Key matchups to watch when high-powered Atlanta offense faces Denver

In a meeting of strength vs. strength, the Broncos' defense will try to slow Julio Jones and the rolling Falcons' offense.

| 9 months ago
Falcons WR Julio Jones

(Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)

Key matchups to watch when high-powered Atlanta offense faces Denver

The Atlanta Falcons travel to Denver in Week 5 to take on the undefeated Broncos—and to make a statement that their 3-1 start hasn’t been an elaborate fraud, they are in fact for real.

Within this game, there are two really interesting one-on-one matchups to keep an eye on.

RT Ryan Schraeder vs. OLB Von Miller

One of the best things on Chiefs RT Mitchell Schwartz’ resumé is the tape he put down last season against Von Miller and the Denver Broncos, which doubtlessly came up in some capacity when setting his market in free agency this past offseason.

In a league of blindside protectors, Miller plays on the open side of right-handed QBs, and yet is arguably the league’s most devastating pass-rusher. Last season, he averaged 5.5 total pressures per game, but had just one against Schwartz when the two met.

That game effectively put the former Brown on the map as one of the best right tackles in the league, even though it was more a continuation of excellent play rather than a level to which he raised himself and then managed to maintain. Falcons RT Ryan Schraeder has been at the same kind of level as Schwartz for awhile now, and has a good case himself to be seen as the best right tackle in the game. He narrowly beat out Schwartz last season in terms of overall grade, and through four weeks this year, is Pro Football Focus’ fourth-highest graded right tackle, with an 83.2 grade overall.

But he has never faced Von Miller.

After getting paid in the offseason, Miller has returned every bit as devastating as he left off last season—which entailed winning games almost single-handedly on the way to a Super Bowl 50 victory and Super Bowl MVP award. He is the leading edge rusher in the league with an overall grade of 88.3, has recorded 19 total pressures this season, and forced a fumble that effectively sealed the Broncos’ Week 2 win against Indianapolis. Schraeder hasn’t surrendered a sack this season, but has allowed five total pressures over 159 pass-blocking snaps. On paper, this is a matchup Miller should win, but the same was true last year when he was held in check by Schwartz. This is Schraeder’s opportunity to make the same statement and man up against one of the game’s best; if he can do that, he’ll have a shot of tipping the balance of this game in Atlanta’s favor.

WR Julio Jones vs. CB Aqib Talib

It takes a special kind of athlete to match up with Falcons WR Julio Jones one-on-one, and Carolina had nobody up to the task last week. That meeting resulted in Jones going off for 300 receiving yards on just 12 catches. Former Panthers CB Josh Norman made some comments on that after the game, but Norman has proved little more capable of covering Jones one-on-one in the past. The last time the two met, Jones notched 80 yards from five catches against Norman, and 178 overall in the game.

Julio Jones season grades

Norman is proof that you need to be not just a high-level cornerback to go up against Jones and have success, but to have high-level physical traits, too. The current Redskin is certainly a top corner, but he isn’t the best athlete in the league, and doesn’t have elite size and strength. Broncos CB Aqib Talib, however, is certainly closer to ticking those boxes. While Norman stands at 6-foot and weighs 190 pounds, Talib has another inch and 12 pounds on him, which may not seem like much, but is a significant difference when trying to contend with a receiver that has Jones’ size and speed combination.

Talib and Jones have actually met once before, back in 2013 when Talib was playing for the Patriots. Jones had six catches for 108 yards in that game, but none of them came against Talib. When those two squared off, the ball was sent their way four times, and Jones caught none of them, with Talib breaking one up pass and intercepting another. That was overall one of the best game’s of Talib’s career, and he allowed no receptions on seven targets to Jones and Roddy White.

The Broncos likely see Talib as their only CB that can challenge Jones one-on-one from a size and speed standpoint, and how close to replicating that last meeting he can come will go a long way towards deciding how successful this Atlanta offense can continue to be.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • crosseyedlemon

    I expect QB Matt Ryan will be flat on his back before having the time needed to throw deep balls to Jones. Ryan had a strong effort last week but he isn’t nearly as effective outside of the friendly confines of a domed stadium. We have seen the Falcons get off to a fast start in previous seasons but their Jekyll & Hyde character always prevents one from becoming a true believer.

    • LostAlone

      I kinda agree. They certainly have a high ceiling but the Ryan-Jones connection has always been impressive and yet somehow they keep throwing seasons away. Perhaps worth noting is that while their offense has won them games their defense is just wretched.

      A high powered offense (which they have always threatened to be) is a great thing to have but there’s so much pressure on them right now. Even against mediocre opposition they’ve had to put up 35+ points per game. Even with their very soft schedule they will have to keep up these performances week after week to get by and that’s no mean feat.

      What happens when they are playing in the playoffs against actually good offenses? Or indeed, against a defense that can slow them down even a little bit? That absolute need to be scoring large amounts of points leaves them really vulnerable to both; to simply being out scored by teams like the Eagles or be unable to get to the 30 mark against the Vikings.

      They are a glass cannon. And that’s impressive to see for sure, but it’s not a recipe for long term success even if they end up going 13-3 in the regular season. When you have to get into a shoot out with an average offense what’s going to happen when you’re against someone who’s built to shoot back?

    • Spencer

      Matt Ryan throws really good against the blitz. He leads the league in accuracy when being blitzed and actually has some good games in tough away games. Like against Green Bay a few years ago when it was super cold and I think snowy? Idk could be wrong but the second half they came back and nearly won the damn thing. Julio had like 258 yards. Maybe now, with a better line and great depth at receiver we could see them light it up on the road against the number one defense!

      • crosseyedlemon

        Anything is possible of course but I think Matt is in for a rough time here and it won’t get any easier next week when he faces a good Seahawks defense in Seattle. He has a nice 52-25 record inside domes but he is only 23-25 outdoors with a passer rating 10 points lower.

        • Refman

          They utilized the RB’s like I thought they would, Coleman had a huge day. They will do the same thing to Seattle. No LB’ers can cover Coleman or Freeman out of the backfield, exploit the matchups and don’t force feed the ball to Julio. This Falcons offense is very different than years past.

    • Refman

      They will utilize the gameplan like they did against the Raiders, quick passes to the two RB’s and TE’s. Julio will be a big decoy.

  • Keith Laubhan

    Really curious to see if the Broncos end up going with a rush/short pass-heavy offense and chew some clock. They aired it out against Cincinnati, but grinding and keeping the Falcon’s offense off the field might be the best possible strategy against a very suspect defense.