Skip to main content

Five things to watch when Falcons play Washington Commanders

Drake London, Olamide Zaccheaus and others must step up with Kyle Pitts unavailable

WASHINGTON, D.C. – You'll notice a new byline above, one you typically don't associate with finding out five things to watch in a Falcons game. Expert analyst Tori McElhaney normally brings those to you while I stick to the columns and mailbags, but I'm paying her back a bit after she carried us over the last week while I was away. She's going to do so again late next week too, so I figured I'd take a story off her plate.


So we're swapping stories a bit, and I'm excited to deliver a little insight into a high-stakes contest the Falcons simply have to win. The season's getting late and every result is magnified, with little margin for error in a tight NFC South race.

The Falcons simply must start stacking wins to seriously contend. No more of this hovering-around-.500 stuff. Can't live just below even Steven and expect to stay in it.

They can only get one at a time, and this game at Washington looked a little easier to start the season than it does now. The Commanders have won two straight, with an already stout defense that might get a jolt if Chase Young returns. Collins Hill High product Taylor Heinicke has the offense running well enough and should pose a tough test for these Falcons. Here are five things I think you should watch on Sunday at FedEx Field. Hope Tori agrees. I'm sure she'll let me know on the flight out if she doesn't. We share a row on the plane, after all, and she can only listen to the new Taylor Swift album so many times.

The passing game without Kyle Pitts

The recent victory over Chicago came at a cost. The Falcons secured an essential victory but lost star tight end Kyle Pitts in the process, taking a shot to the knee that sent him to injured reserve for four game at least.

That means the Falcons must find a way to proceed without their best player regardless of position, a truly dynamic playmaker who does so much so well. There's plenty to say about his lack of stats this season, but there's no doubting how impactful he is in the passing game and as a run blocker. He moves all around the formation and, no matter where he lines up, Pitts fundamentally changes the way the Falcons are covered. He must be accounted for at all times.

Pitts being taken out of the equation means more attention on Drake London and Cordarrelle Patterson. It means more focus on the run game in this ground-focus offense, as if there wasn't enough already.

There's no replacing Pitts with one player. He does too much so well to expect anyone to step right in. Parker Hesse and MyCole Pruitt will be essential in the run game. You'd think Anthony Firkser will get active and play a role in the passing game. Another receiver will probably see more snaps where Pitts would line up outside, so Olamide Zaccheaus will have to be more impactful for the passing game to make an efficient impact.

London has proven impactful whenever he's given the chance, and he'll have to play like a true No. 1. Receiver beyond his years, creating separation and opportunities for himself within the passing game despite added attention. He's tough. He's a scrapper. And he'll have to win several rounds to keep the chains moving.

Falcons OL vs. Washington front

The Falcons offensive line has been really good all season and were downright dominant against the Chicago Bears. Washington brings way more heat, with Johnathan Allen, Montez Sweat and, just maybe, Chase Young. That's difficult to handle for any group, in the run and pass games.

The Falcons will be able to create space in the running game, as they've done against more everyone. Facing the Commanders will pit strength versus strength in this area, with the victor gaining an advantage in the game overall.

While run blocking has been a Falcons strength. Protection must hold up when the team throws, especially on obvious passing downs. The line has struggled some in that arena and must find a way to maintain the front against some of the league's top talents. Can they maintain pocket integrity, with or without playaction? Can they create space in the run game and help earn hard yards. If the answer to both of those questions is an unqualified 'yes,' the Falcons should come out of this game on top. If not, it could be a struggle.

Turnover battle

The Falcons defensive stats aren't great. The team has given up plenty of yards and points this season, often at inopportune times. The unit has been good, however, at taking the ball away. When they find a way to regain possession, that can be the great advantage in close games the Falcons regularly play.

Taking the ball away is a combination of pass rush and being in the right place at the right time, or stripping the ball when it's exposed. The Falcons were really good at that early this season but haven't maintained that clip. Getting Heinicke to cough it up isn't too hard, with the quarterback throwing an interception in four of five games this season. Cutting off a drive or two will aid the effort, especially if the offense is able to turn turnovers into points.

Play Falcons football

Sounds simple enough, right? Set the tone. Control the tempo. Force the other team to play your game. That's when the Falcons thrive. That statement holds true both within drives and over an entire game, meaning Atlanta must stay on schedule. That means efficiency on first and setting down, setting up easier conversion opportunities. That means wearing an opponent down with one good run after another, lulling them into a sleepy rhythm only to be disrupted with an opportune and impactful deep shot down the field.

Playing Falcons football means finding ways to be efficient throwing the football. It means avoid major mistakes and making big plays on special teams. Over time it drains a team mentally and physically, creating opportunities to secure victories. This one won't be easy, against a team that has won five of six games, but the Falcons can control this outcome with a methodical, effective approach that we've seen work time and again.

Get pass rush going

Heinicke has been sacked nine times in five games this season, with three each coming against Philadelphia and Minnesota. The Falcons pass rush isn't as good as those two teams, but Grady Jarrett and Co. have found big moments to make big plays. The back end can't cover well enough over long stretches, so finding ways to get after Washington's quarterback is essential in this one.

Keep an eye on the pre-game inactives list. Arnold Ebiketie is questionable to play this one, but Atlanta will need him to crank things up if he's cleared to go. They Falcons are already without Ta'Quon Graham, who was placed on IR after the Bears game. He didn't have tons of sacks but had a bunch of QB hits and was a quality run defender and pass rusher who will be missed moving forward.

The Falcons must find a way to free Jarrett from the double- and triple teams he attracts and set up third-and-long situations where sacks are more common. A good pass rush creates game-changing moments, either from sacks or errant throws or forced fumbles. The Falcons will need a few of those if they're able to win an important road game.

Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Washington Commanders, presented by Gatorade.

1125 x 663 (MKT TIle) (2x)

Swaggin' Since 1966

Takin' it back to 1966! Shop the Red Helmet Collection today online or in-store at Atlantic Station.

Related Content