3TFO: Falcons @ Bills, Week 13
After three straight playoff appearances, a playoff win last year, and Tony Gonzalez returning for one more season, expectations were understandably high for the Atlanta Falcons this year. Injuries have derailed their season, however, and last week’s loss to the Saints made the Falcons the first team to be eliminated from playoff contention.
It has also been a trying season for first-year head coach Doug Marrone, who has been forced to start three different quarterbacks due to injuries. The Bills come off a much-needed bye week and should return the healthiest they have been all season. Despite a 4-7 record, Buffalo is just one game out of the final spot in the AFC playoff standings and faces one team the rest of the season with a winning record. Yet, eight other teams are also tied for or within one game of the sixth seed. Making the playoffs will be a tall challenge for the Bills and they would likely have to win-out to remain in contention if they cannot beat the Falcons at ‘home’ in Toronto. Here are three matchups that could have a significant impact in Sunday’s game.
Falcons’ Pass Rush versus Bills’ Offensive Line
Atlanta’s ability to rush the quarterback has been one of their shortcomings on the defensive side of the ball. The Falcons’ defense ranks 30th in total QB pressures and it is not due to fewer opportunities than other teams. The defense’s 7.05 Pass Rushing Productivity, a measurement of disruptions compared to the number of pass rushes, ranks second-to-last and it starts up front with the defensive line. As a unit they rank last among 4-3 defensive lines with a 5.90 PRP. Osi Umenyiora (-3.4 pass rush grade) has not been the playmaker we are accustomed to watching nor has he had the impact that the Falcons had hoped he would. Peria Jerry has managed five sacks, but has had only 12 pressures on the season. Jonathan Massaquoi has been a bright spot with an 8.9 PRP, but has seen limited playing time.
The Falcons will have to go through one of the better pass-blocking offensive lines to get to E.J. Manuel. The Bills’ offensive line ranks sixth with an 80.3 Pass Blocking Efficiency. Doug Legursky has been a significant upgrade at left guard from Colin Brown. Brown is responsible for nearly one-quarter of the line’s allowed pressures even though he was released after Week 6. Legursky has allowed nine total pressures since taking over, with no sacks and just one hit allowed. Eric Wood also has yet to allow a sack this season and is the second-ranked center in pass blocking. The cornerstone of the line is Cordy Glenn, who continues to improve in his second year at left tackle.
Tony Gonzalez versus the Bills’ Top Playmakers
This certainly has not been the farewell season Tony Gonzalez planned, but individually he continues to play at a level many tight ends will never reach. His +9.9 pass grade ranks third and he ranks in the top five for receptions and yards among tight ends. He doesn’t have the same ability to separate from coverage as he used to, but it hasn’t seemed to make much difference due to his extraordinary catching ability. He has the third-most targets for a tight end and has dropped just one pass all season, leading to his league-best 1.69% Drop Rate.
Gonzalez will have an exciting matchup to watch as he goes against one of the top safeties in the league, Jairus Byrd, and Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Kiko Alonso. Byrd has been nothing short of spectacular since returning to the lineup after missing the beginning of the season. With six games under his belt, Byrd’s +9.6 coverage grade is already the third-highest for safeties this season and quarterbacks have a 0.0 QB Rating when targeting Byrd in coverage. Alonso garnered significant attention early in the season with four interceptions in his first four career games. He has since leveled out some, but remains a very good coverage linebacker.
Can the Bills Establish a Ground Game?
The Bills rank in the Top 10 in rushing yards per game, but their ground game has not been nearly as effective as last season, starting with C.J. Spiller. Spiller was our second-ranked running back last season with a +25.4 overall grade, but he has regressed considerably and currently ranks second-to-last at -11.2 this year. He has been limited by injuries, and could benefit from stronger offensive line play, but Spiller has not been as consistent as in the past. He set a PFF record last season with a 94.6 Elusive Rating after averaging 3.6 yards after contact and forcing 53 missed tackles on rush attempts. His Elusive Rating has dropped to 18.5 and he is averaging half as many yards after contact this year. Spiller has shown glimpses of his explosiveness with six carries for 15-plus yards. Amazingly, those six carries account for 45.4% of his total rushing yards on the season, or his Breakaway Percent. Fellow running back Fred Jackson does not possess the same level of explosiveness, but continues to be the most consistent option in the backfield.
Atlanta’s defense ranks 28th in rushing yards allowed per game, although part of that stems from teams trying to drain the clock with the lead. Defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux’s strength is defending the run and he leads the team with 23 run stops. Fellow DT Corey Peters has also played well and owns the team’s highest run defense grade at +4.6. That said, the Falcons have allowed a 140-plus yard rusher three times during their five-game losing streak. One issue involves allowing 6.4 yards per carry in nickel personnel with two linebackers, which accounts for almost half of their defensive snaps. The Falcons need to take advantage of the Bills’ weak offensive line play and prevent the running backs from getting into space to keep them in check.
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