The Atlanta Falcons will be tested this weekend against their Week 5 opponent, the Washington Redskins, as the team returns home to the Georgia Dome hoping to extend their 2015 start to a 5-0 record.
Now the Falcons are in a new position, where they are the “hunted” as opposed to the “hunter.” Some team would love to become the first to hand Atlanta their first loss of the 2015 but the Falcons must remain hungry if they want to keep their winning streak alive.
Rather than has been the case for the first four weeks of 2015, let’s start with previewing the Falcons defense and how they will try and matchup with the Redskins offense.
Offensive Key For Success: Stuffing the Run
After all, the Redskins likeliest gameplan will center around controlling the ball and winning the physical matchup in the trenches. Essentially they want to punk Atlanta on Sunday by pounding it down their throat.
It’s the Redskins’ best avenue to carve out a potential win against the Falcons, since it plays to their strengths. While being quarterbacked by the underwhelming Kirk Cousins, the Redskins currently sit atop the league rankings in terms of rushing offense.
That league-leading running attack is led by a trio of solid running backs: Alfred Morris, Chris Thompson and Matt Jones. All bring different flavors with Morris being more of the downhill grinder, Thompson being the speedster and Jones being a happy medium.
That trio relies on a group of blockers up front that can allow them to gash even good defensive fronts for big yardage. In Week Two against the St. Louis Rams, who have one of the most talented defensive lines in the NFL, the Redskins ran for a season-high 182 yards. That was because their blockers were able to control the line of scrimmage by taking out the Rams’ linebackers on the second level, springing their backs for big gains.
The following image shows Redskins right guard Brandon Scherff taking out Rams linebackers James Laurinaitis, allowing for a big run by Morris that eventually set up another long run for a score.
Here we can see another play where Rams outside linebacker Alec Ogletree is going in reverse at the snap, allowing Redskins tight end Anthony McCoy to get position down field on a run by Jones where he followed pulling Redskins guard Shawn Lauvao.
Playing in the role of Ogletree in this instance for the Falcons could potentially be weak-side linebacker Joplo Bartu this week. Bartu replaced an injured Justin Durant at the position last week against the Houston Texans. Durant will sit out this week and the Falcons could opt to continue having Bartu filling in. Bartu is a gifted athlete, but hasn’t always showed great recognition or instincts there. He’ll have to do a lot better than Ogletree did in the above play.
However despite the Redskins’ production on the ground in 2015, they are not without their weaknesses. Center Kory Lichtensteiger has struggled through the first month of the season, consistently getting overwhelmed at the point of attack each week.
Falcons defensive tackle Paul Soliai could be a key ingredient to stopping the Redskins rushing attack in the backfield before it can get rolling downhill. Soliai made a similar play in Week 3 against Cowboys center Travis Frederick in Week Three:
Once the Falcons can control the line of scrimmage and win up front, it should help eliminate a major component of the Redskins gameplan.
Defensive Key For Success: Pressure the Quarterback
There has been much buzz about the new and improved Falcons pass rush heading into this season, which has lived up to a modicum of the hype. However perhaps this is the week that the unit begins to take the next step and become a group that is feared league-wide. The Seattle Seahawks defense under Falcons head coach Dan Quinn’s guidance in 2013 and 2014 had one of the league’s premier pass rushes and eventually, the plan is to copy that success in Atlanta. Yet thus far this year we haven’t quite seen a unit that constantly harasses opposing quarterbacks.
To help them facilitate more pressure, the Falcons might once again rely on stunts. Much of their pressure a week ago against the Texans came on instances where they were effective with stunts. Here you can see Falcons defensive end Vic Beasley loop around defensive tackle Adrian Clayborn to pressure the quarterback:
Here’s an example from the Redskins’ Week Four matchup where Philadelphia Eagles outside linebacker Brandon Graham nearly got a safety with a similar stunt.
Obviously, the Falcons are hopeful that Beasley and others are more successful getting home. Beasley will have a tough task ahead of him facing Redskins left tackle Trent Williams, who is one of the best tackles in the NFL.Williams has had a very impressive start to his 2015 campaign now that he’s the highest-paid tackle in the NFL. Williams handled Rams defensive end Robert Quinn for their entire Week Two matchup earlier this year.
While Beasley has the speed to get past Williams, he has yet to take that next step where he can consistently utilize his speed to win against a quality left tackle like Williams. Beasley’s matchups against some of the top left tackles in the league through the first month will hopefully be an effective “trial by fire” where the lessons he learns early in 2015 will pay off as we inch closer to January.
If the Falcons can effectively dial up pressure on Sunday against the Redskins, the latter team can’t unveil the other half of their two-pronged offensive strategy.
