If you thought our guests from our sister sites wrote a lot before this, then prepare to be astounded.
I don’t think I need to make this any longer for you all, so go ahead and dive right in!
1.) The Falcons have seen themselves turn around a dismal season into something respectable behind Raheem Morris as the interim head coach. What have you seen that’s changed in this squad since Morris took over for Dan Quinn?
I think in general, the defense has improved to a degree I wouldn’t have thought possible after the first five weeks. With Morris as the head coach and Jeff Ulbrich taking over as the full-time defensive coordinator, this unit went from allowing 30 points in four of five games before Quinn was fired to not allowing an opponent to score over 27 points a single time in the past seven games.
The energy and intensity level seems to be changed, too, with the Falcons maintaining a level of defensive competence and fire we haven’t seen in a while. They’ve actually won multiple games, most notably against the Raiders, on the back of that defense. Given that this stretch has restored my faith in this team’s talent level on that side of the ball and that it gives the next regime something to build on, the change has been a huge deal.
Unfortunately, the lift on defense and to a lesser extent special teams (where Younghoe Koo has been special) has not translated to the offense, which has cratered since Quinn left. Given that Morris does not, to my knowledge, get all that involved in the offensive game planning, I’m not sure if that’s something you can pin on him or if it’s just the result of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter’s predictable, ineffective play calling. The unfortunate cost of that decline, though, is that the rise of the defense has at times gone to waste.
Overall, Morris has burnished his head coaching resume by dragging a 0-5 team to a 5-4 record. He has four more games to try to push for that job in Atlanta or elsewhere, but I’ve been impressed by the work he’s done. I just wish it hadn’t taken the team so long to make the move, and that they were still the offensive juggernaut of yesteryear.
2.) Has Todd Gurley been the player that the Falcons expected him to be? What has he added to the offense this season?
Candidly, no, not at all. In my mind, there were two purposes for adding Gurley to the roster. The first was to gin up Georgia fan interest in this Falcons team, sell tickets, and sell jerseys for a local hero. The second was to give Koetter and this offense a gifted, well-rounded back with a history of being an effective short yardage and red zone back, something the Falcons lacked in 2019 with a banged-up Devonta Freman.
The first has probably worked out, because while there aren’t exactly a ton of tickets to sell, Gurley remains a popular player who sells a lot of merchandise. He’s incredibly easy to root for in general and has largely been the kind of scoring option the Falcons envisioned, so on that front it’s been a success. He is also, it should be remarked upon, the best blocker in this backfield, which means he’s gotten a lot of run even when he’s not running well.
But an important piece is how effective Gurley has been as the starting back for this Falcons offense, and largely through circumstances out of his control, that has not gone as well. Koetter has failed to utilize Gurley as a pass catcher whatsoever, making him a one-dimensional back. As the season has ground on, Gurley has been less and less effective as a runner, with his arthritic knee becoming more of a concern and possibly causing him to miss the Raiders game. His efforts to make something out of nothing thanks to unimaginative play calling and shaky blocking have at times led him to look to get the ball outside to disastrous effect, as was the case on a critical late game 3rd and 2 against the Saints where he lost seven yards.
I’m not sure prime Barry Sanders could do stellar work in this particular offense at this time, but with backs not getting involved in the passing game and Gurley looking a bit diminished from the the Hall of Fame-caliber player he was in his early years with the Rams, he’s basically stood no chance.
Was Gurley’s blocking, red zone work, and his popularity with the fanbase worth $5 million? Probably. Should the Falcons have looked at drafting a back they’d have for multiple years and kicked that money toward another receiver or a defensive piece? Yeah, I think so. It’s not really Gurley’s fault that this hasn’t been an eye-popping season for him, but it’s a bummer that it hasn’t worked out.
3.) How has Calvin Ridley been able to improve the way he did from last year to now? Has he supplanted Julio Jones as the team’s WR1?
