The Atlanta Falcons are in trouble. Though the NFC South is still very much up for grabs, the Falcons find themselves at 2-5 on the season (strangely, those two wins both came against division rivals). The Detroit Lions are on the opposite end of the spectrum, looking to hold their position atop the division and head into the bye week with an impressive 6-2 record. In order to do so, the Lions will have to take advantage of some of Atlanta's weaknesses.
There is no secret to the Falcons' weakness on offense: it's their offensive line. Decimated by injuries early and often, Atlanta has struggled to keep Matt Ryan off the turf. They quickly lost starting left tackle Sam Baker for the year, forcing rookie Jake Matthews into that role. Matthews has struggled with injury and has otherwise looked pretty bad. Gabe Carimi has jumped in to fill the void that Matthews left on the right side and has looked equally lost.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, things are just as bad in the interior of the line. Last week, the Falcons lost center Peter Konz, who was already their backup, for the year. That leaves undrafted rookie James Stone as the next man up. Stone played the majority of snaps last week after Konz went down, but he is still an unknown commodity.
But what isn't unknown is the strength of the Lions' front seven. And with Atlanta trying to figure out who will protect their quarterback, expect the Lions' defensive line to dominate this matchup. But don't take my word for it; let's watch some of Atlanta's offensive line in action.
Watch as both tackles struggle with a fairly straightforward pass rush from the Chicago Bears (both defensive ends will remain nameless):
Both tackles get manhandled backward, leaving Ryan with nowhere to go. It is especially striking to watch Matthews get driven back so forcefully given his draft hype.
Of course, when forced to shuffle the offensive line so frequently, the biggest issue the Falcons have been facing is creating a chemistry between linemen. This makes it easy for the defense to create confusion by disguising pass rushes.
Last week, the Baltimore Ravens were extremely successful at sending blitzes and stunts into the heart of the Falcons' offensive line, creating havoc on almost every passing play:
Again, it's Matthews who ends up looking like a fool, as his poor effort to get toward the stunting defender is thwarted by the defensive tackle, who just manhandles him out of the way. No one is left to pick up the defender, who tackles Ryan for the world's easiest safety.
If the Lions can force the Falcons into obvious passing downs (and they should be able to), expect them to pin their ears back and attack Ryan. Detroit has had no fear in sending extra blitzers or moving guys around on the line this year, so don't expect them to back down this week.
Going into my film research this week, I knew the Falcons defense was "bad," but I didn't really know why. After watching a few of their games, I have to say, I'm still not entirely sure why.
Looking at their stats only creates more confusion. They give up the most yards per pass attempt in the league yet have allowed the third-fewest passing touchdowns. They allow just 4.1 yards per carry (t-15th) but have given up five more rushing touchdowns than any other team in the NFL.
But just as I struggled to find a particular weakness in this defense, I also couldn't identify a specific strength. Their defense is plagued by inconsistencies. Take, for example, Robert Alford, who had two extremely impressive interceptions against Baltimore last week. He will have flashes of brilliance, but he has also drawn six flags already this year, including three pass interference calls.
On the defensive line, the Falcons have a breakout star in the making in Jonathan Massaquoi but not much else to boast about. They've only tallied seven sacks on the year.
Overall, this just isn't a good defense. Football Outsiders has them ranked as the 31st defense by DVOA. They have given up the third-most yards per game, the second-most yards per play and the third-most points per game. To put it bluntly, the Falcons' defensive weakness is... their defense.
The Atlanta Falcons are a team desperate to win, sitting at 2-5 on the season. Though they boast a talented quarterback and a dangerous wide receiver duo, their vulnerability on the offensive line could kill their chances against the Lions this week. The Lions' offense is going through some serious issues (and serious injuries), but the Falcons defense is just full of mediocrity, at best. If the Lions can attack that offensive line and gather some semblance of an offense, they have a good chance of heading into the bye at 6-2.