Falcons’ pass defense bracing for major challenge

FLOWERY BRANCH — The Chargers have one of the top young quarterbacks in the NFL and a vaunted passing attack.

With Justin Herbert at the controls, the Chargers pass for 279.4 yards per game, which ranks fourth in the league. The Falcons give up 306.9 yards passing per game, which ranks last in the league.

“He’s accurate as heck,” Falcons defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “He’s big. He’s strong. He’s hard to bring down.”

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The Falcons (4-4) will face a stiff challenge against the Chargers (4-3) at 1 p.m. Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Getting pressure on Herbert will be an issue for the Falcons, who have 12 sacks, 23 quarterback knockdowns and four hurries, according to Pro Football Reference’s advanced defensive stats. The Falcons also have blitzed 55 times.

“He doesn’t get sacked very often,” Pees said. “He doesn’t take very many sacks.”

The Falcons respect Herbert’s ability to make plays on the move.

“He’s mobile,” Pees said. “He’s not necessarily a guy that’s just really looking to run. He’s not doing that. He wants to throw it. He wants to be a pocket passer, but he will run it, and he can get away from you.”

Herbert went to the Pro Bowl last season.

“He’s an exceptional, exceptional talent,” Pees said. “He’s one of those new young quarterbacks like (Buffalo’s Josh) Allen. They are the next Peyton Mannings and (Tom) Bradys and those guys. They are. They’re good. They’re real good.”

Herbert’s main weapon is running back Austin Ekeler, who has rushed 84 times for 380 yards and five touchdowns. He’s also caught 53 passes for 357 yards and three touchdowns.

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“He’s a good back,” Falcons linebacker Mykal Walker said. “In our division, we (used to) see Christian McCaffrey. We see Alvin Kamara. So, we just compare him to them.”

The Chargers defeated the Falcons 20-17 on Dec. 13, 2020, and Ekeler was a problem. He rushed 15 times for 79 yards and caught nine of nine targets for 67 yards.

“He’s a good back,” Walker said. “Strong back. Good balance. He’s smaller, but he’s got a lot of good balance. He’s a really good back.”

The Falcons are expecting that the Chargers will pass the ball. They feature wide receivers Mike Williams, Keenan Allen and DeAndre Carter.

“This team, they pass the ball a ton,” Walker said. “They are going to try to spread us out. We are anticipating that. We are anticipating kind of the same thing that Cincinnati did to us.”

The Falcons will need to fare much better in coverage than they did against the Bengals two games ago.

“We have to try to be physical and make it an in-the-box game,” Walker said. “But when they start spreading us out, we just have to make sure that we stay with our physicality.”

Allen, a five-time Pro Bowl player, has played in two games this season. He returned from a hamstring injury in the Chargers’ last game, against Seattle on Oct. 23.

“He’s an elite receiver,” Walker said. “We have some things we are going to try to do to contain him. But we know what kind of game this is going to be. We are going to try to make it our game; we are going to try to make it physical. If they try to spread us, we have to adapt.”

The Falcons will get a boost from the return of safety Jaylinn Hawkins, who missed the game Sunday while in the league’s concussion protocol.

“They’ve got good everything,” said Hawkins, who played at California. “Good receiving corps. Good quarterback. Played against Herbert all of my college career when he was at Oregon. Good dude.”

The Falcons want to retain their newfound first-place status, and a win would put them over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2017 season.

“Now that you’re No. 1, you have to maintain,” linebacker Rashaan Evans said. “We know that it’s a steady grind. We know each and every team is going to give us the best because of that.”

The Falcons want to win back-to-back games for the second time this season.

“It’s one thing to win a game,” Evans said. “It’s another thing to get accustomed to winning a lot of games, and it’s another thing to (begin) making it a standard. You got to live and breathe it each and every day.”

Evans believes the defense is ready to step up.

“Not getting too caught up in the hype in the media about being No. 1,” Evans said. “The biggest thing is knowing where we want to be at the end of the season. We know where we want to be to have a ring.”

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Atlanta Falcons 2022 schedule

Sept. 11: Saints 27, Falcons 26

Sept. 18: Rams 31, Falcons 27

Sept. 25 Falcons 27, Seahawks 23

Oct. 2 Falcons 23, Browns 20

Oct. 9 Buccaneers 21, Falcons 15

Oct. 16 Falcons 28, 49ers 14

Oct. 23 Bengals 35, Falcons 17

Oct. 30 Falcons 37, Panthers 34 OT

Nov. 6 vs. Los Angeles Chargers, 1 p.m.

Nov. 10 at Carolina, 8:15 p.m.

Nov. 20 vs. Chicago, 1 p.m.

Nov. 27 at Washington, 1 p.m.

Dec. 4 vs. Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.

BYE WEEK

Dec. 18 at New Orleans, TBD

Dec. 24 at Baltimore, 1 p.m.

Jan. 1 vs. Arizona, 1 p.m.

Jan. 8 vs. Tampa Bay, TBD