Perhaps the biggest obstacle the Atlanta Falcons face when they host the Houston Texans this Sunday will be their own complacency.
With the Falcons’ record at 3-0 and facing an inferior opponent at home, it could be easy for the Falcons to play down to their opponent. This will be another test for new head coach Dan Quinn as he tries to get his team to continue to build off their recent success and keep the needle for the Falcons pointing upwards.
Offensive Key For Success: Feeding Julio
The last time the Texans faced a receiver of Julio Jones’ caliber, it came in Week 12 of last season when they played the Cincinnati Bengals and A.J. Green. The team was without regular starting cornerback Kareem Jackson then, and thus had to turn to cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Darryl Morris to fill in opposite Johnathan Joseph.
While the Texans usually shaded a safety to give whichever cornerback some deep help in the event that Green went deep, for the most part the Texans showed a strong level of trust in their cornerbacks, particularly when Joseph was matched up on him one-on-one.
Green finished the game with 12 catches on 15 targets for 121 yards, but did not score a touchdown and the Bengals did not complete pass to him that went further than 12 yards in the air. So while Green did have a productive game, he did not dominate the game.
The Texans showed a similar amount of trust in their cornerbacks last week when they faced the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, unafraid of leaving either Joseph or Jackson on islands against Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans while deploying plenty of Cover-1 looks.
If the Texans continue to show confidence in their cornerbacks this week, then one can expect a lot of opportunities for Jones to shine in one-on-one coverage. Opportunities that the Falcons will certainly try and take advantage of.
In Week One against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Texans opted to shadow the Chiefs’ top receiver, Jeremy Maclin with Joseph throughout the game. It remains to be seen if they will do so again this week. Despite being 31 years old, Joseph is probably the best matchup for Jones among the Texans corners. He has the best combo of size, length and speed to best handle Jones in those one-on-one situations on the outside.
The Texans aren’t a team known extensively for their willingness to play press coverage. The ability of Jones to release freely into his route became a problem for the Dallas Cowboys a week ago. One way that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan helped Jones get those free releases was on a stack concept that he ran twice in the second half of the Cowboys game.
The first time the Falcons ran it on a third down on their opening series of the third quarter. In the following GIF, you can see Hankerson come in motion to stack behind Jones, who is lined up in the slot. Despite initially lining up against Hankerson on the outside, in this stacked alignment Morris Claiborne (No. 24) is responsible for the outside receiver while Tyler Patmon (No. 26) is responsible for the inside receiver. Once Hankerson releases inside, it now means that Claiborne has to cover Jones’ outside route. Jones runs a deep out, causing Claiborne to get turned around as he tries to make the split-second adjustment to the switch. Ryan hits Jones for a 14-yard gain on a third down to keep the drive alive.
Then later during the fourth quarter with the Falcons on their penultimate series trying to extend their 32-28 lead, they run the same play. Once again, Hankerson motions down to stack behind Jones in the slot. This time, Claiborne expects the outside route and is prepared to defend it with his initial technique off the snap. Also notice that the pre-snap shift that Patmon makes inside indicates that he too expects Hankerson to run the same inside route he ran before. Instead Hankerson runs vertically with the out pattern to create space for Jones on the inside. Jones runs a pivot route, picking up 10 yards on 3rd-and-3 to keep the drive alive. The Falcons scored three plays later.
Jones should see plenty of free releases against Houston given how often they play their corners in off coverage. As they did with Green in 2014, this allows them to keep things in front of them and help prevent the deep ball. However, the Texans corners can still be attacked deep.
Here’s a play from last week where Joseph is trying to defend a deep ball against Vincent Jackson that the Buccaneers take advantage of. Joseph has good inside technique, but Jameis Winston does a nice job throwing back-shoulder to Jackson, who makes the leaping grab in the end zone.
Here’s another instance where the Texans put Joseph on an island, but asked him to play press against Maclin in Week One. Maclin burns him on a go route. The play was initially ruled a catch, but upon review the 39-yard reception was wiped out due to the fact that Maclin did not retain possession all the way to the ground. But nonetheless, it still shows the vertical opportunities that could be there this week against the Texans corners.
