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When thinking about the upcoming NFL season, my quota for the Atlanta Falcons was that it couldn’t get any worse from last year. That’s the same quota I’ll be using this week following their dreadful performance against Houston. They were outplayed in every facet of the game, when the starters were in.
The Houston Texans ran the ball down their throats, which is was disappointing to see. The organization invested millions into becoming stronger up front. The defense was missing tackles, especially the likes of Joplo Bartu and Paul Worrilow whiffing on multiple occasions.
Then to make matters worse, Sam Baker is done for the year with a torn right patellar tendon. That leaves Atlanta once again searching for answers at a key position. They wanted stability on their offensive line and felt they had done so in the off-season. That isn’t the case now, as another battle to start at right tackle will ensue.
This becomes a crucial game headed into Tennessee for many players on the roster to showcase themselves. The opening weekend showdown against New Orleans is a mere two weeks away. Starting positions still need to be claimed, along with more familiarity amongst the new pieces on both lines and the secondary. Here are other major elements to watch for on Saturday.
Tackle position becomes a question mark
It seems harsh to criticize an already injured player. Sam Baker has gone through several significant injuries over his career. It’s unfortunate to say that an injury was more than likely inevitable for him. He’s simply been unreliable for the majority of his career, along with being relatively average. In 2012, he was solid and the Falcons had others players to pay like Matt Ryan. Many left tackles were being re-signed by their respective teams, which left them obligated to pay Baker.
They certainly regret that decision and will surely be moving on in 2015. Jake Matthews will be settled in as the left tackle. He’s been a bit shaky in the preseason, but expectations need to be tempered. Not every touted rookie tackle can play like Joe Thomas right away. I’m confident that his mechanics and footwork will propel him to success. The big question now pertains towards right tackle. Lamar Holmes, Ryan Schraeder, and Gabe Carimi are in the hunt at the open position.
Holmes seems to have the inside track to start, but he’s not exactly someone that instills confidence. There is upside with him, but a lack of awareness and technique is concerning. Holmes still tends to be penalized and pushed around far too often for a player of his size. Schraeder continues to look slow in pass protection, although offers more in the run blocking department than Holmes. The hope is that Carimi can get healthy and show what he’s capable of. Although he flopped in Chicago, there have been generally positive reviews about him in training camp.
Bartu’s decline could lead to Shembo’s rise
It hasn’t been a pleasant pre-season so far for Joplo Bartu. There hasn’t been much talk about his play in training camp and Prince Shembo has been getting praised heavily. The trend continued on the field, where Bartu was a liability in run support against Houston. He missed multiple tackles at the point of attack, including getting run over by Alfred Blue on a ten yard run. Despite his positive attributes in coverage, there is only so much tolerance you can have in dealing with missed tackles.
According to Vaughn McClure of ESPN, Shembo is receiving more first team reps. He hasn’t looked spectacular in the pre-season, but his tackling has been sound and shown good speed for a linebacker. The game plan should be to feature him more with the first team against Tennessee. If the coaching believes he’s going to play a significant role for the team this year, why not let him play with the starters?
Regardless of who claims the starting job, both players will surely receive playing time. Shembo will more than likely be a liability in coverage. He simply doesn’t have the experience in covering opposing tight ends. We’ve already seen that Worrilow is a liability in coverage, due to having limited athleticism and speed. Bartu will still have a role on defense. The question now is if he can step up in run support to be trusted on earlier downs. Shembo is in prime position to claim his position with a breakout performance on Saturday.
The emergence of the running game
Although the stats show that the Falcons only averaged 3.8 yards a carry against Houston, the running game was one of the few positives from Saturday. Jacquizz Rodgers has shown that he’ll be a vital part to the offense this season in some capacity. His value as a receiver is still essential to this offense. Antonie Smith wasn’t able to break off any big runs, but still showed great burst and vision when a hole was open.
Devonta Freeman continues to get fans excited with his ability to break tackles and make defenders miss. Rodgers has that same trait, but Freeman seems to run better inside the tackles. I’m expecting him to be a bigger part of the offense, as the season progresses. He can make a tired defense pay in the fourth quarter with his explosiveness. Regardless of the play design, a fresh Freeman in the open field will be a nightmare for opposing defenses late in games.
The only problem for the Falcons is how will they utilize all four running backs? It’s a good problem to have with four running backs capable of being productive. It also helps to have great depth, considering the starting running back Steven Jackson has proven to be injury prone so far in Atlanta. Jon Asamoah and Joe Hawley have to be given credit on opening glaring holes against Houston on a few occasions. After seeing how abysmal the running game was last year, it was refreshing to see an actual running game occur throughout the game.
Player to watch
Dwight Lowery may be a surprising choice, but he’s in a big spot right now. He had a lackluster performance on Saturday, although it was his first action in nearly a year. He seemed timid in run support by missing multiple tackles. Lowery has never been a great tackler, but he can’t be as major of a liability as Thomas DeCoud was.
It has become apparent that it will be his free safety spot to lose. Mike Nolan trusts him, due to his range and willingness to play that center fielder role. That should open William Moore up to playing closer to the line of scrimmage. Moore’s ability to be an enforcer against the run is his best attribute. For that to be effective, it starts with Lowery and his play. He needs to show that he can handle himself in coverage specifically.