In a rare matchup of teams, Cincinnati hosts the Atlanta Falcons for the first time since 2014. The Bengals have been on the winning side of things more often than not in this rivalry, but this matchup provides different challenges.
We tapped the knowledge of SB Nation’s Atlanta Falcons site, the Falcoholic, for more info. Kevin Knight over there obliged us with answers to our questions.
1.) AC: Marcus Mariota is seeming to have a nice career renaissance under Arthur Smith. Is the style of play and scheme they’re running sustainable for long-term success and what’s been their bread-and-butter with him on offense?
KK: The Falcons style of play has been sustainable through six games, but it’s anyone’s guess if it can hold up over the course of an entire season. In reality, this team should be 4-2 with a chance to be 5-1 if not for “official interference” at the end of the Bucs game in Week 5.
So it’s been a successful blueprint for Atlanta thus far, and one that has kept them in one-score games every single week. At the end of the day, the plan right now is to limit Mariota’s passing attempts as much as possible, pound the rock with Allgeier and Huntley, and have Mariota rip off big runs whenever he gets favorable looks.
Considering Atlanta’s investment in the receiving corps (Kyle Pitts, Drake London), you have to think the plan is for the passing game to eventually become a bigger part of the offense. Maybe it’s a matter of Mariota continuing to knock off rust and getting more comfortable with these receivers, or maybe it’s a case of just trying to build a successful offense until the “QB of the future” arrives. Either way, the system is working, and Arthur Smith deserves a lot of credit for turning this into a top-10 offense.
2.) AC: Cordarelle Patterson is on I.R., but Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley have both provided nice sparks to supplement what Mariota does. What’s their plan of attack with the backs this week against the Bengals, in terms of potential play-calls and workload share?
KK: The Falcons will run the ball as much as possible. It’s really up to the opponent to force them out of it. Even that has not always worked, as the Falcons ran the ball successfully to close the gap on the Bucs in Week 5. Without Patterson, the running game doesn’t quite have the same dynamic element, but they’ve managed to replace some of that by having Mariota run more frequently and mixing in return specialist Avery Williams.
Tyler Allgeier and Caleb Huntley are both hammers who are very good at avoiding negative runs and tacking on yards after contact. This is a physical, punishing run game with those two taking 15+ carries.
Given the strength of Cincinnati’s pass defense and weakness of the run defense, I’d expect the Falcons to try and put up 40+ carries in this one just like they did against San Francisco. Obviously, the Bengals can make that a lot harder by putting points on the board themselves.
3.) AC: The Falcons employ arguably the largest wide receiver corps in the league, top to bottom. They’re third in the league in yards per reception as a team. Have these primarily been on deep routes, or shorter ones and their utilization of the group’s sheer size to maximize yards after the catch?
KK: It’s been a mix of both so far. The two core components of Arthur Smith’s offense are establishing a dominant run game and hitting deep shots off play-action. So far, the run game has come together, but the deep shots have not. The only consistent downfield threat thus far has been Olamide Zaccheaus, who is actually the smallest of the receivers, and he has mostly made his mark on intermediate routes with some yards after catch added.
Obviously, Kyle Pitts is extremely dangerous as a downfield threat, but he hasn’t gotten enough accurate targets thus far. Rookie Drake London has been the primary target and chain-mover, and he’s dangerous after the catch as well. Atlanta’s passing game is very low volume, but it has been efficient thanks to the after-catch ability of the receivers. If they can finally start hitting those deep shots, watch out.
4.) AC: The Falcons are top-ten in the league, in terms of rushing yards allowed, but are dead-last in passing yards allowed as a defense. What type of passing attacks have been their Achilles Heel?
Over the first five games of the season, the Falcons really struggled in zone coverage. Then, against the Bucs, they couldn’t stop Tom Brady’s dink-and-dunk offense that moved up and down the field with 10+ passes to Leonard Fournette out of the backfield. Against the 49ers, Atlanta gave up two quick TD drives in a similar fashion, but then tightened up in the second half. This is a very hot-and-cold defense that, as you mentioned, tends to allow a lot of yardage.
What they haven’t done is give up a ton of points—Atlanta is 19th in scoring defense—and they’ve accomplished that by playing stingy red zone defense and creating takeaways. Cincinnati is one of the best passing attacks Atlanta will face all season, and I’m interested to see how they respond to the challenge.
Atlanta struggles to get pressure with blitzing, and they’ve tended to struggle in zone. Not a good setup against the Bengals, on paper at least.
5.) AC: Currently, the Bengals are 6.5-point favorites this week, per DraftKings. What’s your take on that line and how are you predicting this one?
KK: As it has been all season, the Falcons are going to keep this one close and make both fanbases sweat it out until the clock hits :00. Their style of play on offense and opportunistic defense sets up these one-score finishes.
I do think the Bengals are clearly the more talented team, but Atlanta’s offensive game plan matches up well with Cincinnati’s weakness on defense. I’ll still predict a Bengals win, because I don’t know if Atlanta can really slow down Burrow and the passing game, but it’ll be tighter than the spread. Bengals 27-24.
Our thanks to The Falcoholic and Kevin Knight for the chat! Check their site out for our end of the conversation!