The first quarter of the 2015 NFL season is in the books and the Atlanta Falcons have surprised everyone so far with their best start since the 2012-13 season that ended with a NFC Conference Championship lost to the San Francisco 49ers. Being 4-0 sounds good but at this point even a .500 team is only 2 games behind so count the first four games of a NFL season as merely a warm-up. Last year the Seattle Seahawks began the season at only 1-3 and wound up being one batted down pass away from their 2nd Super Bowl victory. Over the next couple of weeks is when teams will really start making strides. That makes this week’s Washington Redskins/Atlanta Falcons matchup important to both teams post season hopes.
The 2-2 Redskins are locked in a race with the Dallas Cowboys and the NY Giants for control of the NFC East Division. They have had an up and down season so far with losses to the Giants and Dolphins; but are coming off of a 15 play, 90 yard game-winning drive over the Eagles led by quarterback Kirk Cousins. Cousins was tutored as a rookie by Atlanta’s Offensive Coordinator, Kyle Shannahan, when Shannahan coached in Washington. He has been turnover prone but has a strong arm, is mobile enough to avoid a lot of sacks, and is playing with a lot of confidence.
Atlanta needs this victory to remain tied with the Carolina Panthers for the NFC South Division title. The Falcons have employed a sort of “bend but not break” defense where they rank near the bottom of the league in passing yardage allowed yet have not allowed many points from opponents. They dodged a major bullet this week when the Redskins announced that three time pro bowler, DeSean Jackson, who led the league last year in yards per catch (20.9), will not play due to a hamstring injury suffered in the first week of the season. Don’t look for a pass oriented offense from the Redskins, but Cousins may find some opportunities; because the Falcons defensive secondary will need to help load the box against the Redskins’ run game.
Both the Falcons and the Redskins will look to run the ball, but for different reasons. Look for the Redskins to attack with a healthy dose of the run game in order to control the game clock and keep Atlanta’s offense off the field. Led by Alfred Morris who has regained his rookie season form; the Redskins don’t lose a step when back-ups rookie Matt Jones and Chris Thompson enter the game. Their offense leads the league in rushing with 139.5 yards per game. Although the pass defense has been Atlanta’s Achilles heel; their defense against the run has been really good and is ranked 5th in the league in yards allowed. That ranking should go down after the Redskins bring their run dominant game to town.
In contrast, the Falcons run to open the passing the game. The Falcons’ fast start coincides with the always reliable hands of Julio Jones and their much improved running game led by Devonta Freeman and his league leading 7 touchdowns. The Falcons’ run game will also benefit from the return of RB Tevin Coleman to the lineup. Atlanta’s offensive line has benefited greatly from the outstanding speed of both Freeman and Coleman and from the team’s return to a zone blocking scheme that doesn’t require the linemen to hold their blocks as long. They will need to continue to find ways to open lanes for the running game against a Washington defense that has only allowed a league leading 78 yards rushing per game and no rushing touchdowns so far.
But the identity of the Falcons offense is its pass game. Offensive Coordinator, Kyle Shannahan was over-shadowed by his Dad, Coach Mike Shannahan, in Washington but he has shown himself to be more than capable at creative play calling for Atlanta’s pass oriented offense.
Their offense begins with Matt Ryan who shook off two interceptions in the first game of the year and has seen his QB rating rise higher each week from the previous game. And it is powered by Julio Jones who leads the league in yards per catch and will draw the bulk of the attention from the Redskins’ secondary which will be missing several starters including former Falcon, DeAngelo Hall. The Redskins secondary has yet to record an interception.
The biggest recipient of the increased attention to Jones in last week’s game against the Texans was WR Leonard Hankerson and if the offensive line can continue to keep Matt Ryan upright, he should play a big role in the offense again. Missing in action this year has been Roddy White, who voiced complaints this week about the low number of times that he has had balls thrown his way. Look for him to be targeted early, but for the Ryan to continue to spread his passes around to his tight end, receivers, and runners out of the backfield.
A Falcons win and they will be able to thank the NFC East Division for all but one of their wins this season. But the Falcons will need to guard against looking ahead to the short week game Thursday night against their South Division rival, New Orleans Saints. The talent on the Redskins’ roster closely matches the Falcons and each teams’ strengths and weaknesses is going to make this game closer than most think.
Turnovers and special teams will play a big role this week and it likely will come down to the winning team being the team that has the ball last in the 4th quarter or in overtime. Give the slight advantage to the Falcons’ strong kicking game and playing at home. But in a game too close to call, if the Redskins are driving down the field with the ball last then they will return to Washington with a victory.