Another ferocious front. another offense trying to figure it out.
The Falcons are trying to build something. The Football Team are looking to get right. Those two competing priorities will meet in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday for Atlanta’s second home game, and the hope is that the Falcons can make it two in a row against the NFC South.
Atlanta’s win Sunday may have been ugly—hell, it was—but it was also a fourth quarter marvel on the road, and the fact that the Falcons clawed their way back into it rather than folding is a big deal. As rough as Washington has looked in 2021 thus far, they have mostly been sliced and diced by terrific quarterbacks like Justin Herbert and Josh Allen, so their defense is likely not as weak as it appears on paper. It’s going to take a more complete effort to beat this Football Team, and if they manage that, they’ll suddenly be .500 and hopefully have put their worst football of 2021 behind them.
All that is ahead, though. For now, let’s talk about this week’s opponent and what you need to know for the matchup ahead.
It’s another battle of two not-so-great football teams! The Falcons offense has been far more inept than Washington’s, but Football Team’s defense (that’s so weird to type) has both faced quality opponents and generally done a very poor job of containing them thus far.
The matchups that matter here are the ones you’d expect. That Washington front is awfully intimidating on paper, and the Falcons offensive line is coming off a better (but still not stellar) game against the Giants. Atlanta’s ability to keep Chase Young, Daron Payne, Montez Sweat and Jonathan Allen out of the backfield and out of Matt Ryan’s face is perhaps the biggest question mark here, with Ryan’s comfort level also being a priority after he looked unusually skittish against the Giants. That front four is one of the best young groups in the entire NFL, so if the line survives this challenge, it’s a huge boost for the rest of the year. Atlanta will need to put the clamps on Terry McLaurin and Logan Thomas to the greatest extent possible to keep this one from getting out of hand, so it will definitely help if A.J. Terrell is back in action on Sunday.
Washington’s defense has otherwise not been quite the juggernaut its talent up front suggests, and it’ll be incumbent on the Falcons to keep the bad times rolling for that side of the ball. Atlanta’s points against number is a bit skewed by Matt Ryan’s two pick-sixes in Week 2, and the Washington defense has looked worse across the board than the Falcons thus far, albeit against some pretty tough competition. A “three quarters of gristle, one quarter of steak” effort from Atlanta would be a problem given how shaky Washington has looked.
The offense, meanwhile, is obviously not quite firing on all cylinders either. Taylor Heinicke has stepped in and done an admirable job with Ryan Fitzpatrick hurt, and he’s been sacked just twice in three games, giving you a sense of both the quality of the Washington line thus far and Heinicke’s ability to avoid pressure. He is fresh off a tough effort where he was forced to prioritize shorter passes, was picked off twice on a gusty day, and was clearly a bit rattled after absorbing a couple of big hits and falling behind by a lot. Given the talent on hand for Washington, Heinicke is the key to slowing this offense down, and the Falcons will have to keep him off-balance and force him into mistakes.
This is another manageable matchup for a good version of this Falcons team. The question, as it has been since the very first week of the season, is whether we’ll get that version.
How the Football Team has changed in 2021
You know one player Washington lost this offseason, because Fabian Moreau joined Atlanta and is currently the team’s #2 cornerback, The wonderfully named Jeremy Sprinkle at tight end, Robert Foster at wide receiver, and longtime pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan also parted ways with Washington. In general, Football Team did not lose anyone particularly impactful.
They did add, though. Ryan Fitzpatrick joined up as the team’s starting quarterback with Washington unable to take a swing at one of the top quarterbacks in the draft, William Jackson III joined the cornerback group from the Bengals, and while he’s having a so-so start to the season, he’s a good player who was a big get for the secondary. Curtis Samuel at receiver, Charles Leno at tackle and Bobby McClain at safety all figured to be at least complementary pieces for this team. Washington wanted to build on their playoff run last year and did a nice job of addressing a few key weaknesses with quality additions, even if quarterback figured to still be a limiting factor for them.
Their draft class was intended to add real talent to the mix. Linebacker Jamin Davis has been mostly quiet through three games, but the first round pick is a terrific athlete who has all the tools necessary to be a problem for offenses in the near future. Tackle Sam Cosmi is already starting and has been pretty good despite a couple of penalties, and I loved the Dyami Brown pick given his potential as an offensive weapon. They added a couple of immediate starters and bolstered their depth, and it’s hard not to like the direction the Football Team is moving in, even if they’re still very much a work in progress.
What to know for Sunday
As I alluded to above, this game is going to hinge on the Falcons offense getting going and taking advantage of a Washington defense in a bit of a state of disarray. There’s no question that Football Team has been victimized by a couple of very good offenses, but they also let Daniel Jones have a better day against them (especially on the ground) than Atlanta did, which tells you there is a bit of a real weakness here.
We’re well overdue for the Falcons to turn this thing on. Cordarrelle Patterson has been tremendous but can’t and shouldn’t be the focal point of an offense with Kyle Pitts and Calvin Ridley. Atlanta badly needs to find a way to get the ball to Pitts, who has godlike yards after the catch ability, and give Ridley more opportunities to work his wizardry and get open further downfield than, say, 4 yards. Continued use of Patterson and a continued willingness to use Mike Davis to get tough yards and wear down the defense is smart, but opening things up and not relying so heavily on Matt Ryan dunking his way down the field a few yards at a time would go a very long way.
That will rely, at least somewhat, on keeping Ryan clean. After two weeks of being chased down and harried by a pair of great pass rushes, Ryan had more time last week but looked like he was anticipating pressure that wasn’t there, rushing a handful of throws despite having time. Hopefully between the win and the improved offensive line performance a week ago, there’s something to build on here and the Falcons can finally get in a groove. This is an opportunity for Jalen Mayfield, in particular, to show he belongs in this starting lineup for the rest of the year.
Defensively, Atlanta just needs to do what they did against the Giants and stymie the ground game while generating a few big plays against Heinicke. As good as Antonio Gibson is and as good as Heinicke has been at times, making this team one-dimensional is going to give you more opportunities to tee off on a quarterback who does not have a killer arm and can have shaky pocket presence. Easier said than done—this team has a bad habit of disappearing on defense at exactly the right time—but the ask is fairly straightforward.
Finally, Dustin Hopkins is a solid kicker but is coming off a year where he hit under 80% of his kicks and missed a few times from 40-plus yards, and he’s whiffed on his lone attempt of 50-plus yards in 2021. If this game comes down to Hopkins versus Younghoe Koo, I like Atlanta’s chances.
This is a winnable game, but the Falcons won’t have the advantage of facing a decimated receiver corps or getting away with a few major mistakes Washington won’t capitalize on. The modest week-to-week improvement has this team pointing in the right direction, but the hope is that now that they know where they road is, they can hit the gas and get this thing back to .500.