FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. – The Atlanta Falcons (1-2) will play the Cincinnati Bengals (2-1) for the 14th time in the history of these two franchises on Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and they are looking to rebound after an overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints.
The Bengals are a balanced team with diverse weapons on offense and a defense led by a stout defensive line. The Falcons looked very explosive in their loss to the Saints, but injuries have forced several young players into prominent roles on defense and it remains to be seen how that unit fares as it is currently comprised.
Here are the three key matchups that could shape how this game unfolds:
Bengals’ versatile receivers vs. Falcons secondary
The emergence of third-year receiver Tyler Boyd, who has 15 catches for 249 yards and two touchdowns this season, alongside A.J. Green has given the Bengals a formidable 1-2 punch at receiver. Those two are also joined by speedster John Ross, who ran a combine-record 4.22-second 40-yard dash, which adds to the diversity of that group.
Atlanta’s secondary has been hit hard with injuries as starting safeties Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen have both been ruled out for the remainder of the season. The Falcons’ starting cornerback tandem of Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford as well as nickel cornerback Brian Poole remains intact, but they have a tough task ahead. The versatility of the Bengals’ receiver group will test the changes in the Falcons’ secondary.
Julio Jones vs. Dre Kirkpatrick
Julio Jones will square off against his former Alabama teammate Dre Kirkpatrick for the first time in their NFL careers. Kirkpatrick is currently dealing with a groin injury, so it remains to be seen how effective he will be if the does in fact play on Sunday, but he is a good starting cornerback in the NFL.
At 6-foot-2, 196 pounds, Kirkpatrick certainly has the size to match up with a bigger receiver like Jones and he has familiarity with him from their days together with the Crimson Tide.
''I just know that competitive nature me and him had when I was down there,'' Kirkpatrick told reporters this week, according to Joe Kay of The Associated Press. ''It's like me and A.J. (Green). Sometimes me and A.J. are about to kill each other in practice.''
Geno Atkins vs. interior of Falcons’ defensive line
Geno Atkins has long been regarded as one of the best defensive tackles in the league, and he’s playing like it thus far in 2018. Through the first three games, he has already recorded three sacks four tackles for a loss and seven quarterback hits. Like the Falcons’ own Grady Jarrett, Atkins is adept at penetrating offensive lines and knifing into the backfield to disrupt plays.
The Falcons have one of the top centers in the NFL in Alex Mack, but there will be times when Atkins will have to be blocked by either Wes Schweitzer or Brandon Fusco. Atlanta has given up seven sacks this season, and they rank 19th in sacks per pass attempt, allowing a sack on 6.6 percent of dropbacks.
“He’s as capable in the run-game, pass-rush, he’s disruptive,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said of Atkins. “I just studied him for a long time and I’ve got a pretty good sense because of that studying, what he looks like and so when you watch him this year he one-hundred percent he looks exactly as disruptive as he is.”