CINCINNATI – There are a number of ways to gauge how good an NFL team really is, but here are two of them: 1) How well do they play in December; 2) How well do they play on the road.
December is a few months away. But we’ll learn a little more about the Falcons’ level and toughness today when they play their second game against the Cincinnati Bengals. They were impressive in many ways in last week’s 37-34 home win over New Orleans, showing both their strength (Matt Ryan and the offense) and their weaknesses (defense). But today they will be going against a better defense and playing in front of a crowd that will be screaming when they have the ball (unlike at home).
If healthy, the Falcons’ offense gives them a chance to win any game, particularly when Ryan and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter spread things around the way they did against New Orleans. Ryan used nine receivers and all four running backs (Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers, Devonta Freeman and Antone Smith) contributed.
But there are some issues. I’ll get to those shortly.
Since 1990, when the NFL expanded to a 12-team field, 196 teams have started the season 2-0 and 124 of them reached the playoffs (63.3 percent). Strangely, however, the Falcons have started a season at least 2-0 eight times (1979, 1981, 1986, 1998, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2012) and reached the postseason in only three of those (1998, 2004, 2012).
Here are a few thoughts and concerns going into today’s game:
• Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews is out with a left ankle injury. The Falcons haven’t stated the seriousness of the injury – he stood on the sideline in uniform last week after coming out of the New Orleans game, for what it’s worth – but this likely will significantly after blocking schemes. Tackle Sam Baker was lost for the season with a knee injury in the preseason. Depth is in issue. Two projected backups, Gabe Carimi (left) and Lamar Holmes (right), are now the starters. Expect the Falcons to often go with max-protect formations, which means fewer four-wide receiver sets.
• Cincinnati finished 10th in the league in sacks last season with 43 and dropped Baltimore’s Joe Flacco three times last week. The Bengals also had nine pass breakups and in interception. So the Falcons will be playing an aggressive defense in a loud stadium. The most likely counter to that are quick passes and a power running game.
• The Falcons struggled to mount a pass rush against New Orleans. If they don’t improve against Cincinnati, quarterback Andy Dalton is going to have a field day with his receivers, primarily former Georgia star A.J. Green. There was a lot of debate before the 2011 draft who was the best receiver available, Jones or Alabama’s Julio Jones. Green went fourth overall to Cincinnati, Jones sixth to Atlanta. The debate still lingers. The biggest difference is Green has stayed healthy, playing 48 games and totaling 266 catches for 3,964 yards (14.9 per) and 30 touchdowns. Jones has played only 35 games. Totals: 181 for 2,853, 15.8 average, 20 TDs.
Falcons’ inactives today are Matthews, wide receiver Courtney Roby, cornerback Javier Arenas, linebacker Tyler Starr, center James Stone, defensive end Cliff Matthews and quarterback Sean Renfree. There are three players active this week who were inactive against New Orleans: tackle Ryan Schraeder, defensive tackle Corey Peters and linebacker Nate Stupar.
That’s it for now. I’ll be here live blogging during the game.
•Digital Jukebox (but it only plays Schultz songs)
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