Defensive Key For Success: Staying Disclipined in the Secondary
Without wide receiver DeSean Jackson, the big play element from the Redskins passing game has diminished dramatically. According to Pro Football Focus, Cousins ranks 30th among 32 quarterbacks with an accuracy of 19 percent on deep passes. That’s a stark change from a year ago when Cousins ranked seventh.
However Cousins’ struggles with Jackson sidelined with injury doesn’t mean that the Redskins will completely abandon the vertical threat. But they might become more measured when they deploy it, hoping to catch a Falcons secondary sleeping. The Redskins will likely try and lull the Falcons defense with a plenty of shorter throws.
Cousins’ game-winning drive at the end of last week’s win over the Eagles consisted of a steady mix of running the football and completing high percentage passes. It’s a formula the Redskins could hope to repeat this week to keep their quarterback calm in the hostile environment known as the Georgia Dome.
Wide receiver Jamison Crowder has seen increased reps since Jackson was sidelined and his experience as a returner makes him a potential impact player on shallow crosses and screens due to his speed after the catch. Thompson will also be in the mix here as his level of speed has given the Falcons linebackers fits in the past. Here he beats New York Giants Jonathan Casillas, one of the league’s fastest linebackers, while split out wide in Week Three:
The Redskins’ top option will be wide receiver Pierre Garcon, who is a receiver that often wins with physicality. The following image is a good example of that as the veteran receiver manages to beat the jam by an Eagles cornerback and then makes a tough grab in traffic despite absorbing a big hit from the safety:
The Redskins might also feature a large number of shallow drag routes, settling for high-percentage underneath throws to allow Garcon and others to potentially make plays after the catch. Here’s an example from last week’s Redskins game where Garcon gains 10 yards.
The Redskins will move Garcon around the formation, although the recent performances of Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant this year likely means the Redskins will be smart by playing Garcon on the opposite side of the field where he’ll instead be facing Robert Alford.
Garcon won’t easily be outmuscled in traffic and will present an interesting challenge for Alford. But last week we saw Alford’s physicality show up on this play against Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins.
The Redskins will hope their short, high-percentage passing game can cause the Falcons defensive backs and linebackers to get overly aggressive and open up opportunities behind them for the deep pass.
It could have been hugely beneficial for the Redskins if they had their tight end Jordan Reed, who is also out this week due to concussion, knee and ankle injuries. Reed was quickly becoming Cousins’ security blanket due to his ability to win over the middle against even the most athletic linebackers like St. Louis’ Alec Ogletree:
Reed’s absence is fortuitous given the fact that the Falcons will be utilizing a reserve at one of their starting linebacker positions with Durant sidelined. With a playmaker like Reed roaming the middle of the field, it would be easier for the Redskins to enact their shortened passing game and maintain efficiency.
Without him, the onus is put almost entirely on Garcon’s plate to carry most of the load. That fact plays to the strengths of the Falcons back seven: their outside corners rather than weaknesses at safeties and linebacker.
But while the Redskins might have a tough time generating opportunities for big plays down the field, the Falcons could be in the opposite boat.
Offensive Key For Success: Attacking Vertically
The Redskins have been susceptible to a number of deep strikes the past few weeks thanks to subpar performance of their secondary. Things won’t get any easier on Sunday as they square off against Julio Jones and will do so without either of their starting cornerbacks: Chris Culliver and DeAngelo Hall.
That thrusts Bashaud Breeland and Will Blackmon into the starting lineup on the outside, both of whom were initially slot corners. That also means that the Redskins will likely deploy rookie safety Kyshoen Jarrett as their nickel cornerback as they did against the Eagles last week.
Here you can see several big plays where opponents were able to attack the Redskins downfield:
Jones could potentially have a field day if the Redskins don’t clean up their act and provide Breeland and Blackmon with better help over the top.
Offensive Key For Success: Lightening Julio’s Load
However the Redskins may be able to get some help from the fact that Jones is nicked up, potentially limiting him on Sunday. While Jones has been busting his butt every week, things seemed to catch up to him last week. The Falcons seemingly designed a lot more passing plays for their other receiving options a week ago, potentially because a slowed down Jones wasn’t quite as ready to explode as he had done in previous outings.
Here’s an example of a “rub” route where the Falcons utilized tight end Levine Toilolo to “block” Texans cornerback Darryl Morris’ ability to cover Hankerson on the crossing pattern. Also note safety Rahim Moore (26), who is out of position in centerfield due to the extra attention he pays to Jones at the top:
If Jones is in any way significantly limited, the Falcons may try to repeat this formula. However, one wonders if the officials’ whistles could potentially go in the opposite direction on Sunday, where plays like those above are flagged for offensive pass interference. If so, that could be problematic for the Falcons.
