The Other Side: Atlanta Falcons
Q: Atlanta wasn’t able to build on its dominating win over Carolina, losing a week later at home to Tampa Bay, 35-22. A 26-18 loss to New Orleans — again at home — followed, leaving the Falcons 3-9 going into December. What’s the biggest reason for Atlanta not being able to find consistency?
A: Simply put, it's the line of scrimmage. During the Falcons mini-two game winning streak, they recorded 11 sacks. Since then, they have zero sacks and only one quarterback hit in each of the last two games. With no pressure on the quarterback, the secondary has broken down in coverage again.
The offense has lost control of the line of scrimmage as well, giving up 15 sacks in the last two games, both of which were also at home against division rivals.
Q: A shoulder injury has limited Julio Jones over the past couple of weeks — how’s he recovering? And he hasn’t scored a touchdown since a Week 3 loss at Indianapolis. How do you explain that?
A: Julio Jones has been limited in practice, but I expect he will play this Sunday. Dan Quinn cited the short week on Thanksgiving as the reason he couldn't suit up versus the Saints in Week 13, so I think he'll give it a go against the Panthers.
As for explaining his touchdown-drought, I'm at a loss for words. No receiver with his talent should go so long without a touchdown, but Jones has scored his touchdowns in spurts the last couple years, so this really isn't uncommon. Last year, he went the first seven games without scoring and then had eight touchdowns in the last nine contests.
In the first three games of 2019, he had four scores, and now he has gone the last eight games without reaching the end zone.
Q: The Saints got to Matt Ryan nine times, with tackles Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary each giving up two. Ryan has been sacked 38 times, only four fewer than last season and not far off from his career-high of 44 in 2013. What will Atlanta do you prevent that against Carolina and what steps can you see being taken before next season?
A: It sounds like inserting first-round pick Chris Lindstrom at guard is a possibility this week. He's been practicing but hasn't played since Week 1 because of a broken foot. He's a rookie, but his pedigree is an upgrade over who has been playing guard for Atlanta this season.
As for tackle, the Falcons don't have any better options. They could bench McGary for Ty Sambrailo, but at this point, the goal should be to develop McGary, who has shown good signs in run blocking but has struggled mightily in pass protection, in these final four games. Unfortunately for Ryan, that could mean more pain in December.
Q: Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett (6-0, 305 lbs.) has 5.5 sacks and his total has increased each season since being a fifth-round draft pick in 2015, including a six-sack season last year. Also this year he has 55 tackles, eight tackles for a loss, 13 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. What makes him on of the most productive defensive tackles in the league?
A: I'm glad you've noticed Jarrett. The Falcons are having another bad defensive year, but Jarrett has been Pro Bowl and maybe even All-Pro worthy. I'd credit his quickness and instincts for his success. Jarrett is very rarely out of position, and he's excelling on a unit that doesn't have much of anyone else to be concerned with other than him.
Q: Head coach Dan Quinn handed defensive playcalling duties to former linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich before last month’s win at New Orleans and the Falcons responded immediately. And since then the unit has looked better for stretches, including a smothering effort the last time Atlanta played Carolina. What’s been the difference? The way Ulbrich calls a game? Personnel changes? Favorable matchups or something else?
A: The attitude and energy of the defense has been different. In addition to Ulbrich's switch, Raheem Morris has gone from coaching the wide receivers to the defensive backs. He's also called some defensive plays. The result hasn't yielded many schematic changes but better coverage, especially from second-year cornerback Isaiah Oliver.
One personnel change Ulbrich and Morris have done, though, has been playing Adrian Clayborn more snaps. He had 3.0 sacks during the two-game winning streak.
Q: Prediction for the game?
A: I am very tempted to go with the Falcons because of the distractions the Panthers have gone through this week with the coaching changes, but something in my gut tells me Carolina may respond to the adversity the same way the Falcons did at the beginning of November. There's also little to suggest the Falcons are going to generate any more pressure on the quarterback or pass protect better this week than they have the last two.
Carolina 24, Atlanta 20
For more about the Falcons, visit si.com/nfl/Falcons and follow Dave on Twitter at @dmholcomb.