In order to get an inside track on what to expect from the upcoming matchup with the Atlanta Falcons in the Colts’ home opener, I asked Dave Choate of the Falcoholic to answer a few questions. Here’s what he had to say:
1.Matt Ryan has thrown 5 picks through the first two weeks of the season, which seems pretty uncharacteristic of him. He threw just 7 all of last season. What is the reason for the uptick in turnovers and do you think he reins them in?
It has been a bizarre start to the 2019 season for the Falcons, and in particular Ryan. He’s been careless with the football in a way he hasn’t been for a few seasons now, and those turnovers were costly (against the Vikings) and very nearly costly (against the Eagles).
I think the primary driver here is…well, there isn’t just one. Facing two very capable defenses, adjusting to Dirk Koetter’s offense after two years with Steve Sarkisian, making a panicky throw under pressure (a weak link, albeit a rare one, even in the last few seasons), and airing it out a bit early. I fully expect him to settle in a bit more and make better decisions as the games roll on given his track record of doing just that, especially if the offensive line can continue to give him time to make the passes he needs to.
That said, transition years with new offensive coordinators have not been kind to Ryan, so it’s possible that we’re going to see more boneheaded picks along the way than we did in 2016 and 2018 in particular. I’m not relishing that, but we Falcons fans can’t have nice things.
2) The Falcons defense currently ranks first in the league against the pass. Is that success against the pass coming from the front end in terms of pressures, or simply locking down receivers by the defensive backs?
It’s a little bit of both, but it’s also a little bit of a mirage. The Falcons have had two odd games thus far, with the Vikings throwing just 10 passes thanks to Dalvin Cook’s dominance on the ground and the Eagles struggling to get things done with DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery on the shelf, not to mention Carson Wentz struggling through what appeared to be a rib injury. I can’t in good conscience pump up this defense without mentioning those items.
That said, this defense has done a nice job of getting pressure up front. Takk McKinley had eight pressures on Wentz a week ago, Vic Beasley has been getting much closer than he did in his awful 2018 campaign, and the interior defensive line has been borderline dominant, keyed by legitimate dominance from Grady Jarrett. Again, it’s a small sample size, but it’s mighty encouraging for the Falcons, who last had a dominant pass rush before The Falcoholic started 13 years ago. Yikes.
The secondary has been good, too, though. After a rough opening week for Isaiah Oliver, he was terrific last week minus one coverage hiccup. Desmond Trufant has allowed a 0.0 passer rating thus far through two games on the other side of the field, and Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal are smart, vital players at safety. The combination was enough to really clamp down hard on the Eagles, but they’ve yet to be tested by a truly elite passing attack at full capacity. I do like the moves they made to improve the defense, though, and the early signs are making me happy.
3) The Colts have a pretty athletic and fast defensive line that likes to get after the quarterback. How has the Falcons offensive line been in pass protection so far this year?
A mixed bag, again. Jake Matthews got absolutely destroyed by the Vikings in Week 1, but last week with stud rookie guard Chris Lindstrom on the shelf, they did a tremendous job of keeping the Eagles pass rush in check. Matthews is normally a very good tackle, Alex Mack needs little introduction at center, and the guard duo of James Carpenter and Jamon Brown are physical and capable. Kaleb McGary at right tackle is probably the biggest question mark because he’s a rookie and he’s yet to play a full game, but he has looked capable.
The reality is that the line is still a bit of a work in progress, though, so hiccups are to be expected along the way. I do think the Colts will be another good test for this line and I’m hopeful that they can protect Ryan, but the reality is that Ryan certainly had enough time last week and still made a number of bad throws. As long as they aren’t destroyed and #2 is making better decisions for the Falcons, I’m feeling okay about this one.
4) If you were Frank Reich, how would you go about attacking this Falcons defense?
I would limit runs up the middle, if not take them out of the gameplan entirely. The Falcons have re-built their defensive tackle grouping a bit and are rock solid against the run, while their athletic linebacker group and roving tackle machine Keanu Neal make it difficult to get much traction even if you can slip by Grady Jarrett and Tyeler Davison. The Vikings—and to a much lesser extent, the Eagles—found a great deal of success with outside runs because Takk McKinley and Vic Beasley (and again, to a lesser extent, Allen Bailey) struggled to set the edge, and the Falcons were a mess tackling in open space. They appear to have tightened that up a bit, but I’d still test them because the Eagles hardly have the caliber of ground assault you guys do.
If we’re talking about the best way to test this passing attack, it’s a bit of a trickier question. I’d still go at Isaiah Oliver and see, again, if he benefited from the Eagles injuries or if he really turned a corner in the second week of the season. Oliver is a plus athlete with length, but I’ve seen beat deep. It’s also worth getting your tight ends involved and testing whether Keanu Neal in particular is fully recovered and capable in coverage, given that he’s returning from an injury that cost him nearly all of the 2019 season.
I wouldn’t shy away from trying the deep ball, either. The Eagles only lost, in the end, because Nelson Agholor let a perfect ball go through his hands, thanks to confused coverage and communication on the Falcons’ part late in the game. They’re sometimes susceptible to just that, and those kinds of backbreaking plays have doomed the Falcons a lot in recent years.
5) What is your prediction for this game, and your expectations for the rest of the season for the Falcons?
I do think the Falcons have a good shot in this one, mostly because I don’t expect Matt Ryan to keep turning the ball over at such an alarming rate, I think Devonta Freeman is overdue to have a decent game, and I do believe this defense is starting to turn the corner. That said, it’s a road matchup against an AFC team, and the Falcons have been putrid in those games under Dan Quinn. My confidence level is a little mixed.
I’ll say 27-21 Falcons—I have a feeling your kicker woes will factor into the outcome, honestly—but it ought to be a tight matchup throughout, given the quality team the Colts have assembled. I’m sticking to my early prediction that the Falcons are a playoff team and potentially the NFC South champion, given how messed up the other three teams are by injuries and ineptitude, but how they fare against you guys and the Titans will go a long way toward determining whether they can get there.