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Five things to watch as Falcons clash with Cincinnati Bengals 

Darren Hall to get first start on the road in Week 7. Why it's actually not that big of a deal. 

The Falcons are 3-and-3. Their opponents, the Bengals, are also 3-and-3. Only one team will come out of Sunday's clash with a record above .500.

Atlanta has been here before, playing to get above .500 for the first time... in a while. Can they do so against a Bengals team that went to the Super Bowl last year? It'll be quite the test.

So, with that, let's get into this week's installment of your 'Five things to watch.'


1. Falcons (almost) back to full strength

The Falcons announced a bounty of good news yesterday as a group of players were cleared to play on Sunday. A.J Terrell, Ta'Quon Graham, Ade Ogundeji and Isaiah Oliver were dinged up with minor injuries during the Falcons win against the 49ers last Sunday. Terrell, Graham and Ogundeji started the practice week listed as limited but were back in full participation mode by Thursday.

Mykal Walker, on the other hand, has been dealing with a groin injury that he sustained two weeks ago in Tampa. Because of it, he did not play last Sunday against San Francisco. He makes his return as the Falcons travel to Cincinnati.

With Troy Andersen having played well in relief for Walker last week, the Falcons seem to have a good problem on their hands with three viable options at inside linebacker with Walker, Andersen and Rashaan Evans.

As for why the title of the section has an "almost" in parenthesis, well, that has to do with Casey Hayward...

2. Darren Hall to get first start

Hayward left Sunday's game with a shoulder injury that has since sent him to injured reserve. Arthur Smith announced on Monday that the team feared Hayward's injury would be long term. On Friday, he confirmed Hayward had to have surgery on his shoulder, but Smith would not rule him out for the season.

Regardless of the length of time the Falcons are without Hayward, they have to find a way to replace him. That responsibility now falls on Darren Hall's shoulders, who will make his first start on Sunday in relief of Hayward.

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Darren Hall #34 warms up before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia on Sunday, October 16, 2022. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Atlanta Falcons)

Hall played well when Hayward left the field for the locker room in the second half of the 49ers game. He broke up two consecutive passes to start the fourth quarter, one of which fell into the waiting arms of Jaylinn Hawkins for an interception.

When asked about Hall taking over for Hayward, Dean Pees said it's really not a concern for him at all.

"Everybody's concerned anytime you see somebody go in the game because you think the other guy isn't playing well or something. That's not the case at all," Pees said. "The good thing about Darren going into the game and earlier games just coming into a few plays for Casey or somebody, it got him ready to play last week. When he went in last week, it wasn't the first time he had been in all year. He had been in."

That experience will help him against a powerful Bengals receiving group on Sunday.

3. Sack count increase...?

OK. Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Sack count isn't the end-all-be-all. I look at the Falcons most recent win and though I don't see a single sack, if you actually watch the game you do see Jimmy Garoppolo under duress. You see Arnold Ebiketie getting into the backfield. You see Graham shrinking the pocket around Garoppolo, causing an errant throw. Or - better yet - one the Falcons secondary could get their hands on.

Along with two interceptions, the Falcons defense also accounted for eight pass break ups.

So, all of this to say? Not having a sack on Sunday wasn't the difference in the game.

However, we can all agree sacks are the money makers, and guys like Ebiketie and Graham are due up for a pay day. The good news in that? Joe Burrow has been sacked 21 times in 2022. He was sacked three times alone last Sunday against fellow NFC South contender the Saints.

If there ever was an opportunity to jumpstart that sack count number, it could be this Sunday.

4. Limiting the impact of Bengals receiving trio

What could stand in the way of those coveted sacks, is Burrow getting the ball into the hands of his trio of receivers: Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd.

Collectively as a group, they amass over 1,000 receiving yards through the first six games of the season. They also account for eight touchdowns.

Oh, and even though we're just talking about wide receivers, don't forget that former Falcon Hayden Hurst has had a solid start to the year, too.

The Falcons defense has yet another significant test on its hands come kickoff on Sunday. How they handle this group will be something to watch.


5. Can the Falcons take advantage of a specific weakness?

It's been well documented that a weakness of the Bengals defense so far in 2022 has been their run defense. Through six games, Cincinnati has given up 726 rushing yards, with opponents averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

For a Falcons offense that has its roots in the run game, they should like that number.

Atlanta currently has a top-5 rushing offense, averaging 4.9 yards a carry and scoring eight touchdowns via the run.

It's a secret no more that the Falcons want to run the ball. Can they continue to do so against a Bengals defense that has struggled - at times - to stop it? That's the question.

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


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