The Atlanta Falcons finally return home to the Georgia Dome for the first time since Week 6 to square off against the Cleveland Browns. After last week’s victory over their NFC South rival in the Carolina Panthers, the Falcons are now in the driver’s seat in the division. The Falcons now have control of their destiny, a position they haven’t had since Week 3 of this season.
In the time since, it’s been quite a bit of negativity for this team due to five consecutive losses by a combined margin of 60 points from Weeks 4 through 8. The Falcons were bad, but have seemingly righted the ship with two consecutive wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Panthers coming out of their Week 9 bye. They have an opportunity to extend that win streak to three against the Browns on Sunday.
This week’s game will be a major determining factor in whether the Falcons are “for real” in the sense that they can make a serious run at the playoffs despite holding a 4-6 record currently. The Browns are 6-4, and have more wins than the Bucs and Panthers combined. A win this week will be the Falcons’ first “quality win” since Week 1 when they beat the New Orleans Saints in overtime.
It will be a big confidence booster for the Falcons moving forward and perhaps an indicator that the season is indeed turning around.
But beating the Browns won’t be easy. The Falcons success this season has largely been linked to their offensive production. The Bucs and Panthers are two of the weakest defenses in the NFL, while the Browns are not. The Browns rank 22nd in total defense, but seventh in scoring defense indicating that they are a “bend but don’t break” unit. That is also indicated by the fact that their red-zone defense is third-best in the NFL. The Browns’ third-down defense is also among the best, ranking seventh in the league.
All told, it indicates that the Browns defense is a stingy unit. That is thanks largely to their pass defense, which ranks as the league’s best when it comes to passer rating allowed. It will be a tall order for the Falcons to try and overcome that unit, because their passing attack is the bread and butter of their offense.
The Falcons should benefit from the improved health of their receiving corps this week. Harry Douglas and Devin Hester have been banged up in recent weeks, yet the Falcons have managed to overcome those injuries to get victories. Hester didn’t miss a day of practice this week, and Douglas is also making gains. Roddy White has been bothered by a knee injury that his limited his effectiveness all season, but his production has improved in recent weeks. However, the strength and core of the Falcons’ passing attack still rests on the shoulders of Julio Jones. And it will be interesting to see how effective Jones is this week given he’s likely to draw a tough matchup from Cleveland.
The Browns tend to use cornerback Joe Haden as a “shadow” corner, meaning he’ll follow the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver throughout the game. It won’t mean that Haden will cover Jones every snap, but the pair will certainly be locked up for a large portion of the game. Haden has drawn some tough assignments in recent weeks in the forms of Andre Johnson, A.J. Green and Vincent Jackson. According to Pro Football Focus, Haden shut out Jackson on five passes thrown his way. Interestingly, Haden also held both Johnson and Green in check, particularly after the catch. Between the two of them, Johnson and Green have averaged nearly five yards per reception in yards after the catch. But Haden held them to a combined 11 yards on 10 receptions.
Per Pro Football Focus, Jones averages five yards after the catch per reception this year. Containing Jones after the catch will be a big boost to the Browns defense, since Jones is one of the few explosive playmakers the team has after the catch besides Hester.
The Falcons will have to find ways to get the ball to Jones, as their offense has stalled when they haven’t throughout the season. The team has tried to utilize screen passes in order to facilitate Jones’ touches, but in recent weeks those have proven to be far from effective. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan indicated earlier this week that there is no indication the team will halt the screens, but finding new ways of feeding Jones would be very beneficial. Taking a few more deep shots to Jones could work. While Haden is by no means a small corner, he does give up a good amount of size to Jones, which could become advantageous for the latter in some jump-ball situations down the field.
One receiver that Haden has continually had problems with over the years is Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown. The Steelers have been effective in getting Brown loose against Haden with some vertical routes, particularly deep comebacks and back-shoulder throws. Also double moves have also been ways that Browns has beaten Haden from time to time. These are ways the Falcons might try and get Jones his opportunities against a quality corner such as Haden.
But also, the Falcons are going to need their other receivers to step up. With improved health, the Falcons can utilize the four-wide receiver sets that have proven to be most effective for their offense in 2014. The rest of the Browns secondary is a bit more suspect. Buster Skrine is the Browns’ other starting corner and will likely draw multiple assignments against White. Skrine is a smaller corner (5’9″ 185 pounds) and presents a matchup where White could use his size and physicality to be effective.
