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Five things to watch when Falcons travel to face Tennessee Titans in Week 8

Arthur Smith makes a return to the organization that helped shape him as the Falcons head coach. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- After not winning a game on the road since Week 3 of the 2022 season, the Falcons broke the streak in Tampa last Sunday, defeating the Buccaneers 16-13 on a walkoff Younghoe Koo field goal.

The Falcons (4-3) will look to keep that newly found road-game magic alive as they travel up to Nashville to face the Titans (2-4). The Titans are coming off their bye week and currently sit in fourth place in the AFC South. The Falcons are atop the NFC South.

With a ton of questions surrounding this game (yes, we're talking quarterbacks), let's get into your five things to watch this Sunday.


1. Arthur Smith makes Nashville return

As Scott Bair wrote earlier in the week, Arthur Smith will return to the place that helped shape him for the first time since he departed to become the Falcons head coach nearly three years ago. Smith spent a decade in Tennessee, rising up the ranks even as four different head coaches came and went.

Smith called his time with Tennessee the most formative years of his career. Week 8's matchup between the Titans and Falcons will be the first time Smith will coach the opposing team at Nissan Stadium. He said the visiting locker room will probably feel foreign to him.

"There are so many people you know, including the support staff and everyone in the organization who were there during those years," Smith said. "My kids were born there. And the other thing, too, is that I was able to leave a place on good terms because I got a promotion somewhere else. And so many of the guys I worked with, they're still there from the last staff, so that changes the dynamic. It wasn't like no one was there. It will be different because I'm so close to a lot of those guys."

Smith and Titans head coach Mike Vrabel have been taking friendly jabs at each other through the media this week. The old friends were both asked if they were planning on doing a vest swap, like players swap jerseys, after the game. Vrabel said on Thursday he'd do it only if Smith shaved his "miserable mustache." Smith fired back on the "Pat McAfee Show," saying Vrabel is letting down the people of Ohio by not growing his mustache back.

Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder even got in on the fun during his Wednesday meeting with the media. He joked that Tyler Vrabel's Microsoft Surface was under lock and key because Mike Vrabel's son is an offensive lineman for the Falcons.

Jokes aside, Smith said he's looking forward to returning to Nashville this Sunday, but he'll keep the main thing the main thing, as they say.

"I am from Memphis. I was fortunate to be there for 10 years, but it's going to be about the players for us and the Titans on Sunday," Smith said. "A lot of good friends and colleagues that I was fortunate to work with, some of them are still on the coaching staff. A lot of people, the equipment and support staff -- (I'm) just thankful for my time there."

2. Quarterback carousel

After a few days of speculation, Vrabel ruled starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill out of Sunday's game with an ankle injury. Tannehill suffered the injury in the Titans' Week 6 game against Baltimore. Malik Willis finished the game in Tannehill's place, but the Titans are reportedly going a different route when the Falcons come to town.

According to a report from NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the Titans are planning to start rookie quarterback Will Levis this Sunday. However, the plan will still be to rotate Willis in at some point. This leaves the Falcons prepping to see two different quarterbacks, three if you consider the fact Tannehill's status wasn't officially known until Friday afternoon.

Asked about the fluctuating quarterback situation in Nashville, Smith said during the week "it won't matter who's out there."

"I'll tell you this about Mike Vrabel... he'll have them ready to go," Smith said. "So, we have to play our best football game. Sure, you have to have plans. It can happen any week. You can have a whole game plan, and the starting quarterback may not feel like himself, and the coach decides to play the other guy, which he's allowed to do, and you have to plan for the backup quarterback. That's the way it goes, so I promise you this. They will be ready to go. If we don't play our best game and if we're not prepared, we'll get embarrassed."

3. Defensive excitement

Because of the section above, if I'm this Falcons defense, I'm feeling pretty good about myself heading into Sunday. Of course, leaning towards confident -- not cocky -- but still. The Falcons defense is one of the most dominant in the league through the first seven weeks of the season. 

After Week 1, the Falcons said they wanted to improve their run defense. Since then, they've allowed a singular rushing touchdown this year. Their last three opponents have all rushed for less than 100 yards. Three weeks ago they said they wanted more sacks. Against the Commanders they racked up five, which was how many they had in total coming into that game. Last week they said they needed turnovers, and then they went out and got two in Tampa.

Regardless of who's in the pocket Sunday, the Falcons defense may be licking their chops, hungry for some disruption.

Willis has played in 10 games since being drafted in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft. In total, he's 35-of-66 passing with 350 yards and no touchdowns. He's thrown three interceptions and has been sacked 14 times, with four coming two weeks ago when he came in for Tannehill vs. the Ravens.

As for Levis, Sunday would be his professional debut. The Titans drafted him with the 33rd overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. There's a high likelihood both Levis and Willis will make an appearance Sunday.

4. Bud Dupree's status

Dupree was a surprise addition on the Falcons' offical injury report on Friday. He was listed as having a groin injury and was given a questionable game designation.

The edge rusher has been an important piece of production for the Falcons so far in 2023, particularly in run support. Dupree has started all seven games for the Falcons this year, recording 17 combined tackles (two for a loss), four quarterback hits and two sacks.

The Falcons will release their inactives list 90 minutes before kickoff Sunday. If Dupree is ruled inactive, this could result in extended playing time for someone like Arnold Ebiketie, which wouldn't be bad news for the Falcons. Ebiketie is one of the most consistent pressure players for the Falcons in 2023. If he gets more opportunities to get after the quarterback, it's not the end of the world. Far from it. They could also see more of Zach Harrison as well. 

However, Dupree's status will be something to monitor as game time inches closer.

Atlanta Falcons outside linebacker Bud Dupree #48 and outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter #0 during practice at Atlanta Falcons Training Facility in Flowery Branch, Ga. on Thursday, October 26, 2023. (Photo by Shanna Lockwood/Atlanta Falcons)

5. Keeping possession

As I wrote in Monday's "Inside Tori's Notebook," the Falcons offensive unit truly feels like it is one statistical category away from being the fun and exciting offense they hoped to be in 2023. The statistical category that needs to change is turnovers. Over the last two games, the Falcons have been bit by the turnover bug, and it's been the difference in their ability to put points on the board.

Against the Commanders, Ridder threw three interceptions. Against the Bucs, he fumbled the ball three times inside the red zone.

Even with the turnovers, though, the Falcons offense is producing yards at a significant clip. As noted in this week's Nerdy Birds report, the Falcons are one of three teams to top 400 yards of total offense in four games this season, joining Miami and Philadelphia, with three of those performances coming in the last three weeks. In the last three weeks, the Falcons have actually out-gained the Dolphins in total yards. The difference, again, has to do with points being score. In those three weeks, Miami has racked up 90 points scored. Meanwhile, Atlanta has barely broken 50. The reason? Turnovers.

If the Falcons fix their turnover problem, you likely feel differently about this offensive unit all together.

Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Tennessee Titans, presented by Fast Twitch.

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