It’s week 4 of the NFL season and the 1-2 Washington Football Team will be facing a 1-2 Atlanta Falcons team on the road at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. These teams share some eerie parallels. In addition to sharing the same record, both teams have their only win of the season against a spiraling Giants team. Each team has a relatively new coaching staff (though the Falcons’ coaches are new as of this year). Each team is also underperforming compared to high expectations on one side of the ball in particular.
In Washington’s case, the underperformance of the defense is the big story. Despite a defensive head coach in Ron Rivera and numerous recent 1st round picks on the defensive side of the ball, Washington’s defense has ranked 31st in yards allowed so far this season. For Atlanta, the underperformance of the offense has been the story. Despite an offensive head coach in Arthur Smith (former OC of the Titans), a recently-extended QB in Matt Ryan, and numerous recent 1st round picks at the skill positions (Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts) and OL (Chris Lindstrom, Kaleb McGary), the Falcons offense is ranked 28th in yards gained (behind even the 22nd ranked Washington offense).
For Atlanta’s offense, the biggest problem in recent years has been the underperformance of the offensive line, which has failed to open up holes for the run game and failed to offer QB Matt Ryan time to throw, forcing the Falcons into a short-passing game that doesn’t maximize the skillset of their many speedy pass catchers. One of the storylines to follow this year though is the emergence of Cordarrelle Patterson, a WR converted to RB who has begun to emerge as a major weapon for Atlanta, particularly in the short-passing game. In some ways, he reminds me of Antonio Gibson in his journey from WR to RB, his athleticism, and his instincts to make plays in space (he’s been one of the NFL’s best returners for years).
On defense, Atlanta’s defensive line has looked to be their best unit. Their secondary has looked more suspect, allowing 264 passing yards and 3 passing TDs to Jalen Hurts in week 1 and 276 passing yards and 5 passing TDs to Tom Brady in week 2. The Falcons defense appeared much better in week 3, allowing the Giants only 14 points and holding Saquon Barkley to 51 yards rushing.
These are different teams with different coaches than in the past, but the Falcons have won their last 6 matchups with Washington, which includes every game under QB Matt Ryan.
I asked Dave Choate of The Falcoholic five questions to better understand the state of the Falcons and what to look for in this game.
1) You used to face a Ron Rivera-led team twice a year. What was your impression of him and his coaching staff, good and bad? Do you think he deserved a second chance as a head coach?
Rivera’s a good coach. At a high level, I respect him as a motivator and leader of men, and over the years I’ve seen him consistently get the most out of his pass rush in particular, with Matt Ryan absorbing the second-highest sack total of his career against Carolina. You generally knew going into a Carolina game that you were going to play a pretty disciplined, dangerous team.
That said, his weaknesses were real and became more evident as time went on. Despite his Riverboat Ron nickname, Rivera developed a habit of turtling when he was losing, infamously kicking a field goal down nearly 30 points against the Falcons because “you don’t want to get shutout at home.” Panthers fans were critical of his ability to make adjustments within games and over the course of a season, and his lack of interest in analytics. As is the case with many head coaches who stick in one place for a long time, football seemed to evolve more quickly than Rivera, and the Panthers ended up being one of the few teams Atlanta could consistently beat during their slow-motion implosion from 2017-2019.
I do think he deserved another chance, and that he’s a very good fit for a team that needs a strong culture and a steady hand at the tiller, and reminds me of former Falcons head coach Mike Smith in that regard. He’ll have to prove that he’s a more adaptable head coach in Washington to stick around as long as he did in Carolina, though.
2) Now the Falcons have a new coaching staff, headed by Arthur Smith. What are your impressions of the new staff, their strengths and weaknesses so far, and are there any areas where you’d like to see them operate differently?
In the run-up to the season, Arthur Smith and company said all the right things about making everyone earn their spots, what they want from their offense and defense, and their unwillingness to mortgage the future. I still had relatively modest expectations for this season, but it was hard not to see some of the pieces Atlanta had and Arthur Smith’s track record on offense and not look forward to some real progress.
It’s just three games, but my impression of the staff is pretty sour thus far. Dean Pees hasn’t been a significant upgrade over Raheem Morris and Jeff Ulbrich in terms of what he’s getting out of this defense, but they’ve at least been solid and Pees is doing a nice job of putting players like Dante Fowler and Isaiah Oliver in a position to succeed. The offense has been an entirely different animal, as the Falcons moved on from universally-panned offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter and are somehow even worse than they were a year ago.
The strengths of this staff thus far have been their willingness to absorb blame for their failings and tinker, with Smith improving the red zone offense after Week 1’s mess, with Pees being willing to park an underperforming player for a rookie and reap the benefits, and with Cordarrelle Patterson thriving thanks to a staff that is finally bent on utilizing his talents. Their weaknesses have been...pretty much everything else? Smith’s operating a short passing game that isn’t even connecting at the rate it should be, Calvin Ridley is being asked to be a YAC machine when that’s not his strength, and the team has been unable to consistently utilize the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history even when he seems to have a favorable matchup. The offense has been a mess, full stop, and I’d love to see this team add speed at the receiver position and get Matt Ryan’s intended air yards per attempt somewhere above 4.2, which ranks 38th in the NFL today.
I’ll exempt special teams coordinator Marquice Williams from this round of criticism entirely, as his units are doing a good job overall and I’ve been really pleased with the work he’s done to this point.
