Arthur Smith called Sunday's game against the Cleveland Browns a "heavyweight fight." Grady Jarrett said it's a game that "will take everybody" to win. This is - by all accounts - an important, physical game ahead for the Falcons at this juncture of 2022.
The Falcons are coming off their first win of the 2022 season, having traveled to Seattle to face the Seahawks last week. In said game, the Falcons offense was as productive and balanced as we've seen it be, and the defense stood tall in the red zone.
They'll be looking build off last Sunday's performance in hopes of earning their first win at home in 2022.
"It's a very physical team, a very physical line. We like to think we're that way ourselves," Smith said of the game ahead, "but we have to go out there and battle on Sunday and prove it."
1. Cordarrelle Patterson's availability
After a career-best, 141-yard rushing day on Sunday, the veteran running back did not participate in Wednesday or Thursday's practice.
The reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week's absence was initially announced as "resting player/knee."
Patterson did return to practice on Friday, but in a limited capacity. Smith confirmed after practice that Patterson is questionable to play on Sunday. He added that the Falcons will make a final decision on Patterson on Saturday as they continue to evaluate his knee.
Patterson's presence within this offense is vital to its overall operation, as we have seen through the first three games of the season, two of which had Patterson surpassing 100-rushing yards.
Even at 31, Patterson is defying the odds at running back. He is currently the third-leading rusher in the league, averaging 6.1 yards a carry, too. If Patterson can't go - which is a very large "if" - the Falcons will look to Avery Williams and Tyler Allgeier to carry the load at running back.
With Damien Williams still on injured reserve for at least another week, the Falcons would have to rely on their young backs to help out. It could be a situation that if Patterson isn't at a full 100 percent (but can still play) that Allgeier gets a few more carries to help lighten Patterson's load on Sunday.
Regardless, the Falcons would be better with Patterson on the field. Everyone - especially the Browns - know this, so his game day status is something to monitor pregame.
Outside of his practice limitations on Friday, Patterson was in good spirits during open locker room, even posing with his new gift: The Angry Run Scepter, which was awarded to him by the folks over at Good Morning Football following his performance in Seattle.
2. Stopping the run
This has been the topic of conversation around the Falcons facility in Flowery Branch all week in the lead up to this Browns matchup. Players and coaches alike know and understand the challenge the Falcons run defense faces on Sunday.
The Browns have the best run-first offense in the league.
Cleveland currently leads the league in rushing yards and time of possession. Patterson may be the third-best leading rusher in the league right now, but Nick Chubb tops that list. Both teams will want to run the ball on Sunday, and because of this the game itself may hinge upon that success.
"They're going to try to grind you down," Smith said of Cleveland's offense. "We have to be ready to go, especially in run defense. We have to tackle well. Arm tackles are not going to bring Chubb down. We have to be able to grind through this game."
Talking earlier in the week, defensive lineman Ta'Quon Graham said the Falcons defensive front believes facing this specific offensive line will be one of the greatest challenges they'll face as a unit this year. As Graham said, though, this opens the door for quite the opportunity. If the Falcons defense can consistently slow down the Browns' run production on Sunday, wouldn't this show an uptick in defensive progress?
"Honestly, it's a big test," Graham said. "It's one of the best offensive lines in the league. Arguably maybe the best. I really feel like this is the biggest test that we can have. It's the opportunity to go out there and prove that we can do it and prove that we're a talented d-line as well."
3. Elijah Wilkinson's return to the starting lineup
Wilkinson was forced to miss last week's game in Seattle as he dealt with a personal matter. Smith said on Monday the plan was for Wilkinson to return to practice on Wednesday, and he did just that.
During Wilkinson's absence, Colby Gossett filled in at left guard, and performed quite well for the Falcons. Overall, this Falcons offensive line has looked as good through the first three games of the season as it ever did through any three-game stretch last year. That's even with a little shake up last week with Gossett playing in Wilkinson's spot. Looking back, the group didn't really miss a beat.
Wilkinson returns to the starting left guard spot on Sunday against the Browns, so seeing if this offensive line can pick up right where it left off will be something to keep in mind as the game gets going on Sunday.
4. Taking care of the football when it matters most
The game in Seattle showed Marcus Mariota's ability to lead this offense in a balanced and productive manner. He finished the day with over 200 passing yards and a rushing touchdown. And yet, a blip that continues to ping on the radar when it comes to Mariota is his issues in taking care of the football in crucial moments.
He fumbled the ball inside the 10 yard line against the Saints, helping to stoke their comeback. In the final minutes of the Falcons loss to the Rams a week later, Mariota threw an interception at the goal line, extinguishing the Falcons own fourth-quarter comeback. Though not as detrimental thanks to a defensive turnover to ice the game, Mariota again fumbled the ball in the waning minutes of the Falcons win in Seattle.
Make no mistake about it, Atlanta is doing quite well moving the ball down field. They're not anywhere close to their three-and-out rate from 2021. Heck, they're currently fifth in the league in average yards per game.
However, too many important - and needed - drives have ended abruptly with a turnover. If the Falcons find themselves in another close, high-stress situation on Sunday, seeing Mariota taking care of the ball more thoroughly in those moments will be a step in the right direction for this offense.
5. Playing to win at home
Smith has never been one to shy away from the elephant in the room when it comes to playing at home. He's said it himself: The Falcons have to play better at home, and they have to give their fans a product they'll want to come out to see.
For a couple of years now, the Falcons at-home success rate has been... well... lacking. And after losing to New Orleans at home to open the 2022 season, the Falcons are really taking this get-a-win-at-home thing to heart. As well they should.
So, with that, I'll leave you with one final quote from Smith for you to ponder before Mercedes-Benz Stadium opens up on Sunday.
"We are in the sports and entertainment business and the fundamental essence of a business is to create a customer. It was beaten into my head at a young age, so it's not lost that we need to do our part," Smith said. "... We need to give the people a reason to want to come watch."
"I think we're trending. I think that it hasn't been perfect. Certainly, we would have loved to start Week 1 at home the right way, we didn't so there were a lot of painful lessons learned but we continue to improve. We've got some exciting young players and it's an exciting brand of football - in my biased opinion - when you watch our guys play, but we've got to do our part."
Take a look as the team puts in the work in Flowery Branch to prepare for this week's game against the Cleveland Browns, presented by Gatorade.