The Atlanta Falcons have been down this path before. A path that entails injuries across their roster in some key areas that inhibit their ability to play their best football. Yet, the Falcons must find a way to rise above it.
The Falcons enter this weekend’s contest against the Chicago Bears sporting a respectable 2-3 record, yet questions about the strength and resolve of this Falcon team still surround them.
Part of that is that the team has yet to wash the rotten taste of their 4-12 2013 season away despite a promising 2-1 start to 2014. However, losing the past two games forces this team in a must-win situation this weekend.
That is thanks to the Falcons struggles on the road, where all three of their losses this year have come. The team’s road woes extend back to 2013, and the Falcons have only won one of their last 11 road games.
The Falcons will face the Bears at home in the Georgia Dome, where the team sports a much better record. They’ve won five of their last 11 home games, a record that is only diminished by the bitterness of 2013. Under head coach Mike Smith, the Falcons are 39-14 in the Georgia Dome.
Why the Bears becomes so important is that it is the only game that the Falcons will play inside the friendly confines of their home field between now and Week 12. If the Falcons cannot correct their road woes, it’s conceivable that this weekend’s game becomes their most winnable in the intervening six weeks. Given their plight on the road, the team cannot afford to drop another a game at home.
Falcons Better at Home, but Bears Also Better on the Road
Beating the Bears won’t be easy even at home. Passer rating differential is considered by some sites to be the “mother of all stats” and it does correlate well to winning. For the Falcons and Bears, they are about even with the Bears having a slight edge overall this season.
However, when putting the Falcons at home, their differential becomes tremendous. In two home games, the Falcons offense has a passer rating of 135.2 with a defensive passer rating of 80.4, giving an enormous differential that dwarves their overall figure.
Yet, the Bears have also shown the ability to improve their own differential on the road. Their offensive passer rating in road games is a very impressive 100.4, with a defensive rating of 69.2. That figure has been aided by shoddy quarterback play from the likes of Colin Kaepernick, Geno Smith and Cam Newton in their three road games, yet it’s a trend they hope will continue this week against Matt Ryan.
And it’s certainly possible, if not likely that Ryan may be due to have his worst performance at home thus far this season on Sunday. The Falcons are beat up at wide receiver and along their offensive line, the two strongest areas of the roster in Ryan’s earlier home performances against New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
The Falcons will be without Harry Douglas, and while reports indicate that fellow wide receiver Devin Hester will suit up on Sunday, his limited practice schedule this week certainly could negatively impact his effectiveness. Roddy White has been mostly ineffective in four games thus far this year, and isn’t likely to suddenly emerge against the likes of Bears cornerback Tim Jennings this week.
That leaves a lot of the Falcons offensive capabilities in the able hands of Julio Jones. How the Bears will try and defend Jones will be interesting to see on Sunday. The Bears have made regular use of zone coverages in their defense. Most opponents have consistently doubled Jones this year, and tried to force the Falcons other offensive playmakers to beat them, which they have not done on a regular basis. If the Bears insist on heavy usage of zone on Sunday, it’s likely to provide Jones ample opportunity to carve them up especially since he’ll be facing a rookie in Kyle Fuller for most of the afternoon. While Fuller has been one of the more impressive rookie corners, he’s had his fair share of ups and downs this year and will need help from a depleted Bears safety group to try and corral Jones.
Will Injuries Prevent Falcons Offensive Line from Improving?
Thusly, the Bears will probably focus most of their attention on exploiting a weakened Falcons offensive line to offset their secondary issues. Left guard Justin Blalock is expected to return this weekend from a back injury, but there could be lingering issues that limit his effectiveness. However, even a limited Blalock should be an upgrade over what the Falcons got last week from his replacement, Harland Gunn.
Left tackle Jake Matthews is also sporting an ankle injury that he struggled with in the second half of the Falcons loss last week against the New York Giants. Jason Pierre-Paul took ample advantage of Matthews in that half, and Matthews task won’t get any easier this week against veteran Jared Allen, who is searching for his first sack in a Bears uniform this week.
Right tackle Gabe Carimi and center Peter Konz are replacements for injured starters Lamar Holmes and Joe Hawley. Both were serviceable a week ago against the Giants, yet still have questions to answer if they are viable long-term options.