3) What kind of offensive and defensive scheme are the new coordinators running? How are they meshing with the personnel?
You may have gathered from my criticism above, but the scheme has not meshed well with the players on offense. Smith is trying to achieve some balance after the Falcons couldn’t run the ball at all for most of the last two seasons. Because Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson possess the physicality to push for extra yards while also being part of the passing game, they’ve been prominently involved on the ground and through the air, and a shaky offensive line has ensured this team is focused on getting the ball out quickly.
The reason the offense isn’t clicking, at least thus far, is that a passing attack that’s only asking Ryan to get the ball out quickly and within four yards needs to run through players like Kyle Pitts, Patterson, Davis and maybe Hayden Hurst who can muscle their way to additional yards. That offense is not built to accentuate Calvin Ridley, who excels at running crisp routes and getting just enough separation to make tough catches downfield, and it’s not terrific for Russell Gage and Olamide Zaccheaus, who have the wheels to get loose and can also make tough catches over the middle on intermediate routes. Poor line play, some shakiness from Ryan and receivers struggling to get open have all made things worse, but this offense needs to connect on damn near 100% of its passing attempts at the depth they’re trying them and they’re not even close to doing so. It feels like a major work in progress and it is, with only Patterson really shining early in his dual role.
Defensively, Pees promised multiple fronts and a lot of blitzing, and he’s delivered on half of that. Isaiah Oliver is really thriving in a nickel role similar to Logan Ryan’s in Tennessee under Dean Pees, Dante Fowler looks much better as a pass rusher in the early going, and it’s been nice to see 2020 draft picks like A.J. Terrell and Marlon Davidson looking strong when they’ve been healthy. It’s been less of an easy fit for other players, with Fabian Moreau and the safety duo of Erik Harris and Duron Harmon scuffling so far, and Steven Means being asked to take on a regular role in coverage at outside linebacker when it does not appear to be his forte. The long and short of it is that the Falcons haven’t been as blitz-happy as I might have anticipated and haven’t exactly been good, but they certainly appear to be making some strides.
Nothing is going to mesh quite the way we want it to this year, because the roster is a work in progress. I’m just hoping for better than what we’ve seen through three weeks.
4) What do you think Matt Ryan’s future looks like? Will he get traded, held on to mentor a new QB, still have 2 or more years as a starter, something else?
This is a tough question because it feels like he’s stuck in limbo right now. The team declined to draft Justin Fields or Mac Jones at #4, which would have signaled they were moving on from Matt Ryan in a year or two. At the same time, Ryan’s play has been erratic thus far and the offense has sputtered with him at the helm, and if that proves to be more than an early season blip it’s going to raise fair questions about his future in Atlanta.
Ideally, I think the Falcons would like to have Ryan at quarterback through at least 2022 while they retool the roster and put the pieces they want in place for a young quarterback. If he rebounds and plays well, I can see them seriously considering a contract extension that gives them more breathing room for a lousy cap situation, one that would accelerate the return to contention in the expectation that Ryan can be a good quarterback through, say, 2023 or 2024. If he continues to look out of sorts, though, the Falcons may just hold their noise and consider moving him this coming offseason for some draft capital and at least some cap relief while they figure this thing out.
That’s a long-winded way of saying his future is uncertain, and likely depends a lot on how he plays in 2021.
5) How would you gameplan to beat the Falcons on both sides of the ball?
On defense, I take away Kyle Pitts. Until the Falcons start doing things differently and/or more effectively, Pitts’ size, speed and ability to turn nothing into something makes him the most dangerous man on the field for the Falcons. Right now, the Falcons are doing an okay job of running the ball and Cordarrelle Patterson needs to be accounted for at all times, but nobody else is proving to be a major yards after the catch threat and the Falcons are rarely and unsuccessfully attempting deep shots. The Giants clamped down on Pitts and were able to mostly stymie this Falcons offense even though their pass rush wasn’t nearly as ferocious as Philadelphia’s or Tampa Bay’s, and given your defensive front I’m willing to bet Washington will fare even better with the same gameplan.
When we’re talking about the Falcons defense, you’ll likely beat this team through the air. The pass rush simply isn’t getting home on a consistent enough basis for Taylor Heinicke to live in fear of Atlanta, and the Falcons’ coverage has been prone to lapses early on that allow receivers to find wide open looks 10-15 yards downfieldd. Given that Atlanta has one of the worst missed tackle rates in the NFL right now, I’d try to get Gibson, McLaurin, Thomas and (if he’s healthy) Samuel in space and make things happen with a little help from Falcons defenders. Atlanta’s red zone defense is tightening up a bit, but in the open field this is how every team they’ve faced has found success thus far, and I wouldn’t change what’s working.
Thanks again to Dave Choate for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Falcons.
As of right now, Vegas has Washington as 1.5 point favorites over Washington. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Washington wins by 2 points or more
Washington wins by 1 point or it’s a tie
The Falcons win outright
As of right now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 48 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
49 points or more are scored (both sides combined)
48 points or fewer are scored (both sides combined)
Which matchups do you think will be most important for determining the outcome of the game?
This poll is closed
In the trenches (OL vs DL) on both sides
Matt Ryan vs Taylor Heinicke
Pass catchers vs the secondary of each team
The running game of both teams
Other (specify in comments)