On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns are at home to take on the Atlanta Falcons. To help preview a few topics from the Falcons’ perspective, we reached out to Dave Choate from The Falcoholic and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
Chris: “The Falcons were hit with some big defensive injuries early in the year, but Atlanta has ripped off three straight wins. Has the defense improved, or is it still a major weakness in 2018?”
Dave: “The defense has improved, thankfully. They still need to keep this season alive while they wait for Deion Jones to get back and knock off some rust at middle linebacker, but the Falcons have been able to stabilize things a bit by playing a couple of so-so opponents in a row, re-shuffling their personnel a little bit, and getting the pieces to gel a bit. Having a healthy Grady Jarrett has helped the defensive line a ton, sixth round rookie Foye Oluokun has helped out at linebacker, and Damontae Kazee and Sharrod Neasman have stabilized a safety position ravaged by injuries.
That said, are they a good defense? No. The pass rush has been lackluster, hence the addition of Bruce Irvin, and up until the Washington game there was one cornerback being burnt to an absolute crisp per game, on average. I’m hopeful they’re rounding the corner but they’ll probably top out as a league-average unit in 2019.”
Chris: “Julio Jones has 60 catches for 933 yards, but somehow just got his FIRST touchdown of the season last week. Isn’t that odd? Or has rookie Calvin Ridley been stealing all of those looks?”
Dave: “The Falcons have been successful this season through the air for many reasons, but one of them is that teams can’t avoid doubling Julio Jones often, and that leads to open looks for other receivers. In years past, the Falcons have still tried very hard to get Julio the ball in the red zone, with decidedly mixed results. The difference this year is that they haven’t been focusing on that, and have instead focused on getting open looks. It’s not a coincidence that they’re scoring at a much higher clip when they’re not trying to force the ball to Julio in the end zone.
It may be that Julio has some weird aversion to scoring that we haven’t identified, but the simplest explanation is that he’s dangerous in space and less dangerous when he can’t run free and there are multiple defenders responsible for him when things squeeze together in the red zone. Fortunately, having to account for him has given Mohamed Sanu, Calvin Ridley, Tevin Coleman and the rest of the gang room to run, and they’ve taken advantage of it.”
Chris: “Cleveland struggled to generate a pass rush a few weeks ago against the Steelers’ offensive line. I know the Falcons are well-equipped with Alex Mack at center, but how has the rest of the line been -- any weaknesses?”
Dave: “There are real weaknesses. I’m cautiously optimistic that this line is turning a difference after two straight solid performances, but theoretically you could tee off on at least three guys on this line. Wes Schweitzer at left guard is a mobile, capable pass protector who can be overpowered and sometimes outworked at the point of attack, while Ben Garland is perhaps a bit stronger but pretty similar at right guard. Ryan Schraeder had been a liability for weeks at right tackle before he righted the ships in a big way against Washington, and if you want to be on that being a fluke, I wouldn’t blame you. Only Jake Matthews at left tackle and Mack at center have been great all year.
The Steelers are the team to emulate here, as they were absolutely fearless about going Matt Ryan and kept him off balance or on the ground all day. If Schweitzer, Garland and Schraeder are up to the task this week, though, you just have to hope for the best and try to get Myles Garrett some unfettered access to the quarterback by hook or crook.”
Chris: “Atlanta drafted DB Isaiah Oliver in the second round of this year’s draft. How has he performed in limited action this season?”
Dave: “It has been an up-and-down season for the rookie cornerback. Earlier in the year, he couldn’t really get much playing time, and the playing time he did get showed why he wasn’t quite ready for primetime. He was memorably beaten a couple of times in the Cincinnati game in particular.
However, he has the length, athleticism and instincts you look for in a cornerback in this scheme, by and large, and I thought he looked much better in a full-time start against Washington a week ago. He was beaten by Josh Doctson a couple of times on ridiculous catches down the sideline but looked much better and should be able to carve out a role going forward. With Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford making a lot of money and being on the wrong side of 30 either now or in 2019, the Falcons would like him to step up sooner than later.”
Chris: “Tell us about one player on offense and one player on defense who Browns fans may not have heard of, but who have been playing a nice role for the Falcons in 2018.”
Dave: “On offense, your fantasy footballers will already know Ito Smith, but I’m going to mention him anyways. He wasn’t the most heralded back in this draft class, but the Falcons got a steal in the fourth round. With Devonta Freeman missing most of the year, Smith has been a key part of the rushing attack, and has shown good hands, solid blocking skills and a lot of physicality and wiggle to his game. Some of his scoring runs this year have reminded me of Freeman at his very best.
On defense, Damontae Kazee is the man. He was the team’s third safety heading into the season, but had to step in due to injuries. He has his lapses, but he covers extremely well, has four picks this year and has shown a real nose for the ball, and hits like a train. The Falcons are going to be spoiled at the safety position when Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal are healthy next year, but in the meantime Kazee is one of the team’s most dynamic defenders.”
Thanks again to Dave for taking the time to answer my questions.