I've been looking at some of the recent Falcons games to get an insight into how the team is performing so far and their strategic approach.
After the jump, I break down the positional groupings (BGA-style!) to try and highlight what the Jets need to look out for.
The guy Mike Tannenbaum recently called "the one player he wished he got the change to draft" is off to a good start in his sixth season as the Falcons' franchise quarterback. Matt Ryan is currently third in the NFL in passing yardage despite the Falcons disappointing 1-3 start (which renders this a must-win game for them heading into their bye week).
Despite all the weapons at his disposal, Ryan has only thrown more than 20 yards downfield 10 times, completing four. That's well behind his pace from last year when he had 67 attempts. He's ruthlessly efficient on short passes, though, with just two incompletions on 26 screen pass attempts. Perhaps his most important contribution so far has been that he's only been sacked seven times, despite being pressured 78 times. If you can limit your sacks to less than 10% of total pressures when you're under pressure a lot, that's pretty good. (For context, Geno Smith is at 21% this year and Mark Sanchez was at 23% last year).
If the Jets can knock Ryan out of the game, the Falcons' only other option is Dominique Davis, an undrafted rookie from last year who is yet to throw his first NFL pass and had a 62.8 QB rating in preseason.
The Falcons' offensive line has been an issue for them over the first month of the season, not helped by Sam Baker's injury issues which will keep him out of tonight's game. Baker was struggling anyway, which is surprising since he had a pretty good year in 2012. The other starting tackle had been Lamar Holmes, a third round pick who rode the bench in his rookie season last year. Holmes had also been struggling and did not start against New England last week, but then ended up playing most of the snaps with Baker hurt again anyway. The other starter against New England was Jeremy Trueblood, the former Tampa Bay Buccaneer who was signed for depth on the eve of the season after he failed to make Washington's roster. Trueblood was making his first start since 2012's opening day and struggled badly in 2011, his most recent season as a full time starter.
The interior line is much stronger. 329-pound former Texas Longhorn Justin Blalock is an above average left guard and probably their best lineman. Garrett Reynolds started off last year at right guard but lasted only six games before landing on injured reserve with a back injury, but he's back at right guard now and playing well. Reynolds was replaced by rookie Peter Konz in 2012, but Konz has been starting at center this season. He currently has the second worst run blocking grade among NFL centers per PFF, so the Jets will be banking on their defensive line taking advantage of that.
The primary backup is fourth year man Joe Hawley, who started 10 games at right guard in 2011 but has been a utility player since then. Another fourth year man, Mike Johnson, had entered the offseason as the projected starter at right tackle, despite only having one career start, but suffered a season-ending leg injury in August.
Steven Jackson is Atlanta's lead back, but he's been ruled out for this game, so they'll use Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling. They compliment each other well, with Rogers being the small speedy scat-back type and Snelling being more of a power back. Both are good pass catchers, as they've combined for 24 catches so far. Rogers is only averaging 3.5 yards per carry, but did have a good game against Miami, with 86 yards on 18 carries. Snelling is averaging 4.7 yards per carry so far.
Patrick DiMarco is the fullback. As a general rule, the Falcons don't use a fullback very often, but he did play 20 snaps against Miami in week three.
The Falcons are loaded at wide receiver, but the good news for the Jets is that both Roddy White and Julio Jones are listed as questionable in the injury report, so even if they play, they might not be 100%. Obviously, they are two of the most dangerous receivers in the league. If either of them can't go, the third receiver - former third round pick Harry Douglas - is no slouch either. He has 14 catches for 213 yards through four games and plays in the slot most of the time when they go three wide.
The other receivers on the roster have just four catches between them. They can, however, lean on their future hall-of-fame tight end in the passing game. Tony Gonzalez isn't a great blocker these days, but he's still more than capable of being productive and is coming off a career-best 149 yard performance with 12 catches and two touchdowns. Rookie Levine Toiolo has just three catches for 10 yards so far and Chase Coffman has barely played.
After the Jets faced an elite defensive tackle in each of their first four games, this week should be a much easier assignment for the interior offensive line. The Falcons effectively use a three-man rotation with three veterans - Corey Peters, Peria Jerry and Jonathan Babineaux - all of whom are solid players, but not much more than that. Babineaux and Jerry also get some reps at defensive end.
The Falcons best defensive end is former Giant Osi Umenyiora. He did have a couple of sacks against Miami, but he's 31 now and past his prime. Umenyoira plays the majority of the snaps on the blindside, so look for him to be mostly matched up with D'Brickashaw Ferguson. Surprisingly, they've only faced each other once in a regular season game, with Umenyiora recording one sack in their 2007 matchup. The starter at the other end spot is Jonathan Massaquoi, a second year pro who is yet to record his first NFL sack.
The backups aren't used much, but include two draft picks - Malliciah Goodman and Stansly Maponga.
The Falcons have injury issues here too, with starting middle linebacker Akeem Dent already ruled out. Undrafted free agent Paul Worrilow made his first career start last week, but lasted just 12 snaps before suffering a knee injury which renders him questionable for this one too. That's after they already lost starters Sean Weatherspoon and Kroy Biermann to injuries. Both are on injured reserve, with Weatherspoon designated for return and Biermann, who converted from defensive end in the offseason, out for the year.
If Worrilow is ruled out, that would leave the Falcons with Joplu Bartu, Stephen Nicholas, Omar Gaither and Jamar Chaney. Nicholas was a full-time starter last year and did start in week two, while Bartu has started the last three games and been a pleasant surprise against the run. Gaither and Chaney were signed a couple of weeks ago in response to the injuries. Chaney has started 23 games over the last three seasons with the Eagles, including every game in 2011. Gaither is a player who has started games due to injury on his previous two seasons - four with the Raiders in 2012 and four with the Panthers in 2011. Prior to that, he was a teammate of Chaney's in Philadelphia, where he started 36 games over five seasons. Chaney hasn't played for the Falcons yet, but may be the best equipped to man the middle in Dent's absence.
There's an injury concern at cornerback too, with the Falcons' best corner, Asante Samuel, listed as questionable. If healthy, he'll start opposite first round pick Desmond Trufant. Quarterbacks have a 99.5 QB rating when targeting Trufant, but he does have one pass defensed in each of the first four games. While Samuel has been unavailable, Robert McClain has been starting, but when they went to three corners, McClain played in the slot with second round pick Robert Alford on the outside. McClain will revert to the slot role if Samuel can go.
At safety, William Moore has played every snap so far this year and Thomas DeCoud has missed just three. DeCoud gets more man-to-man assignments in the slot, but has struggled in coverage so far this year and missed 21 tackles in 2012. Their backups at safety are two seventh round picks from this year's draft and a fourth year veteran who had played just three snaps on defense entering the season.
Kicker Matt Bryant has made eight of nine field goals so far this season. He was a Pro Bowl Alternate in 2010. Punter Matt Bosher handles kickoffs too and has 16 of 22 touchbacks, including 12 of 16 indoors, so we might not see too many opportunities for runbacks. Only eight of his punts have been returned too (for 34 yards).
In the return game, Rodgers is listed as the kickoff returner and Douglas as the punt returner. However, if either is needed for a bigger role on offense, they might opt to use McClain or Alford instead. Backups Drew Davis and Antone Smith lead them in special teams tackles with four each.
I'll be back on Tuesday to recap the game!