GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For the first time all season, the Falcons find themselves below .500. Their record is 4-5 and they're in need of some good vibes heading into their Week 11 bye.
What stands in their way of feeling better about where they are at this point in the season and getting back to an even record is a 1-8 Arizona Cardinals team that welcomes an important face back into the fold this Sunday.
There's a lot to talk about as the Falcons take off to, so let's get into the matchup.
1. Health update(s)
The Falcons will be without wide receiver Mack Hollins and defensive back Dee Alford against Arizona on Sunday. Both are working through ankle injuries they sustained during the Falcons Week 9 loss to the Vikings. Of the two, Alford's absence has the potential to be the most notable.
Alford has been the Falcons primary slot corner throughout 2023, a role he's played well. Though his absence stings, the Falcons are not without options at nickel.
They have defensive backs Mike Hughes and rookie Clark Phillips III available to play in the slot if and when they're needed.
Rookie safety DeMarcco Hellams returned to full strength this week after missing last Sunday's game with a hamstring injury. He has been the third safety behind Jessie Bates III and Richie Grant. This is notable because the Falcons could also drop either Hellams or Grant into the slot in certain packages, though Grant is the safety who plays most in the box.
Asked about the Falcons plans for the middle of their defense, head coach Arthur Smith said the plan will be to see mainly Hughes and Phillips rotating into the slot.
Another potential injury the Falcons may have to account for is to David Onyemata. Onyemata is also working through an ankle injury. He was listed as questionable on the Falcons official injury report. His status will be something to monitor in the 24 hours leading up to kickoff. Without Onyemata (and Grady Jarrett, who suffered a season-ending knee injury two weeks ago), the Falcons defensive front alters significantly.
2. Kyler Murray's return
For what feels like the first time in months, the Falcons quarterback isn't the main storyline heading into a Sunday matchup. It's the Cardinals' quarterback, Kyler Murray, instead.
Murray is set to make his first appearance of 2023 this Sunday. Murray tore his ACL almost a year ago and the Cardinals have been 1-13 since. They're 1-8 now. And, even though Cardinals head coach Jonathan Gannon reportedly said Monday that "we've got to be willing to understand that it might not look like Kyler," that doesn't diminish what Murray can do when given space to move around.
Even in his first start of the season, the Falcons are more than aware of that.
"We have to keep him in the pocket," Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen said. "Can not let him run around. Have to make him a pocket passer. The guy is a great athlete. He's been running around, getting out of the pocket, extending plays his entire career. We have to make a conscious effort of keeping him in. Then we have to do a good job of, when we get hands on him, getting him to the ground. A sack is a sack. It doesn't matter how hard we hit him. We just have to get him to the ground and play second-and-long, third-and-long or get off the field."
3. Red-zone efficiency
The Falcons have to be better in the red zone. They just do. That includes taking care of the ball and scoring more touchdowns than field goals. Nothing against Younghoe Koo, but maybe even he would like to kick a few more extra points instead of field goals of 50-plus yards.
A major topic of conversation around the Falcons this week has been about their red-zone trips. They're 14-of-28 (50%) in the red zone this year. That number needs to be closer to 60-65% if it can, according to Smith.
"It's my job to make sure that we're better than 50%," Smith said.
For a full break down of key trends, statistics and outcomes of the Falcons 28 trips to the red zone this year, you can check out Friday's Falcons Daily.
For the Falcons to get back on the winning path after losing three of their last four games, they have to start punching the ball into the end zone more often.
4. Defensive redemption
The Falcons defense was as effective over the first seven games of the season as any defense in the league. But, as the weeks have waned, the long drives and consistent battles have started to take their toll.
The last two losses have seen the Falcons defense give up too many explosive plays. Against the Vikings, they were on the receiving end of a Josh Dobbs performance that was just as head scratching as it was infuriating for this defensive unit. This group wants to get back to what they were earlier in the year, showing opponents they're still that top defense and a unit that isn't what it has been in the last two games.
They have an opportunity for redemption in Phoenix this weekend. And their goal? Get back to the basics.
"We showed them video on what we were doing early in the year and then compared it to last week," assistant head coach/defense Jerry Gray said Wednesday. "We had to get back to fundamentals. We talked about near-hip tackling, not leaving your feet. Understanding that it's pretty much like a special teams open-field tackle; that's the picture that we try to give those guys. Understanding that you're not going to run through everyone, so sometimes, just getting them down is the best tackle."
5. Bye week decisions in the making
The Falcons are not without decisions to make following a win or loss in Arizona. They'll have an entire bye week to evaluate one of the biggest, namely: Who will be the Falcons starting quarterback moving forward?
Will it be Desmond Ridder, who started the first eight games for the Falcons, or Taylor Heinicke, who's started the last two.? In truth, Heinicke's performance against the Cardinals this Sunday could provide us with just as many questions as it does answers. Do you go back to Ridder after the bye week? Do you do it in the name of wanting to give him the chance to develop? Or do you stick with Heinicke? Do you make that decision in the name of Heinicke being your best chance to win now?
Whatever direction the Falcons choose to go, it'll be the decision they stick with for the remainder of the year, barring any changes because of injury. Smith said on Monday that the Falcons won't make this a week-to-week decision. They'll use the bye week to re-assess the quarterback position and its future in Atlanta. How much or how little Sunday's game affects that decision will be something to watch.
Take a look as the Atlanta Falcons put in the work in Flowery Branch for the game against the Arizona Cardinals.