So much of Ridley’s success is due to his dedication to the craft. He is fast, physical and talented, but not in the same way that Julio Jones (who is also a fanatic worker but also bigger, taller, and faster) is, which means quite a bit of his success has to come from simply outsmarting and outworking the defenders he’s working against. Ridley was on pace to take this kind of leap last year before he got hurt, but he’s truly arrived this year in part due to his tremendous route running and ability to create separation.
Ridley is on pace to clear 1,000 yards for the first time and potentially hit double digit touchdowns again despite not having a ton of help. I’ve been beating up on Koetter in these responses over and over and I have to do it again here, because the truth is that he has not proven particularly adept at scheming his receivers open and guys like Russell Gage, Hayden Hurst, and Olamide Zaccheaus have been unable to consistently punish defenses for locking in on Ridley and Jones. That only makes it more impressive that Ridley has consistently produced and made a number of beautiful catches this year.
All that said, Ridley is the #1 wide receiver in terms of production but is still not the nominal top receiver in this offense. Julio Jones still demands the double teams when both guys are on the field and Julio is, despite the injuries piling up this year, still the better receiver. As Julio gets older and Ridley continues to hone his craft, though, he’ll go from being perhaps the best #2 receiver in the league to the offense’s clear-cut top option.
4.) If you were the Chargers OC/DC, how would you go about attacking the Falcons on either side of the ball?
If I’m the offensive coordinator, I’m trying to beat the Falcons deep. Rookie cornerback A.J. Terrell is tough to beat right now, but the Falcons don’t have any truly elite options at corner and safety Ricardo Allen could miss this game with a concussion, leaving core special teamer Sharrod Neasman with a chance to start. The Falcons have gotten much sharper on defense in recent weeks but remain susceptible to blown opportunities on deep balls, so if you trust your offensive line and Herbert against a surprisingly game Falcons pass rush, I’d take those shots all day long and try to break their backs.
Failing that, prioritize Austin Ekeler and Hunter Henry. As good as this Falcons linebacker group has been in 2020, they’re not consistently elite in coverage and opposing tight ends have been particularly successful against them, with the bizarre exception of Darren Waller’s disappearance a couple of weeks ago. If you trust them to pick up yards after the catch, you can at least keep the ball moving against this defense, and the opportunity for deep shots will be there. The Falcons have been a pretty good run defense all year but the Saints did just smack them around a bit last week, so while pass heavy is probably your best road to victory, I’d at least test out Ekeler and company on the ground early.
Defensively, your job is probably a bit easier. The Saints showed that if your pass rush is up to the task, you can aggressively pressure Matt Ryan and have success, given that Atlanta’s passing game often relies too heavily on slow-developing plays. The Falcons adjusted a bit last weekend against the Saints but smothering New Orleans coverage forced Ryan to make some risky throws and a handful of backbreaking drops did the rest. Because the Falcons have a pretty weak ground game—though Ito Smith has given it some life the last couple of weeks—they’re fairly one-dimensional and you can generally afford to be aggressive about attacking Ryan and trying to throw receivers off their routes. The biggest danger with Atlanta is that Julio or Ridley gets loose and wreaks havoc, something that is probably inevitable once or twice but becomes a problem fast if it’s happening consistently.
I think this one comes down to the effectiveness of the passing game for both teams. If the Falcons are as listless as they have been in recent weeks, yikes.
5.) Give us a short summary of how you think the game will go and top it all off with a final score prediction.
This is a battle of two teams with longstanding habits of blowing games in the most spectacular fashion possible, to the point where I’ve been joking about sinkholes opening up and reality glitching when it comes time for one of these teams to actually win.
It’s safe to say I’m expecting a close game, one that’ll probably be reasonably high scoring given how capable both of these offenses can be and the fact that the Saints were a bit sharper against the Falcons defense last week out. Coming off a 45-0 loss, it’s safe to say I don’t expect your defense to be shutdown, even if I’m wary of our offense.
I’ll say 30-28 Falcons, but either team winning by 1-3 points would not shock me. Expect a back-and-forth game with plenty of aggravating moments, just like we...like it? That can’t be right.