1. The no-spin zone: The Falcons’ defense is clearly much-improved after the team spent more than $130 million to address the unit.
However, the Falcons are still searching for an improved pass rush. The Falcons and Giants are tied for last in the NFL with five sacks.
No Falcons player has reached double-digits in sacks since Vic Beasley had 15.5 in 2016. Before him, John Abraham finished with 10 in 2012.
The franchise has not had two players with double-digit sack totals in one season since Patrick Kerney (13) and Rod Coleman (11.5) terrorized quarterbacks in 2004.
The key person is linebacker Kaden Elliss, who’s been sent on 18 blitzes. The Falcons have blitzed 53 times, according to profootballreference.com’s advanced defensive stats.
In addition to the sacks, the Falcons have 17 quarterback hurries and 19 quarterback knockdowns.
So, the Falcons’ pressure number is 43, which includes sacks, hurries and knockdowns.
The Bills lead the league with 21 sacks, followed by the Ravens (18), Steelers (17), Dolphins (17) and Commanders, Chargers and Seahawks (16)
But the Falcons’ pressure numbers are better than the Ravens (39) and Cowboys (34). The Cowboys have 15 sacks.
Also, the Bills’ pressure number is 49. The 49ers, who have 13 sacks, have a pressure number of 54.
The Falcons didn’t have a sack, but had two quarterback hits on Houston quarterback C.J. Stroud in their thrilling 21-19 victory Sunday.
“They have a very talented young quarterback in Stroud,” Elliss said. “He had been doing some really good things coming into the game. Did some good things against us. We just wanted to be able to mix the pictures up against him. Throw in a couple of wrinkles maybe some things that we hadn’t shown. Also, have your bread and butter that you play really well.
“We were able to mix up the coverages really well.”
The Falcons believe the sacks will come.
“We are really confident in it,” Elliss said. “Obviously, we haven’t had maybe not the sack numbers that you want, but our third-down numbers have been great. Tons of hits. Tons of getting after them for a couple of weeks in a row now. It’s a thing where the sacks are going to come. That’s kind of the feeling right now is that the sacks are going to come.”
The Falcons believed they have missed out on some sacks.
“There have been so many times that quarterbacks have just thrown the ball away against us all the way back to Week 1 to now,” Elliss said. “Eventually, they are going got try to force something and hold onto it a little longer and we’ll make them pay.”
Defensive tackles Grady Jarrett (five knockdowns) and David Onyemata (four) are getting go penetration up the middle.
“Those two are so strong, they are aggressive, they are quick,” Elliss said. “They are fundamentally sound. They always know their job. They are out there just flying (around) and wrecking havoc. It allows us to play pretty fast behind them.”
Elliss and Nate Landman are blending together well. Landman has taken over for Troy Andersen who suffered a torn right pectoral muscle and was placed on injured reserve.
“The relationship has been awesome,” Elliss said. “When someone goes down and there is a void to be filled, you never know what is coming next. Obviously, you’ve seen guys in practices, but you don’t know what they are going to be like in the game.”
Landman has been steady.
“I don’t have to worry about (him),” Elliss said. “I can just do my job. I know you’re going to do your job up to a 100 percent standard and you’re going to go out and dominate. It allows me to play fast because he’s playing fast.”
3. What does Hienicke know?: While going 7-10 in each of the past two seasons, the Falcons lost to the Commanders, who defeated them 34-30 on Oct. 3, 2021 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and 19-13 last season at FedEx Field on Nov. 27.
The Commanders quarterback was Taylor Heinicke, who now is with the Falcons.
“We know them pretty well,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said. “Have had two close battles with them that we’ve been on the wrong side of. We know how good this (defensive) front is they have. They’ll be ready to roll. They’ve got good skill players on offense.”
Washington hired Eric Bieniemy as their offensive coordinator this offseason.
“The scheme change, I mean, look, you get information from everybody,” Smith said about Heinicke. “You take everything with a grain of salt. I promise you, when I was in Washington and was quality control, I had to debrief them the week of the game and give you all of this information and you go debrief the D-linemen, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, that would have helped, but I didn’t hear any of it.’ So, you take everything with a grain of salt. That gets a little overrated. Taylor, again, completely different offense.”
4. New QB in town: Sam Howell, who was selected in the fifth round of the 2022 draft of out North Carolina, currently is the Commanders’ starting quarterback. He opened the season with victories over Arizona (20-16) and at Denver (35-33). But the Commanders have lost three in a row to Buffalo (37-3), at Philadelphia (34-31 in overtime) and to Chicago (40-20).
