ATLANTA -- We usually reserve the Saturday morning slot for a "Five things" installment, but we thought we'd change it up for the bye week. This week, instead of taking a look at five things to watch in an upcoming game, we take a look at five key storylines as the Falcons reach a natural time in the season for in depth evaluations.
The Falcons have 12 games left as their bye week comes early this season. There's a number of challenges ahead as the Falcons enter into the meat of their schedule upon return. So, what is the reasonable expectation for the Falcons coming out of the bye? And what do we need to keep a closer eye on? Let's discuss.
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1. When will key starters and role players return?
The Falcons were without Calvin Ridley (personal matter), Russell Gage (ankle), Marlon Davidson (ankle), Erik Harris (calf) and Avery Williams (hamstring) in London. The bye week comes at a good time for many of them. Arthur Smith said on Monday that they feel good about Gage and Davidson's progress. With the bye week, it's also possible that Harris and Williams get the all-clear, too. Harris and Williams made the trip to London but did not play, so they may be quick to return after a week off to recover.
When it comes to Ridley, his status is still unknown. Smith said he doesn't like putting timelines on injuries, so he won't be putting a timeline on this. If Ridley does not return after the bye week but Gage does, it would be a bit of good news for the Falcons receiving corp.
2. What happens if/when Josh Andrews returns from IR?
The Falcons have to make a decision on Andrews at the end of the week. When he and Kendall Sheffield began practicing a couple weeks ago, they entered into a 21-day period in which they could be activated off IR. Sheffield was activated right before the London game as the Falcons looked to secure more depth in the absence of Harris, Williams and Isaiah Oliver.
That 21-day period comes to a close at the end of the week for Andrews who was placed on IR before the season began with a hand injury.
Andrews' injury thrust Jalen Mayfield into a starting role at left guard. Smith has been candid over the weeks that this was the contingency plan. Andrews was meant to be the starter, but Mayfield's development had to be expedited.
Mayfield had a humbling day against the Eagles in Week 1. He said recently it was a game in which he felt he was embarrassed. He said he has worked hard to make sure that never happens again. And even through five games, we've seen significant progress from the rookie against teams with arguably the best defensive lines in the league (Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Washington).
When Andrews does come back, the Falcons have a decision to make. Do they switch Mayfield out for the player who was the original plan? Or do they stick with Mayfield and allow him the opportunity to continue to grow? Andrews was brought in on a one-year deal, but it's Mayfield who is likely the long-term solution to fill the consistent hole on the interior. So, what do the Falcons do? We shall see.
3. What do the Falcons do at nickel?
When Oliver suffered a season-ending knee injury against Washington two weeks ago, Dean Pees said in the week leading up to the Jets game that the Falcons were still trying to workshop their nickel plans.
Williams went in for Oliver after he was carted to the locker room against Washington, but Williams suffered a hamstring injury before the Falcons made the trip to London. So, the Falcons went to Plan C, which opened the door for another rookie: Richie Grant.
Grant played in 50 percent of the defensive snaps against the Jets, and he played majority of those snaps at nickel. He held he own, with Smith saying postgame he was pleased with Grant's performance in a new spot during a weird week with the travel to London.
So, with small sample sizes of both Williams and Grant in the slot, where do the Falcons go from here? Is it a situation where we could see a rotation of Williams and Grant when Williams returns from that hamstring injury? That seems a likely possibility considering Williams would still play a primary role in punt returns when healthy.
The Falcons still have OK depth when it comes to other positions in the secondary, especially when Harris returns. So, it opens up the possibility to experiment with the nickel position in the coming weeks of the season.
4. Can the run game be further established?
The Falcons had a really solid showing in the run game in the first few drives against the Eagles in Week 1, but it tapered off throughout the next few weeks of the season, and the Falcons struggled at times to move the ball on the ground.
They saw progress against the Jets this past Sunday. Cordarrelle Patterson had a stat line of 14 carries for 54 yards, while Mike Davis had 13 carries for 53 yards and a touchdown. The offensive line looked better in run blocking on Sunday. So, now is the time for the Falcons to continue to build upon the success they saw against the Jets in this specific area.
When asked about the run games deficiencies through the first few weeks of the season, Matt Ryan said the key is to create the space the running backs need in order to get to the second level of the defense. They were consistently getting a better push in order to do that against the Jets, and it made the run game a nice compliment to Ryan's 342-yard passing day. And that's what can happen when the run game is complimentary instead of a hinderance.
If the Falcons can trend in the right direction within the scope of the run game as they come out of the bye, it can keep opposing defenses honest in their plans to defend this Falcons offensive unit. And that bodes well for the Falcons.
5. Can the Falcons carry over more good than bad?
There have been moments of disappointment through five games, but there's also been glimmers of hope for the Falcons. Kyle Pitts emergence... the offensive line's progress... an offensive drive that puts a game away... defensive stands in the redzone... The Falcons have had moments where they look like the team they want to be. Moving forward it's all about expounding upon those moments.
Since the first weeks of the season Smith has spoken about wanting to see "a continuous evolution" of this team. Ryan has gone on the record to say he expects the Falcons will look different in November and December than they did in August and September. For the Falcons and where they are in their bye week, it's imperative that this team continues to take steps forward.
It's about building upon the good, and demolishing the not-so-good. Or in this case, learning from it.
The Falcons have a really good opportunity in front of them to make waves coming out of the bye week. Their first two games are against Miami and Carolina. Can the Falcons build upon the moments of good they've seen sprinkled throughout the first five games to accumulate a couple of wins? That's the question this team will face head on when they come back from the bye week.
Coach of the Week 2023
As part of the Coach of the Week presented by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution program, the NFL and Atlanta Falcons will recognize ten (10) head high school varsity tackle and girls flag football coaches across the states of Georgia and Alabama for their hard work and dedication to making a difference in student-athletes lives on and off the field. Each winning head coach will receive a grant for their program, a commemorative Atlanta Falcons item and recognition from the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta Journal-Constitution.