In the slot, undrafted rookie K’Waun Williams will likely be matched up against either Douglas or Hester, depending on the situation. Williams has played well this year, and it will be important for both Douglas and Hester to expose him, if possible, this week.
But another area where the Falcons can attack the Browns is on the ground. The one weakness of the Browns defense is their run defense, which currently ranks 30th and 29th in rushing yards and yards per carry allowed, respectively. That could be hurt even further by the injury to inside linebacker Karlos Dansby, which has him listed as doubtful on this week’s injury report. Dansby will be replaced by Craig Robertson, who joins rookie Chris Kirksey in the middle of the Browns defense. Both Robertson and Kirksey are smaller, speed linebackers that fare better in coverage than they do against the run at the point of attack. Coupled with injuries to defensive tackle Phil Taylor, the Browns are essentially soft up the middle.
The Falcons will need to attack this with running back Steven Jackson and Devonta Freeman. Jackson can be the hammer, while Freeman can bring some quickness and ability to break some longer runs on the second level. Freeman is expected to see more reps this week due to the injury that put Antone Smith on injured reserve. Smith only had a handful of carries in recent weeks, but every additional rep will be beneficial to Freeman and potentially the Falcons as a whole.
Hopefully the Falcons can be able to compensate for whatever Haden might take away from Jones with a more balanced offensive attack that can keep the offense on schedule. Getting into too many third-and-longs will play into the Browns hands, given their quality third-down defense.
On the other side of the ball, the Browns are a run-oriented offense, and while they haven’t had a ton of success rushing the ball since the injury to center Alex Mack in Week 6, they still like to keep the ball on the ground. That is because the team doesn’t have a ton of trust in quarterback Brian Hoyer to win games with his arm. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated on establishing the run, which then can open passing windows. Per Pro Football Focus, the Browns utilize play-action passing 30.1 percent of the time, tied for the third-most in the league.
Thus, the Falcons will have to focus on stopping the run. But the team cannot put too much focus on bringing extra defenders into the box because this week marks the return of wide receiver Josh Gordon to the Browns’ lineup. Gordon and Hoyer are no strangers, as Hoyer targeted him 26 combined times in Gordon’s first two games back from suspension in 2013. Hoyer is no fool and knows that getting the ball into the hands of his top playmaker is when the Browns’ passing offense can be most successful.
The Falcons tinkered last week with using cornerback Desmond Trufant as a shadow corner against Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Despite Benjamin going for over 100 yards receiving, Trufant proved to be more effective than not in the game. The Falcons might contemplate having Trufant shadow Gordon for a significant portion of Sunday’s game. If so, it will take pressure off other corners Robert McClain and Josh Wilson, who will have to step up in the absence of Robert Alford, to cover Gordon.
The Falcons will likely have to make greater effort to give McClain safety help over the top, especially given his historic troubles against fast receivers such as Cleveland’s Andrew Hawkins and Travis Benjamin along with Gordon. Even if Trufant is not shadowing Gordon throughout the game, it still will likely present several opportunities for him to be stuck on an island against the opposing Browns receiver. That is obviously a scenario that the Browns could look to exploit if possible.
To help out the secondary, the Falcons will need their pass rush to step up. According to Pro Foootball Focus, Hoyer’s passer rating drops from 86.3 overall to 50.3 on plays when he’s pressured. Hoyer’s completion percentage is also an abysmal 36.7 percent when pressured.
The Falcons will have difficulty getting pressure against the left side of the Browns offensive line due to the presences of tackle Joe Thomas and guard Joel Bitonio. But the right side is much more prone to give up pressure with tackle Mitchell Schwartz and guard John Greco. But the biggest weakness of the Browns offensive line is center Nick McDonald. He will likely see matchups against Paul Soliai and Corey Peters at nose tackle. Falcons pass-rushers, particularly those that line up the left side of defensive line will need to step up and provide some heat against Hoyer. The Falcons may also wish to dial up a few blitzes if the guys up front aren’t capable of applying the necessary heat.
Overall, this Falcons-Browns matchup is pretty straightforward. It will be a better litmus test to determine if the Falcons are really in a position where they can make a legitimate run down the stretch this season. The Browns offer a few favorable matchups, but at the end of the day, certain players in the secondary, defensive line, and wide receiver corps are simply going to have to step up and make the necessary plays to win the game. If they do, then the Falcons can get their first win in the Georgia Dome since Week 3 and be well on their way to building the necessary momentum to make a playoff push.