Howell has completed 131 of 191 passes (68.6%) for 1,349 yards, six touchdowns and six interceptions. He has a passer rating of 86.1. Howell has been sacked 29 times.
Howell was sacked five times and hit 11 times in the loss to the Bears.
5. Robinson is top rusher: The Commanders feature running back Brian Robinson, who has rushed 67 times for 271 yards and three touchdowns. They also have Antonio Gibson, who played at Eagle’s Landing Christian in Stockbridge.
The wide receivers are paced by Terry McLaurin, who has 25 catches for 261 yards and a touchdown. Wide receiver Curtis Samuel and tight end Logan Thomas have also been productive.
“They have a lot of guys they can rotate in the slot,” Falcons nickel back Dee Alford said. “A lot of different guys. I’ve got to study a little bit more, but I’m pretty sure they are going to continue do what they do.”
With Howell in his first year as a starter, the Commanders try to lean on Robinson and Gibson in the rushing attack.
“They’ve got two good running backs, so they are going to try to run the ball a lot,” Alford said. “If the run doesn’t work, they’ll pass it. I just have to study and see the type of route concepts they like to run.”
Credit: D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC
6. Stout defensive front: Washington has a stout defensive front that features defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen. They also have defensive ends Montez Sweat, who played at Stephenson High and Mississippi State, and Chase Young. Sweat leads the Commanders with 4.5 sacks.
Payne, who was named to his first Pro Bowl last season, signed a four-year $90-million contract with $28 million guaranteed in March.
7. Series history: This will be the 28th meeting. The Commanders lead the series 16-10-1.
8. Where to watch, listen and livestream: What you should know about Sunday’s game between the Falcons (3-2) and the Washington Commanders (2-3), which is set for 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
TV: CBS. Play-by-Play: Andrew Catalon. Analysts: Tiki Barber and Matt Ryan. Sideline: A.J. Ross.
Local radio: 92.9 The Game. Play-by-play: Wes Durham. Analyst: Dave Archer. Executive producer: Beau Morgan. Engineer: Miller Pope. Pregame/postgame show – Hosts: Chris Goforth and Mike Johnson, with Dylan Matthews and Orin Romain as studio producers at 11 a.m.
Satellite radio: SiriusXM NFL Radio. Falcons channel 85 or 227 or the App. Commanders channel 83 or 386 or the App. (Games also are available on the SiriusXM App. Fans can find their team’s channel under the “NFL Play-by-Play” tab or by searching their team’s name.)
Livestream: Streaming inside the Atlanta market: Fans in the Atlanta market can stream the game on the Atlanta Falcons app. NFL app (subscription required). Out of the country: GamePass International.
9. Depth chart: Here’s a look at the Falcons’ official depth chart for the game Sunday:
WR Mack Hollins, KhaDarel Hodge
TE Kyle Pitts, MyCole Pruitt, John FitzPatrick
LT Jake Matthews, Isaiah Prince
LG Matthew Bergeron, Jovaughn Gwyn
C Drew Dalman, Ryan Neuzil
RG Chris Lindstrom, Kyle Hinton
RT Kaleb McGary, Storm Norton
TE Jonnu Smith
WR Drake London, Scotty Miller, Van Jefferson
FB Keith Smith
RB Bijan Robinson, Tyler Allgeier
J Cordarrelle Patterson
QB Desmond Ridder, Taylor Heinicke, Logan Woodside
DL Grady Jarrett, Albert Huggins
DL David Onyemata, Ta’Quon Graham
DL Calais Campbell, Zach Harrison, Joe Gaziano
OLB Bud Dupree, Lorenzo Carter
ILB Kaden Elliss
ILB Nate Landman, Tae Davis
OLB Arnold Ebiketie, DeAngelo Malone
CB A.J. Terrell, Mike Hughes
S Jessie Bates, Jaylinn Hawkins
S Richie Grant, DeMarcco Hellams
NB Dee Alford, Clark Phillips III
CB Jeff Okudah, Tre Flowers
K Younghoe Koo
P Bradley Pinion
LS Liam McCullough
H Bradley Pinion
PR Mike Hughes, Dee Alford, *Scotty Miller
KOR Cordarrelle Patterson, Mike Hughes
* Added as third punt returner since he went in for Alford versus the Panthers.
D. Orlando Ledbetter, Esq is the award-winning Atlanta Falcons beat writer for the newspaper, has been on the staff since 2003. Every day D. Orlando strives to provide inside in the Falcons and the NFL. He finds the most joy in providing insight into the team, the coaching moves, the offseason business moves, the draft and the games.