Earlier this week, I noted that Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith has an opportunity to considerably cool the seat upon which his job security is measured on. That must begin this weekend as the Falcons face a tough, physical Baltimore Ravens team on the road.
The Falcons have struggled consistently on the road under Smith, but those road struggles seemed to have been taken to the next level this season. And they are facing a Ravens team that has a considerable home-field advantage. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco sports a 41-10 record as a starter at home.
Regardless of the venue, one would be hard-pressed to argue that the Ravens weren’t the better team and by a significant margin. The Ravens sport the fifth-ranked scoring offense, eighth-ranked total offense, and third-ranked scoring defense in the NFL.
While the Falcons offense compares favorably with rankings of fifth and third in scoring and total offense, respectively, their defense has been atrocious. The Falcons defense rank 29th in scoring defense, a major disadvantage against the Ravens offense that has made a stark improvement from 2013, when they ranked 25th in scoring.
In the 41 home wins, Flacco has thrown 21 interceptions, an average of 0.5 per game. In the 10 losses, Flacco has thrown 12 interceptions, an average of 1.2 per game. Clearly, the Falcons will increase their chances to pull off the rare upset by forcing some turnovers.
Any such changes of possession should give the Falcons offense a few more opportunities to score, something they sorely will need against a tough Ravens defense.
Falcons Must Put Pressure on Flacco
I’ve discussed in the past the correlation between generating pressure on the quarterback leading to increased number of turnovers. If the Falcons are going to pick off Flacco and give their offense more chances, they are going to have to find a way to exploit an injury-depleted Ravens offensive line.
Left tackle Eugene Monroe and left guard Kelechi Osemele are doubtful this week with knee injuries. Their replacements, James Hurst and John Urschel are both rookies. Hurst is an undrafted free agent, while Urschel was a fifth-round pick.
Essentially, the right side of the Falcons defensive line will have to find a way to exploit both players’ youth. The Falcons typically employ their two best pass-rushers in defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux and edge-rusher Jonathan Massaquoi on the right side of their defense. Despite the Falcons loss to the Chicago Bears last week, both Babineaux and Massaquoi were two of the team’s better pass-rushers in that game. Babineaux will likely try and use his quickness to exploit Urschel, who is suiting up for only his second NFL game. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora will join Massaquoi against Hurst, and will hopefully teach the young tackle some veteran moves.
Massaquoi did most of his damage last week as a pass-rusher from the left side of the line, facing Bears right tackle Jordan Mills. For the Ravens, they feature second-year right tackle Rickey Wagner, who has put together a solid 2014 campaign. He is the highest graded right tackle according to premium website Pro Football Focus in terms of pass protection and ranks only behind Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas among all tackles. It’s unlikely that the Falcons will be able to exploit Wagner given such success, but the Falcons might try and dial up some pressure in other ways.
All three of Flacco’s interceptions this season have come when he’s been blitzed according to Pro Football Focus. The Falcons have not tried to exploit their blitzing capabilities to their full potential this year, likely due to being burned early this season on plays such as Mohamed Sanu’s 76-yard touchdown in Week 2.
But given the fact that the team’s back is against the wall, they might wish to be a bit more aggressive this week, particularly early if they want to try and get the Ravens off balance early.
I’ve been a broken record this year in stating this, but once again the Falcons need to help themselves by getting off to a fast start. The Falcons running game has largely been marginalized by the fact that they’ve been forced to play from behind most weeks. Even including their Week 3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where the Falcons held the lead for the final 57 minutes of the game, the team has only had a lead for a total of roughly 111 minutes this season. That is less than a third of roughly 362 minutes that the team has played this season.
Falcons Offensive Line Will Be Tested
The Falcons have been forced to play from behind, putting pressure on their passing game, which has not responded in recent weeks. Part of that has been due to the fact that offensive line play has taken a recent downturn thanks to injuries to four of the team’s five starters. Two of those injuries have forced backups into the starting lineup, and another has made left tackle Jake Matthews into a liability as of recently.
The fact that Matthews did not appear on this week’s injury report due to a sore ankle does give the Falcons some optimism that he can return to his previous solid form. But he’ll face serious competition this week in his climb back, as he’ll square off against Terrell Suggs. While Suggs’ sack total is down this year (1.5), his nine quarterback hits (per Pro Football Focus) are tied for second-most in the NFL.
But for all the sacks that Suggs hasn’t gotten, Elvis Dumervil has more than made up for it with a team-leading five sacks. Dumervil will square off against Falcons right tackle Gabe Carimi, who is coming off a rough performance last week.
The Falcons will need Carimi and others to step up if their passing game is going to rebound. It’s possible that it could given the lone weakness of the Ravens defense appears to be their secondary. The Ravens ranked 27th in passing yards allowed this season. That is partly due to the fact that opposing offenses are throwing the ball more given the Ravens eighth-ranked run defense. But it’s also because the Ravens have given up several big plays on the back end. They have allowed 24 passing plays of 20 or more yards, which is tied for the third most in the NFL.
