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Week 16 defensive preview: Sweeping the NFC South

The Arrowhead Pride Nerd Squad breaks down the Falcons’ offense — and a concept we might see on Sunday.

Carolina Panthers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

After two wins over playoff teams, the Kansas City Chiefs face off against the four-win Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons should bring better weapons than the Chiefs' last two opponents, but they struggle to put together full games of quality play. That said, there are some players that could be bad matchups for the Chiefs defense this week.

With that in mind, let’s dig into the Falcons’ personnel — and a concept we may see on Sunday. Then we’ll discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down — and clinch the No. 1 seed with a victory.

The personnel

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

For the 13th consecutive season, Matt Ryan leads the Falcons offense. He’s been a lock for 4,000-plus yards and 20-plus touchdowns for over a decade now, and this season is no different. He’s unafraid to throw volume passes at his excellent offensive weapons and will attack all levels of the field. Ryan does have the sixth-longest time to throw in the league, so he will sit in the pocket longer than a lot of the quarterbacks the Chiefs have seen lately.

Todd Gurley was one of the most significant additions to this Falcons offense this offseason, but he hasn’t had the impact this team may have been counting on in 2020. He’s averaging just 3.5 yards per carry — the second-lowest of his career — and a paltry 5.4 yards per reception. He’s still shown the ability to convert short-yardage situations. Brian Hill mixes into the rotation as more of a third-down back, and he’s averaging almost seven yards per reception. Ito Smith will also slot into the Falcons’ offense as a do-it-all back, spelling Gurley.

The Falcons have an excellent top-end wide receiver duo of Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Jones has missed the last two contests with a hamstring injury, and his status for this weekend is in question. Ridley is having a career year in his third season, already posting a career-high in yardage and catches. He’s just one touchdown from tying his career-high, and has really stepped up with Jones missing time. Ridley will operate largely from the slot, and his elite route-running ability makes him a dangerous player there. Russell Gage has filled in for Jones this season and has 59 catches for 672 yards. Christian Blake, Laquon Treadwel, and Brandon Powell will rotate into the offense as well.

Hayden Hurst is the primary tight end for the Falcons, joining the team this year from the Baltimore Ravens. He’s integrated himself well and has seen 76 targets in this pass-heavy offense. The Falcons use a fair amount of heavy personnel, putting Jaeden Graham or Luke Stocker on the field with Hurst.

The Falcons have good offensive tackles in Jake Matthews and Kaleb McGary. They’re not quite the quality of tackle that the Chiefs defense saw last week, but both are capable of eliminating good pass rushers. The interior of the Falcons offensive line is a bit of a different story. Center Alex Mack is in concussion protocol and is looking to miss the contest. Rookie Matt Hennessy will likely be his replacement. Left guard James Carpenter also has not practiced this week with a groin injury and may have to give way to Justin McCray. The Chiefs may only see Chris Lindstrom — the Falcons’ right guard — as the team’s starter on the interior.

The offensive concept: PA Bootleg off Power

The Falcons will show plenty of heavy personnel early in games, particularly when they’re missing Jones. That doesn’t mean that they’re going to be a run-heavy team, as they’ll use plenty of misdirection to get players free on leaks off of play-action.

The above play shows the Falcons running play action with a power blocking scheme. Both the left guard and outside tight end pull around the front side of the formation, getting out with the running back. If the second-level defenders are reading their keys, this motion causes a natural flow toward the pullers.

While this is occurring, the second tight end to the boundary engages the defensive end, further signaling a power run to the field. This tight end then chips the end before leaking out into the flat. Ryan bootlegs to the boundary, and the chipped defensive end is not able to get to him before he finds a wide-open tight end leaking to the flat.

The Falcons are quite good with misdirection, which could be a problem if the Chiefs are missing one or more linebackers this week. Disrupting plays like this is achieved through film study rather than reading keys, as it looks the same as a normal run play. That could mean that the box defender to the boundary or the defensive end to the strength of the formation identifies the play quickly and takes away the quick outlet. The Chiefs have obtained quick-processors at those positions, and they may have to rely on them early this week to slow down a fast-starting offense.

The bottom line

This Falcons offense has the potential to be dangerous. They’ll find a crack in the defense’s armor and attack it over and over. They’ve been doing it for years with much offensive success, and it’s why Ryan and Jones have had such a strong connection. Ryan is not afraid to do the same with Ridley, Henry or Gage as well.

Unfortunately, injuries have not done this Atlanta team any favors. If Jones is absent yet again this week, Spagnuolo may not have to utilize stud coverage to keep him in check against the Chiefs cornerbacks. With that in mind, the Chiefs should be able to mix coverages a bit more and force Ryan to hesitate a split-second longer to make sure he’s reading the defense correctly. That could spell doom with backups in the middle of the offensive line.

I expect Chris Jones to have a big day rushing the passer. Ryan’s propensity for holding the ball, lack of elite mobility in the pocket, and the aforementioned offensive line should lead to more opportunities for Jones to get pressure. The Falcons may be forced to dedicate more attention to Jones, freeing up Tershawn Wharton in the Chiefs’ dime defense.

Ridley will likely be the focus for the Chiefs defense, as he’ll be the most dangerous target on the field. If he continues to operate primarily out of the slot, this could be L’Jarius Sneed’s biggest test since moving to his current nickel cornerback role. Sneed certainly has the athletic ability to defend any route that Ridley throws at him, but the diverse route tree he’ll run from the slot could give the rookie cornerback fits this week.

Atlanta’s best performances this season have come from jumping out to a big lead and attempting to hold on throughout the game. They haven’t been able to do so very often, but it’s led to some close games against some decent-to-good teams. Spagnuolo has started well — and adjusted well out of the half — as this season has progressed, so this is a potential “strength-on-strength” matchup.

Ideally, Anthony Hitchens is good to go for this matchup, which could turn the tide early. Hitchens has been terrific with play ID and adjustments in the base and nickel defense, and that could lead to some early stops. A handful of early stops may be all that the Chiefs need to jump out to a big lead, allowing Jones, Wharton and Frank Clark to get after Ryan in a pass-heavy script.

This could be a nice game for the defense to work on closing things out late and getting into a rhythm before the playoffs kick off.