It will be important that Jones and other Falcons receivers win on their downfield opportunities this week against the Texans.
One way that the Texans hope to limit the Falcons’ vertical opportunities is by creating pressure on Matt Ryan which won’t allow him enough time in the pocket for those deeper routes to develop.
Offensive Key For Success: Blocking Watt
Of course you can’t talk about the Texans without discussing the league’s best defensive player in defensive end J.J. Watt.
Watt’s combination of speed, power, quickness and strength make him virtually unblockable at times and allows him to disrupt a lot of what opposing teams try to do against the Texans.
Teams have often resorted to triple-teaming him, as the Chiefs did in Week One on this particular play. It gave quarterback Alex Smith enough time in the pocket to complete a 20-yard corner route to Maclin.
The use of extra blockers was a smart call by the Chiefs, because just two plays later Watt was able to beat right tackle Eric Fisher for a sack when left one-on-one with him.
Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder is going to have his hands full against Watt and will have to play his best football to date to handle the unique blend of speed and power that the Texans defensive end brings to the table.
Last week there were times where Schraeder was off balance and couldn’t deal with the power of Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, who stands 6’3″ and weighs 265 pounds. Watt is a completely different animal at 6’5″ and 289 pounds.
If and when teams are able to effectively neutralize Watt with a single blocker, it creates opportunities in the run game. Here we can see Bucs right tackle Gosder Cherilus (No. 78) able to take down Watt, creating a seam for running back Doug Martin to get 10 yards even when right guard Ali Marpet (No. 74) completely blows his assignment against the linebacker.
However, here we see what happens when an individual blocker (Marpet) fails to control Watt. The Texans defender clogs the running lane to Martin, leading to a one-yard loss.
The Falcons will likely do their best to help Schraeder with chips and double teams from the running backs and tight ends.
Watt is basically an offensive “wrecker” because he can completely screw up the things that an offense is trying to do. A staple of the Falcons offense these first three games have been bootlegs off play-action. Often times these will be naked bootlegs, in which the run will be faked to one side of the defense and Ryan will then roll out to the opposite side, leaving a backside defender unblocked. If said defender bites on the run action, then Ryan has a clear window to throw to, as the following GIF displays thanks to Cowboys defensive end Jack Crawford (No. 58) biting.
However, if that defender does not bite then the quarterback is left out to dry. In the case of a player like Watt, it’s simply never a good idea to leave him unblocked on any play as the following image shows:
On the opposite side of the field, the Texans also have a difference-maker in outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney. Because of the Falcons’ zone-blocking scheme, often times they will leave the backside defender unblocked. However in Clowney’s case, that is not always a good idea since he has the speed to close and make stops on the backside pursuit as he shows here:
Both edge players present challenges for the Falcons particularly given their zone-blocking scheme often leaving such edge players unblocked. The Falcons may have to revise their normal scheme and try to consistently use a tight end like Levine Toilolo or Mickey Shuler to try and cut Clowney or Watt on the backside.
The Texans will move Watt around at times to present positive matchups, so it won’t be solely on Schraeder to block Watt. All five Falcons offensive linemen will face him at one point or another, but the same issues apply.
Offensive Key For Success: Winning on the Ground
While the Falcons offensive line has played above expectations this year, handling Watt is a whole new ballgame. The Falcons have mostly handled opposing defensive linemen, but the exceptional defenders like Fletcher Cox, Johnathan Hankins and Tyrone Crawford have given individuals, particularly on the interior some trouble over the course of the first three games. Expect the same to happen when Watt plays inside but on a far greater scale.
The simple truth is that Andy Levitre, Mike Person and Chris Chester aren’t really matches for Watt on an individual basis. All three players are going to get beat from time to time. The hope the Falcons have is that none are beat so extensively that it truly disrupts the Falcons offense, particularly their ground attack.
