You heard it ad nauseam this week: The key to Sunday's game against the Browns lies in two factors, protecting the run and stopping it.
We've already set the stage, but something we haven't done is pull back the curtains on the supporting role players. We've analyzed Nick Chubb and Cordarrelle Patterson's performances and how their success could dictate how Sunday's game proceeds (even with Patterson listed as questionable). They're your stars, as is Kareem Hunt. But what of the players who's success vs. the run has 1) flew under the radar, and 2) means a lot to the overall success of their unit?
Look no further than Ta'Quon Graham.
Arthur Smith said on Monday that Graham is doing things - subtly - that are helping the Falcons defense overall. I've stuck on that comment all week, because I can't get it out of my head that Graham is going to be an important piece of any success this Falcons defense has against this Browns offensive line on Sunday.
So, Smith was posed the question: What are the subtle things that Graham is doing right now that does not show up on a stat sheet?
"Really its fundamentally," Smith explained. "The way he's taking on blocks. It's the little things. The technique things that matter in the run game. Not getting turned. Not guessing. Leverage. Fundamentals. Being able to play good combination blocks. He's doing that really well."
Shifting to affecting the quarterback, Smith continued by saying Graham has had a few pressures that "don't show up on a stat sheet as pretty as a sack" would, but that doesn't take away how this staff is seeing Graham actively cause an opposing quarterback to not fully set his feet. They see Graham shifting the shape of the pocket, too, with Smith noting the push he's seeing Graham get up front to move the quarterback off his desired spot.
In just his second year in the league, the former fifth round draft pick is displaying quite a bit of value for the Falcons. He currently leads the team in quarterback hits, with five.
Talking with Graham, he said he feels obvious comfort and confidence in 2022, especially when comparing those feelings to where he was at any point last year. It was quite the transition, Graham said of making the jump to the league. One he said would have been very different without fellow interior lineman Grady Jarrett beside him.
Jarrett and Graham have built up quite the relationship and friendship over the last year especially. You can't talk to Graham without him giving any and all props to Jarrett.
"Having a guy like Grady in front of me, having that All-Pro, Pro Bowl guy ahead of me, watching him, seeing how he approaches the game," Graham said. "Then, slowly applying things that I've learned from him."
So, what are those things? It has a lot to do with vision and action. It's about anticipation, too.
"Expecting the type of box you get, expecting who's fitting the gaps around you, the freedom you have to maybe make a play or two," Graham listed. "... It's reading different formations and knowing, 'Oh, they can only run this way,' or, 'I know they can only run power that way.'"
Graham said he's become much more equipped in being able to discern what he "can get from each snap based off alignment."
And when asked about those quarterback hits? Graham wouldn't let the moment go without - of course - explaining Jarrett's role in his own success.
"I've definitely been trying to give (an interior pass rush) to (the defense), but it also helps when they're double-teaming 97 over there," Graham said with a head nod to Jarrett across the locker room. "I get a lot of one-on-ones out there so it's definitely been helping me from that standpoint. Me recognizing that they may slide to Grady or might give Grady different looks."
Graham said the Falcons are well aware of the test they'll face against a Browns offensive line that Graham called one of the best - if not the best - in the league right now.
He added that as a defensive line, they have to respect that and the fact Cleveland has one of the league's most productive running back tandems, too. But if anything, this challenge presents an opportunity for the Falcons defensive line to prove they're potent in their own right.
For Graham, showing that on Sunday would be a step in the right direction following a solid start to the year.
"He's just growing as a pro," Jarrett concluded about Graham. "He's someone I said earlier in camp that he's going to have a great season. He's starting off on the right foot."
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Cleveland Browns, presented by Gatorade.