The Falcons lead the league with 28 pass plays of 20 or more yards, so this is a matchup the Falcons could potentially exploit. But it is heavily dependent on better play from the offensive line to give quarterback Matt Ryan the time to find his targets downfield.
That has been problematic the past two weeks as both the Bears and New York Giants were able to get effective pressure when able to pin their ears back on passing downs. That cannot repeat this week against a formidable Ravens pass rush headlined by Suggs and Dumervil.
That’s why getting the running game involved will be very important for the Falcons to limit the number of times the Ravens can pin their ears back. But again, given the success the Ravens have had in stopping the run this year, it’s unlikely that the Falcons’ injury-depleted offensive line will be able to simply line up and win consistently. Along with Suggs and Dumervil, the Ravens also sport widebody defensive tackles Haloti Ngata and Brandon Williams, who both are pushing 340 pounds, and potential Defensive Rookie of the Year in linebacker C.J. Mosley in their front seven. Simply put, the Falcons will struggle to line up and move those guys off the ball.
So the Falcons might have to devise some new tactics to accomplish their goals.
Falcons Strength May Rest Outside the Hashmarks
One way the Falcons might be able to offset the physical disparity between the two fronts is by spreading out the Ravens defense and trying to attack its edges rather than the teeth where Ngata, Williams and Mosley line up.
By utilizing their four wide receiver sets, the Falcons may be able to spread out the Ravens defense and get one less defender in the box. Running backs Antone Smith, Devonta Freeman and Jacquizz Rodger all have the speed and quickness to attack the edges, while the team can still mix in starter Steven Jackson to be the “hammer” if/when they get into short-yardage situations.
The Falcons can also try and utilize the short and quick passing game to generate yardage that is comparable to rushing success. Whether a five-yard gain on first down comes via a quick pass or a run play, it still keeps the offense on schedule.
The Falcons need to stay on schedule in this game in order to stay ahead of the Ravens defense. Again, getting into 3rd-and-longs where the Ravens can pin their ears back is playing to their opponents’ strength, rather than the Falcons own.
The Falcons also should try and devise ways to exploit the Ravens propensity to give up big plays. Getting the ball into the hands of playmakers like Julio Jones, Devin Hester and Smith will be important. The Falcons have made ample use of the screen pass to Jones this year, but might want to dial up Hester a bit more. Even Eric Weems and Roddy White might get into that mix as well early to try and get both more involved in the offense than they have been in recent weeks. Weems and White both are excellent blockers, and any screen that has one or both blocking on the outside is a well-designed play.
The Falcons also should try and get back towards giving Hester opportunities in the ground game. Reverses, end-arounds and jet sweeps to Hester haven’t been utilized as much as initially hoped this year. Making use of them on Sunday could help catch the Ravens defense off guard.
Smith has been one of the Falcons’ most reliable playmakers this year and the Falcons must find ways to get him the ball on the outside. Smith is dangerous in space, and designing plays that can get him one-on-one against Ravens defenders in the open field can go in the Falcons’ favor. Option routes, screens and wheel routes could be important to create those opportunities.
Utilizing those screens could help negate some of the Ravens pass rush as well, particularly if they reach a point where they can start to pin their ears back and get after Ryan.
Essentially, if the Falcons try and play a “traditional” football game this weekend against the Ravens, it’s likely doomed to fail. The Ravens simply have too many good players to lose that sort of game. The Ravens have a healthy running game, a good offensive line, and a formidable front seven that can both stop the run and get after the quarterback. Those same units for the Falcons cannot be described in similar glowing terms. Not to mention that Flacco is historically a lot better at home than Ryan has been on the road, given the Ravens an advantage at the most important position on the field.
Falcons Must Become a Better-Coached Team
The notion that the Falcons coaches can “inspire” their players to play above and beyond their abilities in order to become a more talented team than are, is simply a pipe dream. Instead, the Falcons coaches need to come up with a new set of tactics that put their players in better positions so that disparity in ability is not as apparent.
There has been a debate over whether the bulk of the Falcons problems stem from a lack of talent versus poor coaching. I certainly have argued that through the first six games of the season, the lack of talent has been more problematic. But from this point on, the Falcons need their coaching to step up.
Basically the Falcons coaching staff must find ways to compensate for their lack of talent. That needs to begin this week, and the Ravens are a good litmus test to determine if that is going to happen because they are one of the more well-rounded teams the Falcons are set to face on the remainder of their 2014 schedule.
Even if the coaches make the necessary adjustments, there is still no guarantee the Falcons will prevail on Sunday. And I think one can argue that it’s less important about the final result of game although of course winning should be the ultimate goal. But if the Falcons can display some new tactics to offset their lesser talent and play competitively against the Ravens on Sunday, then it sets them up more well to start winning games in the second half of the season against weaker competition.