While the Falcons are coming off a strong 158-yard rushing effort against the Cowboys, one should fully expect that total to dip this week against the Texans due to the individual mismatches the Falcons face up front. The question really is only how much it dips.
If the Texans are successful in limiting Jones’ deep opportunities as they were against Green in 2014, then it will be important for the Falcons to be able to move the ball effectively on the ground. This Falcons offense hasn’t shown itself to be overly successfully under Shanahan with a “dink and dunk” passing attack, as that style prompted their slow start against the New York Giants in Week Two.
But even though the Falcons rushing attack might not gash the Texans as early and often as they did a week ago versus the Cowboys, it’ll be important for them to be able to maintain their ability to run the ball throughout the game.
That will be somewhat reliant on the team’s defensive effort to prevent the Texans from getting out to a fast start, forcing the Falcons to play from behind.
Defensive Key For Success: Winning Up Front
Last week, the Falcons got gashed early by the Cowboys’ ground attack, going down to a 14-point deficit by halftime. Thankfully, the dropoff from the Cowboys offensive line to the Texans unit that the Falcons will face this week is significant.
Through three games, injuries have already forced the Texans to feature three different starting lineups among their front five. Only center Ben Jones has managed to start and finish every game at the same position.
There will be a fourth different unit again this week, with left tackle Duane Brown expected to return from a thumb injury after missing the past two games.
Chris Clark has filled in ably in Brown’s absence and could bump over to right tackle to replace Derek Newton, who has struggled thus far this season. Oday Aboushi took over at left guard last week against Tampa Bay and performed ably. Newton could move inside to left guard, where he started in Week Two if the Texans opt to play Clark outside.
The return of Brown will be important because otherwise the Texans would have extreme difficulty handling the Falcons front.
Brown will square off against Vic Beasley, whose speed certainly would overwhelm Clark. Brown may have difficulty too staying in front of Beasley, but at least has the strength to control him if he gets his hands on him.
This will be an important test for the Falcons young pass-rusher. While Brown is widely and accurately considered one of the best left tackles in the league, he’s still vulnerable to speed. Here we can see Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack win with an inside move while lined up wide:
If Beasley can reliably beat Brown, the Texans’ best blocker, then it should create major problems for Texans quarterback Ryan Mallett. With Beasley able to get outside pressure, that will force Mallett to have to step up in the pocket.
While Mallett has one of the more impressive arms in the league, one of his more glaring weaknesses is the lower half of his body. When forced to move in the pocket and reset his feet, Mallett has a tendency to struggle, leading to errant and inaccurate throws.
Providing steady edge pressure will force Mallett to have to move off his spot consistently, leading to more opportunities where his passing will be off. It will also force him up into the teeth of the Falcons pass rush where Adrian Clayborn should be able to take advantage of whomever the Texans start at left guard.
It should make for a game where the Falcons are able to get consistent, effective pressure on the Texans quarterback. If so, that will limit how many opportunities he has to get the ball to his most effective weapon on the outside: DeAndre Hopkins.
Defensive Key For Success: Stopping Hopkins
With running back Arian Foster being a game-time decision that might not play, it means that the Texans most reliable offensive weapon this week with be Hopkins at wide receiver.
Since free safety Ricardo Allen is out with a knee injury it’ll be more important that the Falcons cornerbacks in Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant handle Hopkins. They won’t be able to rely on as much help over the top as they have in recent weeks with rookie free safety Robenson Therezie replacing Allen.
Alford is likely to draw the majority of assignments against Hopkins, who often lines up on the left side of the field against the right side of the defense. It will be an opportunity for redemption for Alford, who caught a lot of flack following a rough performance against Odell Beckham, Jr. in Week Two.
While Alford’s performance was not nearly as bad as many opined at the time, it still was problematic. Hopkins doesn’t have Beckham’s speed and burst, but he is a slippery receiver that does an excellent job winning in traffic even when he sees tight coverage.
