Cole Kmet, because Fields is plenty capable of game-changing passes. But as you might guess by the windup earlier in this article, I’m more concerned about the damage Fields is going to do with his legs than his arm.
Fields is currently sixth in the NFL in rushing yards and eighth in touchdowns, which are the best and second-best marks for a quarterback in the NFL today, and it would be fair to argue that nobody has been more effective running it over the last five weeks. Over that span, Fields has 555 of his 749 rushing yards and five of his six touchdowns, meaning he and the Bears are currently red-hot. The Falcons would’ve been better off facing them earlier in the season, to say the least.
The problem is that Atlanta’s run defense is currently struggling. Allen Strk wrote yesterday that the team’s decision not to look for upgrades along the defensive line is coming back to bite them, and that plus lackluster linebacker play has allowed Carolina to run all over them twice. Overall, this is still a solid enough run defense on the season that I wouldn’t expect Chicago to simply roll them, but they haven’t had to deal with a capable rushing attack and a quarterback who is a threat to break off a 30 yard gain on any given play. Because of the defensive trend lines and because we simply haven’t seen them face off against a player of Fields’ caliber as a runner, this looms as perhaps the week’s biggest trouble spot for Atlanta.
As I alluded to earlier this week, Atlanta’s going to have their suddenly struggling run defense challenged by the Bears. David Montgomery is a very good back and Khalil Herbert was doing an excellent job, but I just saw that he hit injured reserve, which is a serious blow to this ground game. Montgomery is still perfectly capable of making life difficult for the Falcons on Sunday afternoon. Fields, who can hurt this team through the air and destroy them on the ground, is the biggest obstacle standing between an Atlanta victory and another tough defeat.