On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers take on the Atlanta Falcons in a rematch of last season's NFC Championship Game. Dave Choate of The Falcoholic was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the Falcons and provide insight into their strengths and weaknesses.
APC: The Falcons produced one of the all-time great offensive seasons in 2016 under Kyle Shanahan. With Shanahan no longer at the controls, what has changed about the offense?
It’s really too early to say, but we noticed some fairly significant changes in the first game that could be trends.
The first is that Steve Sarkisian is unlikely to use pre-snap motion and play action as much as Kyle Shanahan did. Those were bread and butter-type staples of the 2016 offense and were very effective, but under Sark, the Falcons used limited play action and not nearly as much frenetic motion.
The Falcons are obviously going to use the fullback less under Sark, too, although that’s a more minor note and understandable given that Derrick Coleman is not Patrick DiMarco.
Ultimately, the offense looks a little safer and less dynamic, but this might be just a new coordinator finding his feet. If it’s not, chances are good the Falcons won’t be the league’s top offense again.
APC: Atlanta's defense finished last season on a high note and added some significant pieces during the offseason. Which new player do you expect to have the biggest impact on Sunday, and how has the unit improved as a whole?
I think Dontari Poe is a vital new piece. He quietly led the team in pressures in Week 1, per Pro Football Focus, and the way he both occupies blockers and bullies past them can’t be overstated. He and Grady Jarrett are going to feast in the middle of the defense.
The unit has improved otherwise simply from growth, plus the addition of promising rookie pass rusher Takkarist McKinley. Vic Beasley is in his all-important third year, Deion Jones and Keanu Neal both look even faster and better in their second season, and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell has made drastic improvements, to the point where he looked like the best Atlanta defender on Sunday. Pair that with deep defensive line rotation and an always-terrific secondary and you’ve got a recipe for a better unit, which should help make up for any offensive shortcomings.
APC: The Falcons open their new stadium on Sunday night. Do you expect the new venue to alter the home-field advantage in any significant way?
I think, oddly enough, that it probably won’t prove to be a major homefield advantage right away. The Falcons have played just two games there and there have been legitimate questions about the speed of the turf, which is a potential issue for one of the fastest teams in the NFL. Once the team adjusts I expect it to be an awesome place to play—and it should be much louder than the Georgia Dome, given acoustics and fan enthusiasm—but I don’t expect it to be a major home field advantage against the Packers.
APC: If tasked with game planning against the Falcons, how would you attack them on offense? On defense?
On offense, you’ve got to attack the interior of the offensive line, particularly right guard Wes Schweitzer. He was not great in his first NFL start, and he’s unlikely to become an above average starter in the span of one week. If you can bully him, you can get pressure on Matt Ryan and impact the ground game.
Given how many weapons Matt Ryan has, it’s critically important to get pressure and jam at the line of scrimmage as much as possible, forcing Ryan to make quick throws instead of getting established in the pocket and taking deep strikes. If you can slow down Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and make the team one-dimensional, so much the better.
On offense, you’ve got to make these guys miss. The Falcons whiffed on 11 tackles against the Bears and were reeling from Tarik Cohen’s speed and elusiveness, and the best way to win will be to get players like Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb into space where they can eat. As you saw in last year’s NFC Conference Championship Game, too, you really have to be able to run the ball and achieve some balance, because the Falcons’ pass rush and secondary are ultimately problematic if you have to pass your way through the rest of the game.
APC: Finally, it's prediction time. Which team wins on Sunday and why?
I’ve got the Falcons, but it’s going to be a mighty close game. I’ve got them winning 30-28 by virtue of several field good and three successful offensive drives, as well as a genuinely impactful defensive effort featuring multiple sacks and at least one turnover. Aaron Rodgers and this offense are incredibly difficult to stop, but I’m bullish on this defense being able to limit them to under 30 points. That should be enough to win.
We'd like to thank Dave and The Falcoholic for answering our questions. Be sure to check out our Q&A session over there, as well as their fantastic coverage of all things Falcons. As always, keep your internet machines tuned to Acme Packing Company this Sunday for our comprehensive game-day coverage of Packers vs. Falcons.