Here we can see Hopkins matched up against Chiefs rookie cornerback Marcus Peters in Week One. Peters has good position, but Hopkins is able to win in traffic by high-pointing the fade in the end zone for a score:
It will be important for Alford to win in such instances, otherwise it could be another long day for the third-year cornerback. If the Falcons can successfully contain and limit Hopkins on the outside, the Texans shouldn’t present many major issues for the rest of their pass defense.
That will also allow the Falcons to focus on the Texans running game, which will be the latter’s main focus in trying to move the football.
Defensive Key For Success: Stopping the Run
It’s no doubt that the last thing the Texans want to get into is a shootout with the Falcons, especially given the question marks they have on their offensive line and the erratic nature of Mallett’s play at quarterback. Thus the Titans will be heavily reliant on their running game to move the football.
The Texans hope to welcome back Foster this week, which could provide a significant boost to their running game. Dan Quinn is no stranger to Foster, who gashed his Seattle Seahawks defense for 102 yards on the ground and 69 yards in the air during their matchup in 2013.
While Foster’s injury probably means he won’t be quite the same player he was then this week against the Falcons, he still presents unique challenges to the Falcons defense that other Texans running backs simply don’t. Foster has excellent vision and his ability to sneak through creases and bounce plays on the second level can turn what would be limited gains from other backs into big gains for the Texans.
Here we see Foster against the Seahawks in 2013 able to bounce a play outside on the second level for a 15-yard gain, adding an additional eight yards to the run:
Now we can see him sneak past Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner through a crease for a 10-yard gain later against the Seahawks in the same game:
The key to stopping Foster is to win up front, as Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane does on this play that results in a two-yard loss:
The Falcons did exactly this in the second half against the Cowboys last week, but the Texans will hope that they can more capably mimic the Cowboys’ first-half success where they gained 131 yards on the ground.
Another challenge the Foster potentially presents is in the passing game. His soft hands and silky running style can make a dangerous player after the catch and on screen passes. The latter of which could be a way to try and slow down the Falcons’ pass rush.
The Falcons have struggled thus far in 2015 when it comes to defending running backs that are capable receivers out of the backfield. Lance Dunbar gashed them last week with 10 catches for 100 yards, while Darren Sproles (seven catches, 76 yards) and Shane Vereen (eight catches, 76 yards) each gave them fits as well.
Neither Alfred Blue nor Chris Polk are that caliber of receiver and thus having a back like Foster in the lineup could be a significant asset for the Texans this weekend.
The Texans hope this can become a game that they can control from start to finish with their running game and their defensive line. Those are the two main advantages they could have in this game with a sporadic big play from Hopkins in the air to keep things balanced.
Thus it’ll be important for both Brown and Foster to play this game as it’s hard to envision the Texans having a ton of success on the ground if either sit out.
But even if they do play, I still believe the Falcons hold the advantage. While I expect the Falcons offensive line to struggle more in this game than we’ve seen all year long due to the presences of Watt, Clowney and Vince Wilfork up front, I do not expect the Texans to dominate this game along the line of scrimmage. The Texans defensive line will likely stifle the Falcons running game more than many expect coming off their strong effort against the Cowboys, but I don’t think it’ll be to the degree where the Falcons offense gets too one-dimensional.
I suspect the Texans’ corners will be able to keep Jones in check for a time on Sunday, but not for all four quarters. The Falcons should be able to generate some big plays, not only on the ground but also in the air and thus be able to score points.
If Jones goes off and the Falcons’ running game gets going to balance things out, then this is a potential matchup that could get away from the Texans in a hurry. They simply lack the firepower to present too much of a challenge for the Falcons defense if they are forced to come from behind. I think the Falcons defensive line will be too much for the piecemeal Texans blockers even though they are welcoming back their two best guys up front in Brown and right guard Brandon Brooks.
It’s all tantamount to which team starts faster. Given that the Falcons are playing at home, I’d put my money on them.
So I don’t expect the Falcons to look complacent this week and play down to the Texans. While I don’t expect them to truly dominate this game, I fully expect this to be the first game where it’s fully in the Falcons control for more than two quarters.
Predicted Final Score: Falcons 27, Texans 17.