Just like last week, it’s likely that much of my weekly previews surrounding the Atlanta Falcons will center on their ability to win in the trenches.
A week ago, we saw that when quarterback Matt Ryan was given time to throw, he could pick apart even a good New Orleans Saints defense. The Falcons will be facing another stout defense with a good pass rush again this week against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The key difference between the Bengals and Saints defense, is that the strength of the Bengals defensive line rests in the middle with defensive tackle Geno Atkins, while the Saints pass rush centers on their edge-rushers in Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette.
Fortunately for the Falcons, Atkins has been limited in practice this week with an unspecified injury to his feet. Atkins is also coming off a torn ACL that caused him to miss seven games last year. Atkins hasn’t quite returned to the elite form that had him finish 2012 with 12.5 sacks.
But there’s no doubt that even a nicked up Atkins will be able to provide more pressure to the Falcons interior offensive line than the likes of Akiem Hicks, Tyrunn Walker and Brodrick Bunkley were a week ago in the Falcons-Saints game.
The cleanliness of the interior pocket was a key for Ryan’s success last week, as he was given plenty of space to step up into the pocket when edge pressure from Jordan and Galette came screaming off the edges. Ryan showed a lot more willingness to step into throws in a muddy pocket and deliver passes downfield than he has traditionally shown over the years. It led to a career-high 448 yards passing for Ryan and three touchdowns. The task will be upon Atkins to disrupt Ryan and hit him in the mouth early and often.
Atkins will have it tough going against Falcons interior blockers Justin Blalock, Joe Hawley and Jon Asamoah. While that trio played well last week, it’s still going to be a taller order to keep Atkins in check. The team will likely scheme their protections to have Hawley team with either guard to double team Atkins the majority of snaps which will leave the other guard on an island. Thankfully the Bengals other starting defensive tackle, Domata Peko, is more of a widebody and space-eating run defender than a powerful pass-rusher. Brandon Thompson often subs in for Peko in passing situations, but he too has been limited as a pass-rusher.
The Falcons will still likely face plenty of heat from the edges, especially with Jake Matthews out of the lineup. Gabe Carimi is expected to get the start at left tackle and he struggled in his first in-game action of the year at tackle last week. While Carimi practiced at tackle during training camp, he went down early with an injury. His only in-game action this past summer came in the team’s preseason finale against the Jacksonville Jaguars at right guard.
Lamar Holmes held up relatively well against Cameron Jordan compared to last season’s season-opener. Last week, Holmes only gave up two hurries. A year ago in the season-opener, Holmes gave up three hurries, three pressures and a sack.
Both Holmes and Carimi will have their hands full this week against Bengals left defensive end Carlos Dunlap. Dunlap had a quiet season-opener against the Baltimore Ravens last week, but has similar traits to a player like Jordan due to his impressive athleticism for a guy with his size and length. On the other side, Wallace Gilberry is the Bengals other primary edge-rusher. Gilberry began his career as an interior situational rusher, and will still occasionally kick inside in passing situations. It was from the interior that he got a sack that ended the Ravens comeback attempt last week, blowing past Ravens right guard Marshal Yanda. Gilberry has good speed for a player his size, but instead tends to rely on the bull-rush off the edge. Carimi gave up a sack to Walker last week due to a bull-rush, and thus he’ll have to show that he can adjust and improve this week against Gilberry.
To supplement their front, the Bengals will likely dial up a number of blitzes. Last week, backup middle linebacker Vincent Rey rushed the quarterback 11 times (per premium website Pro Football Focus) while free safety Reggie Nelson also rushed 10 times. Matt Ryan does pretty well against the blitz, so it’s unlikely that the Bengals blitzes will swing things in their favor by any huge degree.
If the Bengals choose to dial up their blitzes, it will leave their defensive backs and linebackers on islands against the Falcons wide receiver corps. While the Bengals secondary is better than that of the Saints, they still should have difficulty matching up with the Falcons receivers. It’ll be likely that Nelson won’t be able to blitz quite as much since they may need him to play over the top to protect the Bengals from the deep shots to Julio Jones.
But it’s pivotal that Ryan is given the time he needs to find his receivers. If so, the Falcons offense shoudl have another productive Sunday. If not, then it’s very possible the Bengals could stop the Falcons offensive momentum and hand the team their first loss of 2014.