Right now, the only reliable option the Falcons have up front is right guard Jon Asamoah, and he’s also coming off his weakest performance to date. If the Bears can create consistent pressure, it will force the Falcons to check the ball down frequently as they did a week ago.
However, this option may not be as dire as it appears at first glance. While check downs should not be the staple of any NFL offense, the Falcons do sport a great weapon in Antone Smith that can be effective if used properly. Smith has already taken a pair of check downs to the house for scores this year, against the Saints and Giants, due to his blazing speed. If Ryan is forced to get rid of the ball early due to erratic protection, finding a way to get the ball into Smith’s hands could still prove effective.
The team may also want to take better advantage of screens to combat a Bears pass rush. This year, the team has mostly relied on screens to receivers, however a steadier mix of those plays to running backs like Smith, Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman could offset things if the Bears pass-rush starts to pin its ears back as the Giants did a week ago.
Defensively, there is little hope for the Falcons. While playing at home does seem to give the Falcons a bit of a boost, particularly when it comes to creating turnovers as the team is plus-two in turnover differential at home, yet minus-four on the road. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is infamous for his tendency to turn the ball over, although it should be noted that is something he failed to do in two of three road games this year.
Falcons Struggles to Start Fast Could be Problematic
To protect Cutler from himself, the Bears will likely rely on something that other Falcons opponents have done successfully against the team: run the ball.
Running back Matt Forte is off to a slower start than usual but hopes to rebound against a 28th-ranked Falcons run defense that has given up nearly 150 rushing yards per game.
The only game where the Falcons did not give up at least 124 rushing yards to their opponent was their Week 3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, thanks in large part to an early 21-0 lead the team gained by the outset of the second quarter.
The Falcons best run defense appears to be a fast start for the offense. Yet outside that Bucs game, the Falcons offense has struggled to get off to fast starts this season having scored just 17 first-quarter points in four other games.
The Bears have gotten off to fast starts in two of their three road games, outscoring the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers by a combined score of 28-10 in the first quarters of those games. Their other road game against the San Francisco 49ers saw their offense start slow against a formidable 49ers defense but finished strong with 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points to pull off the 28-20 victory.
Relative to the Jets, Panthers and 49ers units, the Falcons defense is downright flimsy. It will be difficult for them to stagnate a Bears offense that features a trio of formidable weapons in the passing game in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett.
Bears Formidable Offensive Weapons Could Challenge Falcons
Like White, Marshall has seen limited production through the early part of the season thanks to playing on an injured ankle. But Marshall still is a formidable asset in the red zone, with a team-leading five scores.
The Falcons feature a solid pair of young corners in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford that will do their best to match wits with the sizable Bears receivers. Bennett might be a bit more problematic however. The Falcons defense has been stingy against tight ends this year, although it remains to be seen if that is more a reflection of the lack of quality competition and a few timely injuries to opposing tight ends like Tyler Eifert, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Kyle Rudolph.
The Falcons focused on Larry Donnell a week ago against the Giants and were effective at marginalizing his athleticism to the tune of zero receptions. They will need to try and figure out a way to deal with Bennett’s size with safeties Dwight Lowery and Kemal Ishmael likely being tasked with the assignment.
The Falcons can take pressure off their secondary if their pass rush can get going, however that seems to be more wishful thinking based off that unit’s performance through five games. While the Bears do sport a weak link at left tackle with guard Michael Ola filling in for an injured Jermon Bushrod, the Falcons veteran edge-rushers have failed to take advantage of such advantageous matchups in the past. Thus the Falcons might have to rely more on blitzing to get effective pressure against Cutler, which in turn puts greater pressure on the secondary to maintain their coverage.
Essentially this weekend the Falcons must rely on improving in areas where they’ve been inconsistent throughout this season. A faster start and improved run defense will be greatly beneficial to the team. They’ll need receivers besides Jones to step up and be productive as well as get more consistent play from their offensive line than they did a week ago.
Because the Falcons won’t be able to rely on their home-field advantage for some time after Sunday, whatever they accomplish in these areas this weekend will provide good practice for future games where the team will have to find ways to overcome greater adversity on the road.