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Five things to watch when Falcons travel to Detroit to face the Lions

The Falcons' Week 3 matchup has the potential to be the rookie running back showdown people have been waiting for. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- The Falcons hit the road for the first time this season with a Week 3 showdown in Detroit with the Lions. The Falcons enter Sunday's game 2-0. The Lions are 1-1, after suffering their first loss against the Seahawks in overtime.

This is not the Detroit Lions of the past, though. This is a Detroit Lions team that's a tough team to beat.

They already put themselves on the map in Week 1, defeating the reigning Super Bowl champions on their home field in Kansas City by one point. They may be a little beat up heading into Sunday's game with the Falcons, but they're a team that will be raring for a fight, particularly at the line of scrimmage. So, let's take a closer look at the nuances of this matchup.


1. Jeff Okudah's return to Detroit

A major storyline of this game has to do with Okudah. For the first time in his professional career, there's a chance he will suit up in a color other than blue at Ford Field.

Okudah has been working through a foot injury since the early weeks of training camp. He has missed the first two games of the season, but he was a full participant in Week 3's practices. The Falcons listed Okudah as questionable for Sunday's game. If he does get the green light to play, he'll return to the place that drafted him.

When asked about returning to Detroit, Okudah said this week that while he doesn't feel indifferent about making his return, he does feel good about being where he is with the Falcons. The Falcons sent a 2023 fifth-round draft pick to Detroit for Okudah back in the offseason. He has agreed that the move to Atlanta -- for him -- was like a breath of fresh air.

"In retrospect, I'm just really glad to be here," Okudah said this week. "I guess you could say it worked well for both sides."

How much or how little we'll see of Okudah is still up in the air. There is a realm where Okudah doesn't start but sees playing time in rotation. There's also a realm where he doesn't play at all. Regardless, the door is open for Okudah's first taste of the 2023 season to be in the place he's called home for the last few years.

Atlanta Falcons cornerback Jeff Okudah #1 drinks from a Gatorade bottle during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Wednesday, September 20, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

2. Battle of the rookie backs

No one can talk about this game without at least mentioning the names Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs. The two rookie backs have stories running parallel with each other.

Robinson? Drafted No. 8 overall to the Falcons. Gibbs? Taken four spots later with the No. 12 overall pick to Detroit.

Robinson? Joined up with Tyler Allgeier, a bruiser in the backfield. Gibbs? David Montgomery's status may be questionable for Sunday's game, but this running back duo has been pretty fun to watch, too, with Montgomery leading the charge.

There shouldn't be any comparisons, though. When Arthur Smith said on Wednesday that Gibbs and Robinson have completely different strengths and styles, he's right.

"That's the surface, easy (comparison)," Smith said of Robinson and Gibbs. "When you want to actually watch the tape, though, they look different. (They're) completely different players. (Gibbs is) a good player. That's why they drafted him, but him and Bijan are completely different players. Different style runners, different skillsets. They use him in different ways, but it's just never the same. I think that's why sometimes comparisons are ridiculous but, obviously, he's a good player for them."

An area for improvement within this Falcons team is in stopping the run.

The Falcons defense gave up an average of 4.8 yards per carry against the Panthers and an average of four yards per carry against Green Bay. Atlanta's run defense is ranked 22nd in the league in average yards per carry. Stopping the Lions' run game before it ever gets started could be a goal for the Falcons this Sunday.

3. Mismatches in the secondary

The Lions secondary took a hit this last week. C.J. Gardner-Johnson was placed on injured reserve this week with a pectoral injury. Meanwhile, Lions head coach Dan Campbell said Friday that cornerback Emmanual Moseley is also out for Sunday's game.

These absences could present some mismatch opportunities for the Falcons on Sunday if they play their cards right. While everyone may be talking about the game being played at the line of scrimmage with both teams wanting to greatly establish their ability to run the ball, don't overlook the things the Falcons could do if Desmond Ridder has time in the pocket.

If protection is consistent Sunday in keeping this Detroit defensive front on their heels, perhaps it opens things up in the pass game in a way we began to see against Green Bay. When the Falcons faced the Packers last week, they were significantly more balanced than they were the week before. With the Lions missing some key starters and depth pieces, in the secondary perhaps this is something the Falcons can take advantage of.

4. Stopping Amon-Ra St. Brown

Brown is coming off a 100-plus yards receiving day; six catches for 102 yards against the Seahawks to be exact. He's been a vital part of Detroit's early 2023 offensive production. The Falcons will have to know where No. 14 is on the field at all times, likely keeping A.J. Terrell on his hip or switching off to Jessie Bates III in coverage, too.

"St. Brown," Smith said on Wednesday, "he's a problem."

The Lions receiver has been working through a toe injury this week. He did not participate in Wednesday's practice, and was limited on Thursday and Friday. He told Detroit reporters Friday that while his toe was "really sore" earlier in the week, he's feeling better and is expecting to play Sunday. According to reporter Tim Twentyman, St. Brown said his injury is not turf toe, but a bruised bone in the toe.

"He plans to play Sunday with a steel plate in his shoe so his toe can't bend as much," Twentyman wrote.

Even if he's not fully 100 percent, St. Brown on the field is dangerous nonetheless.

5. Can history repeat itself... in a good way?

The Falcons are 2-0 for the first time since 2017. What's wild about this fact is that in order to be 2-0 then, the Falcons had to beat the Packers at home in Week 2, which they just did again in 2023.

What's even crazier is that the Falcons actually started that 2017 season 3-0. And who did they beat in the third game of the season? Yep. The Lions... in Detroit.

Look, the 2023 Falcons are not trying to be the 2017 Falcons. From top to bottom, from coaches to almost every player on the roster, this organization has turned a page. But the 2017 Falcons were the last group to put together a 10-win season, a winning record no less. They were also the last Falcons team to go to the playoffs.

That hot 3-0 start helped catapult them to that final 10-6 record. The 2023 Falcons could use a double-digit winning record this year. So, can the 2023 Falcons take a page out of the 2017 Falcons' book and see a little bit of history repeated? We'll see on Sunday.

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Detroit Lions.

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