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Five things to watch when Falcons host Washington Commanders in Week 6

The red helmets make their triumphant return as the Falcons work to keep their record above .500. 

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Hey! Guess what? The red helmets are back, people! I don't know about you, but I missed them.

The Falcons wore the throwback helmets in their Week 2 win against the Green Bay Packers. With the Washington Commanders set to face the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this Sunday, they've made their triumphant return. And with the Falcons sitting at 3-2 on the year, they'll hope that red helmet juju sticks with them to keep that record above .500.

Let's take a look at this matchup with this week's five things to watch installment.

1. RT Kaleb McGary in the clear

Kaleb McGary suffered a knee injury about halfway through the Falcons' 21-19 win vs. the Houston Texans in Week 5. He did not return to action and Storm Norton took his vacated spot alongside Chris Lindstrom on the right side of the protection. On Monday, head coach Arthur Smith said the Falcons were not concerned with McGary's injury lingering long term. They'd take McGary to the end of the week, Smith said, and make a decision after seeing how he felt after a few days of work.

McGary got the all-clear Friday as he was a full participant in practice. He also was not given a game designation, meaning he is available for the Falcons against Washington. For the second week in a row (knocks on wood) the Falcons have a clean bill of health heading into a Sunday contest.

It should be stated, though, that even in the good news of McGary's status, the Falcons were likely less worried than they may have been a few weeks ago had the same injury occurred. Norton came in Sunday and performed well for the Falcons, answering a key question of depth at the line of scrimmage. If something were to happen again, the Falcons wouldn't be down for the count at right tackle.

2. How much will we see recent addition Van Jefferson in action?

The Falcons front office was active earlier in the week outside the normal scope of roster adjustments. On Tuesday, Atlanta put together a trade package with the Los Angeles Rams for WR Van Jefferson which included the Falcons acquiring Jefferson and a 2025 seventh-round pick in exchange for the Rams receiving the Falcons' 2025 sixth-round pick. Jefferson was on the practice field come Wednesday, but with so much to learn in so little time, what is the likelihood that we'll see Jefferson in action this Sunday?

Smith said Wednesday (and doubled down again Friday) that the Falcons will have to see 1. how the game plan fleshes out over the weekend, and 2. how comfortable Jefferson is in his role before making a decision on the wide receiver's game status.

"It just depends on what you want to ask him to do, and how you're fitting the puzzle together," Smith said. "How effective you think somebody can be, where they fit, what you need on special teams, packages you may carry on defense. There's a lot that goes into it before we make that decision on Saturday."

Since joining the league four years ago, Jefferson has accumulated 101 receptions, 1,499 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns in 49 games. Through five weeks in 2023, Jefferson has totaled eight catches for 108 yards.

3. That grizzly Washington defensive front and what they choose to focus on

Smith was asked a few times this week to discuss the strengths of the Commanders' defense. Every single time, he began with praise for the Washington defensive front.

It's a front the Commanders have invested heavily in, Smith said. It's a front that includes four first-round picks, he added. It's a group that's hungry for vengeance after Justin Fields' day in their most recent 40-20 loss to the Bears last Sunday. Fields racked up 57 rushing yards (averaging just over five yards a carry), but the way he got the ball in the hands of his top playmaker quickly and efficiently was the story of the day. The Bears quarterback finished the afternoon 15-of-29 through the air with 282 passing yards and four -- yes, four -- passing touchdowns. He was sacked three times, but those sacks didn't deter Fields from connecting with D.J. Moore for a whopping 230 yards in the win.

Against the Commanders, the Bears offense looked as productive as it has all season. With the Falcons finding a little bit of an offensive rhythm against the Texans, Washington will want to stop that rhythm early. But how exactly will they look to do that? Detroit and Jacksonville saw success selling out to stop the run, making the Falcons rely on their pass game to move the ball downfield. Both teams had success when they did it. So, it wasn't shocking to see the Texans work through a similar defensive strategy.

As noted in this week's Nerdy Birds article, the Texans were committed to stopping the run. So much so that "the Falcons saw light boxes on just 8.3% of their carries in Week 5, which is the lowest single-game percentage seen by a team that has logged at least 16 carries this season. Atlanta faced a blocking disadvantage, based on the number of defenders in the box, on 52.8% of carries."

The Texans were going to make the Falcons beat them through the air, and Atlanta did.

It may have taken a couple losses but the pass game shifted into a new gear last Sunday, with Desmond Ridder connecting with 11 different Atlanta receivers en route to a 329-yards passing day, the best of his nine-game NFL career.

So, how does that performance change the way the Commanders defend this Falcons offense? Especially this defensive front? That's a major question ahead of this match up.


4. Can Desmond Ridder do it again?

Following Ridder's two-interception day in London two weeks ago, the pressure was on for him to perform well back in Atlanta this past week. With the Falcons offense struggling to move the ball for two losses in a row, many questioned Ridder's status as QB1. Not Smith, though. He knew in the lead up to the Falcons most recent win that Ridder was going to take the reins of the offense and lead the team well. He did exactly that, even going 5-for-5 in a two-minute drill to set up a Younghoe Koo's game-winning field goal.

So, he did it. He quieted the doubts. Now, he has a chance to silence them.

The question now isn't what Ridder can do for this team. We saw last week what he can do and how he can lead, even in the pressure moments. Can he do it again, though? In a month's time, will we be able to look back at this Texans game and say, 'That's it. That's the moments this Falcons offense -- and Ridder, too -- turned a corner.' If he can go out and lead a consistently productive offense against the Commanders this week, perhaps we get closer to that feeling.

5. Home-field advantage takes hold

I've said this before and I'll say it again: The Falcons fan base has established a home-field advantage in a way I haven't seen in my time covering this team. The Falcons are 3-0 at home at Mercedes-Benz Stadium this year. They have a chance to remain perfect at home this weekend. If they do, well, that's a testament to something this organization has put an emphasis on since the aftermath of the 2021 season.

"Those fans deserve that," Smith said this week of the Falcons at-home wins. "It's all about a shared experience. It's important to our guys. We have to continue that trend, but it certainly has made a difference. ... That's really important to us. The fans have been phenomenal. You can feel their energy in that fourth quarter."

And he's right. You can. As Terrin Waack wrote in her Falcons Daily analysis Friday: The Falcons defense is pretty dang good in third-down situations.

Entering Week 6, Atlanta's defense is ranked fifth in the NFL with a 32.8% third-down conversion rate, with opponents moving the chains on just 21 of their 64 third-down attempts. Players and coaches will be the first to tell you a rocking Mercedes-Benz Stadium makes a difference in those moments. We'll see if the at-home magic continues against the Commanders this Sunday.

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

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