That means the Falcons might have to turn their attention to other options in their passing game. Thus this might be a big week for tight end Jacob Tamme, who is returning after a one-game absence due to a concussion.
The Redskins have trouble defending tight ends as the following image shows:
Tamme simply needs to step up this week. He’s a player that I personally talked up quite a bit this offseason and frankly I’d like to be proven right. The Falcons are sorely missing a player that can be a threat at the tight end position that can take advantage of opportunities like the Redskins could present. One goal of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan should be to make the tight end position matter again in the Falcons offense.
Because the Falcons might be compelled to rely on something else besides Jones and their passing attack, it’s an obvious alternative to lean heavily on the run game.
Offensive Key For Success: Answering the Challenge
Again, the Redskins want to push around the Falcons this week and win the battle up front. They might have a chance given what we saw last week against the Texans. Too often Falcons blockers got overwhelmed by the gifted defenders in the Texans front last week:
The Redskins desire to repeat this pattern of success on Sunday with their own guys up front including outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan and defensive tackles Jason Hatcher and Chris Baker. Here are some of each of their more positive plays in recent weeks to highlight their strengths:
The Falcons blockers simply need to step their games up. Shanahan wants to attack vertically and it’s likely being compelled to rely on the short, quick passes designed to mask deficiencies up front (as shown above) is limiting all the things that he wants to do. I
Offensive Key For Success: Establishing the Run
However the main avenue that Shanahan hopes to lighten Jones’ load is by running the football. After the explosion in production of running back Devonta Freeman in Week Three many, including myself, expected the Falcons running game to “fall back to Earth” against the Texans in Week Four. But Freeman and the rest of the unit did not, gaining 135 yards on the ground.
That running game thrives because the ability of the Falcons’ blockers to effectively create seals and alleys by attacking opposing lineabckers on the second level. Here are two highlight runs against the Texans that illustrate this point:
Despite having a potentially formidable front, the Redskins are weak behind it. Perry Riley is their best linebacker and has missed the past two weeks and is questionable to return on Sunday. If he does suit up, he does bolster the Redskins linebacker group as he is an effective downhill attacker in run support.
But nonetheless, opposing offenses have had success attacking the Redskins linebackers this year. If Riley is not in the mix, both inside linebackers: Keenan Robinson and Will Compton might get overwhelmed as we see in the following images:
Even if Riley plays, left guard Andy Levitre should be successful in limiting the linebackers’ impact due to his ability to nail his reach and second-level blocks as seen here:
The Falcons will also get a big boost from the return of rookie running back Tevin Coleman to the lineup. Coleman possesses an abundance of an asset missing from the Falcons the past two weeks: speed.
Coleman is a blazer, that if able to find the daylight that Freeman has seen the past two weeks can be a threat to take it the distance. That explosive element could win up making up for what might be lost if Jones is limited.
Stat Worth Mentioning: Big Play Differential
This isn’t the first time I’ve used big play differential as a stat worth monitoring in this weekend’s upcoming game. The Falcons are no longer a team that is “plodding” offensively, but one that is explosive and dynamic. Their play over a 73-minute period in the second half of the game against the Dallas Cowboys and most of the first three quarters versus the Texans saw the Falcons outscore their opponent by an astounding mark of 67-0.
That’s obviously a goal worth repeating and the Falcons certainly want to see that form of dominant football continue. That lopsided scoring spike was driven mostly by their ability to generate big plays both running and throwing the ball as well as creating turnovers on defense. Should the Falcons continue to excel in those areas, they will be extremely difficult to beat simply because big plays are too difficult to stop.
I’m confident despite some of my criticisms of the team in this past week’s All-22 review, that this team can continue to get better moving forward. Each and every game and opponent is going to offer a new, different test each week. The Falcons have passed every test thus far this season with flying colors and my optimism is increasing that they will continue to do so.
Against the Redskins, it’ll be a test to see if the Falcons can handle another team that wants to get physical in the trenches. This game comes on the heels of other opponents like the Cowboys and Texans that wanted to do the same and featured one of the league’s most talented groups of offensive linemen and defensive linemen, respectively.
The Redskins aren’t on that same level and thus I expect the Falcons will extend their winning streak in such matchups. The Falcons’ biggest fear is beating themselves, which is why it was important that complacency was avoided a week ago against the Texans. It inspires confidence that it won’t set in this week, especially since the team is playing at home.
The might be forced to find ways to win without Jones making huge contributions this week. But if Jones is truly healthy, then Shanahan should let him fly this week and it should result in a dominant performance akin to Week One now that he’s facing an underwhelming and injury-depleted Redskins secondary.
Final Score Prediction: Falcons 31, Redskins 17