DirtyBird Forecast: Episode 2: Falcons backups must rise up


Falcons vs. Panthers

Mercedes-Benz Stadium

September 16th, 2018


A loss against the Eagles is at the bottom of the Falcons list of worries, an unfortunate outlook considering how young the season is. Keanu Neal will not play again this year as he begins the long road back from a torn ACL. And yesterday, the Falcons announced Deion Jones will be placed on IR. While his future may not be quite as bleak, it is still going to be at least eight weeks before we see Debo on the field. Neal and Jones are two of four Falcons defenders that have made a pro-bowl, and they have yet to even hit their primes. Losing them both in the first week of the season is a gut-punch and a harsh reality check for an Atlanta team that did not have a single player on IR coming into the season.

As cliché as it sounds, the Falcons have to maintain the next man up mentality. For Neal, that is Damontae Kazee, the second-year safety out of San Diego State. Kazee has already shown all the signs of a draft day steal. He was selected in the fifth-round, proved to be reliable as a backup and special teamer last year, and dominated his second preseason. When Neal went down with injury, Kazee came in and made the play of the night for the defense, delivering a crushing blow to Dallas Goedert that forced an interception. There is a significant size difference between him and Neal, but Kazee is a sure-tackler with a nose for the football. His transition into full-time starter should be much smoother than whoever replaces Deion Jones.

That replacement will likely be Duke Riley, another second-year player, out of LSU. There is no beating around the bush, Riley was a disappointment as a rookie. Frankly, he could not tackle and never looked like he belonged on an NFL field. The Falcons have not shown any increased faith in him over the offseason either, as he only played nine snaps in week one. But in those nine snaps, he did show a glimpse of why the Falcons drafted him. In college, he was an elite coverage linebacker and had one pass defended last Thursday. That is something Atlanta will be able to count on going forward. However, his ability to tackle and defend the run is a lingering question mark. Regardless, the Falcons are going to know what they have in Duke Riley by season’s end.

While Kazee and Riley are going to have to shoulder the brunt of the load in place of Neal and Jones, the rest of the Falcons have to step up as well. Specifically, the offensive side of the ball needs to return to form. Now, I am not sure that can or will happen, especially this week against a talented Carolina Panthers defense, but it has to, or else the Falcons have no chance of making it to the NFC playoffs.

Back to that fearsome Carolina defense, led by a monstrous defensive line, they came up with six sacks against the Cowboys. The Falcons offensive line was whipped on Thursday night versus the Eagles, which should motivate them for their week two matchup. Obviously, the Panthers can create pressure, but they are still a step behind Philadelphia in that department. Alex Mack and company will be up for the task come Sunday.

That will be critical because if Matt Ryan has time, he should be able to shred the Carolina secondary. Ryan threw for over 300 yards passing in both matchups with the Panthers in 2017. Their secondary has not improved much over the offseason either. Third-year corner, James Bradberry, leads the group but has yet to show that he is anything more than a middle-of-the-road starter to this point. Donte Jackson starts across from him as a rookie out of LSU. Jackson has all the physical attributes to be at the top of the position one day but is still a very raw prospect. With a boatload of receiving options available, the Falcons passing game has the potential to have a field day against the Panthers.

As we have all learned under Sarkisian, moving the ball does not always result in points. There is a small chance that the Falcons are as bad in the red zone as they were last week. Nonetheless, I do not see these problems going away overnight. The inability to cross the goal line has been a staple of Sarkisian’s offense. Atlanta averaged nearly 400 yards on Carolina last year but less than 20 points. They are going to have similar success moving the ball, but the 20-point mark seems like a reasonable goal, as sad as it sounds.

There is no denying the test became infinitely greater defensively without two star players. The good news: the Panthers do not have the weapons in the receiving core to take much advantage. On the flip side, Cam Newton and Christian McCaffery should look at this as an opportunity to enforce their will. The Falcons have done a fantastic job on both of them since Dan Quinn took over as coach, but that was with the versatility of Jones and Neal. Their ability to stuff the run game and guard anybody on the field is critical to stopping the Panthers offense. Duke Riley on Cam Newton in the open field is not something I was hoping to see this season. Norv Turner will be looking to create that matchup early and often, which will be harder than usual due to the number of injuries sustained to his offense.

Starting left tackle, Matt Khalil, hit the IR prior to the season, while starting right tackle, Daryl Williams, was injured in the season opener and expected to head to the IR as well. That creates a golden opportunity for Vic Beasley Jr. and Takkarist McKinley to add to their sack totals. Not to mention, Greg Olsen re-fractured the same foot that bothered him all of last season. Both of these teams are facing nightmarish injury concerns and it is only week two, which sets up for a barn-burner face-off at Mercedes-Benz stadium.

Even without two star players, the Panthers will have a tough time putting up points in Atlanta. Throwing the ball downfield is going to be near impossible with a broken offensive line and woeful receiving core. Their best source of offense will likely come from Newton running the ball, and as long as the Falcons can contain him, they should not have to hold their breaths defensively.

Atlanta will have no problem moving the ball against Carolina. Expect the visiting side to play a version of bend but don’t break defense, something that has been successful against the Falcons. It works again in this one, as Matt Ryan and Steve Sarkisian continue to fail in the red zone, making this another ugly game. The first one to 20 points will win. Fortunately, The Falcons hobbled defense stays strong, and the offense comes up with just enough big plays to squeak by at home. However, nobody will be thoroughly impressed by either side.

Falcons 22, Panthers 19

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