The 5-6 Falcons try to get back to .500 once more, but they’ll have to get by a 6-5 Washington Commanders team that has suddenly caught fire.
Falcons – Commanders comparison
The Washington offense is fine. In four of the past five weeks, they’ve put up over 300 yards, but they’ve only scored more than 23 points once in that span. They can run the ball effectively when they’re on and they can pass the ball moderately well with their capable collection of pass catchers, and they’ll probably put up 20-25 points on Sunday and look alright doing it.
Defensively, they’re more threatening. Washington has three players with over six sacks on the season and 29 sacks in total, plus the league’s highest pressure rate. They combine that with a very good run defense to stamp out and stomp out teams’ hopes of effective days on offense. Their front has been a problem for several teams, including (and most impressively) the Eagles a couple of weeks ago, and it will likely be a problem for Atlanta. Overall, Washington is just a solid enough team that’s playing better football of late, making them beatable but only if you’re having a good day yourself.
The Falcons are in danger of having a non-functional passing attack with Kyle Pitts on the shelf, given that the team has thrown for over 150 yards just twice in the past eight weeks to begin with. The Washington pass rush and solid secondary figure to make this a long afternoon for Atlanta, so it’ll be imperative that the pass protection holds up, Marcus Mariota is crisp, and Arthur Smith rummages around in his bag of tricks to keep this thing humming. The Falcons should still be able to run the ball, but this is a very good run defense, so that complicates things further for Atlanta.
The singular focus on slowing Justin Fields and the Chicago ground game worked really well on Sunday, and you have to tip your cap to the Falcons defense for that effort. This is a more balanced squad—again, not a good one—and hopefully Atlanta can carry over their strong work against Chicago into slowing Washington and making this a manageable game.
How the Commanders have changed
Well, first of all, they have a new name. They were the Washington Football Team last year when Atlanta played (and unfortunately lost to) them.
Otherwise, this team is familiar, if likely improved. Taylor Heinicke has the starting job going forward, just like he did against Atlanta a year ago, but he has a clearly upgraded receiving corps with Jahan Dotson joining Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel healthy. Brian Robinson is a physical addition to a backfield that still features Antonio Gibson, and the offense line is solid enough.
Defensively, you’re not going to see a ton of new faces among the starters. Chase Young might be back, but unfortunately for Atlanta, Washington’s Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne, and Montez Sweat trio up front are all going to make life hell on Sunday regardless of what Young does. The biggest difference is in the secondary, where William Jackson is gone at cornerback and Darrick Forest is starting at strong safety where Landon Collins held down the fort a year ago (and has, it must be noted, a team-leading three interceptions). Cornerback depth has been thinned by injuries, which could be a factor Sunday even with the shaky state of Atlanta’s passing game, but overall this defense looks similar to the one that gave the Falcons some fits a year ago.
Oh, and Dan Snyder is selling the team, which is a plus for everyone.
What lies ahead
First, the elephant in the room: The Falcons just lost two of their better young players for extended time periods, and that will have an impact on this game.
Atlanta is going to be without Kyle Pitts potentially for the rest of the season. It has been a tough season for the second-year tight end, who hasn’t often been on the same page with Marcus Mariota, but he still had his share of big plays, had progressed as a blocker, and just having him on the field provided a threat that opened everything up for the rest of the passing game. Losing him for the rest of the year is a huge blow, and it limits the already limited upside of this aerial attack. It’s not clear how the Falcons are going to replace his production, however up and down it may have been, or the threat he posed for defenses.
Ditto Ta’Quon Graham. The capable second fiddle to Grady Jarrett on this defensive line, Graham’s presence allowed the Falcons to get away with rotating in a bunch of solid but unspectacular players. Now with him out, the line is likely to scuffle a bit unless one or all of Abdullah Anderson, Timothy Horne, and Jalen Dalton take a big step forward. Against a capable but not great Washington offense, the hope is that they can get the job done, and at least they’re coming off a strong effort.
Those losses combined with Washington’s scary defensive front mean this is a game I’m not exactly looking forward to. The Falcons have been poor in pass protection all year, and while Mariota extends plays capably, he also can’t do anything with instant pressure in his face and tends to make poor decisions when frequently under fire. Considering he’s already going to have to navigate this game without Pitts and with teams likely keying on Drake London, Mariota is going to have to be incredibly crisp, which is a bit of an unfair burden but one he can’t help but shoulder given that the line is not suddenly going to figure out how to hold back the likes of Sweat and Payne after all these weeks.
The key, as usual, will be running the ball effectively and coming up with timely stops on defense. This Washington offense is solid enough to be threatening but not all that intimidating, and Taylor Heinicke has thrown an interception in four out of his five games this season, and we know that turnovers give this Falcons team life. I’m actually pretty confident they can hold the Commanders under 25 points, which should give them a good shot at winning if the offense shows up. That is a question mark because of the state of the passing game and the fact that the Commanders run defense has held teams under 100 yards in four out of the last five weeks.
This is not an easy matchup, is what you really need to know, and the sledding will be tougher without Pitts and Graham. Much more so than the Panthers, Bears, or even Chargers, this game will come down to whether the Falcons play clean, effective football, because Washington can be bested with Atlanta firing on all cylinders. If not—if they come out sloppy, turn the ball over, and fail to capitalize on their opportunities—this might be a long afternoon against a well-rounded team.
Don’t forget to check out all our coverage! We’re transitioning to using this article as our storystream for each matchup, so you can find all our Falcons – Commanders articles below.