With the Indianapolis Colts facing the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday, Stampede Blue's Josh Wilson talked with The Falcoholic's Dave Choate about the Falcons and this Sunday's matchup. The questions are in bold and then Dave's responses follow.
1. The Falcons started off the season 5-0 but have now lost 3 of their last 4. What happened?
A lot of things, concurrently. The Falcons started making more mistakes and getting a few bad bounces, resulting in a frankly horrifying number of turnovers that lost them the Tampa Bay and New Orleans games. They lost receiver Leonard Hankerson, who as it turns out was an integral second receiver in the passing game. And they regressed a little bit from their unreal start, which was probably inevitable given the talent level, and the coaching staff and players weren't able to make the kind of adjustments very good teams make when things start to go southward. The 49ers game was pretty embarrassing.
The good news is that they've now had a bye week to get healthier and work on some of the things that have ailed them. I'm hoping success will follow.
2. On offense, the Falcons are led by a very good trio in Matt Ryan, Devonta Freeman, and Julio Jones. How much does the offense run through those three? And has any team really been able to stop them in a game this year?
Teams have had quite a bit of success in stopping Matt Ryan this year, especially near the red zone. He's been dealing with some accuracy and timing issues, he doesn't always appear comfortable making his reads in Kyle Shanahan's offense, and the team's receiving options suddenly look pretty thin after Julio Jones and Jacob Tamme. I'm expecting better, because the passing offense has been a huge part of what this team wants to do in 2015.
No team has truly stopped Julio. You can take him out of the game for stretches, but he's one of the most dominant players in the NFL, and the Falcons will feed him no matter who is on him. You can exploit that by throwing two or even three guys at him and daring Ryan to throw, potentially leading to turnovers, but Julio occasionally wins those matchups somehow. He's the biggest problem for your defense in this game.
Freeman has been terrific, but the 49ers finally stacked up and slowed him down in Week 9, and the Falcons haven't leaned on the run as heavily as I thought they might this year. If the blocking is up to snuff, though, Freeman is incredibly dangerous through the hole and into open space, and he can grind a defense down with his physical running style.
The offense really does run through those three, Tamme, and the returning Leonard Hankerson. You've got to dare someone else to beat you.
3. The focus is on this team's offense, but how has Atlanta's defense been doing this year?
Much better than the last two years, with one notable exception. The run defense has been one of the best units in football, thanks to great performances up front from the defensive line, and the pass defense has taken a major step forward this year. There's still too many missed tackles and the occasional big play, but the unit is trending in the right direction.
That said, this team hasn't been able to get much of a pass rush going for the third straight season, and it's going to hurt them against a quarterback like Hasselbeck if that continues. They've made a couple of tweaks to their rotations to try to juice the rush, but it's not something you're going to have to worry about overmuch.
4. How has head coach Dan Quinn changed things in his first season with the team? What are Falcons fans' feelings about him after the first half of his first year?
He's just tried to simplify the defense, in particular, and get his team flying around. His scheme is pretty simple, and he leans heavily on players to execute it well. He's also been a lot more aggressive about re-tooling the bottom half of the roster, churning out players who haven't been effective and bringing in formerly effective veterans like linebacker Philip Wheeler to address team needs. He's also fired up a lot, in case you hadn't heard.
As for fans, there's a healthy mix of cautiously optimistic people feeling a bit burned by the last month, and fans who think this team sucks again. Atlanta fans are used to being hurt, I guess, but I think everyone believes this team's arrow is pointing up over the long haul. The outstanding question is what they'll be able to do in 2015.
5. Knowing what you do about the Falcons, how would you attack them if you were the Colts' offensive and defensive coordinator?
When you're on offense, you've got to pass. If you can target rookie cornerback Jalen Collins early and see what that brings you, you'll be doing well, because he's had some up-and-down performances thus far. Any time you've got a tight end or running back matched up against one of the Falcons' linebackers, exploit that immediately, because the team does not have anyone there with coverage skills you really need to fear. You're running the football just to keep them honest, but you'll win through the air, and you'll want to avoid cornerback Desmond Trufant will doing so.
If you're on defense, you've got to pick your poison a bit. You can stack the box and try to slow down Devonta Freeman, which dares a struggling passing attack to beat you, but that passing game has Hankerson back and still has Julio Jones, so it's a risky proposition. Alternatively, you can prioritize getting Jones, Hankerson and Tamme under control and trying to keep the passing game to short passes, but Freeman will have some work to work if you do so. If the offense isn't firing on all cylinders, either approach might bear fruit for you, but you're really talking about limiting the damage, playing for turnovers, and hoping your offense can do enough work to stay ahead.
Thanks again to Dave for taking the time to answer these questions, and be sure to check out The Falcoholic for complete coverage from the Falcons side of things!