Good morning and welcome to Straight from the 'Beek! The Falcons are getting ready to head West to take on the Los Angeles Rams in the first round of the NFC playoffs – and you've got plenty of questions. Just remember, all opinions you see in this space are mine, unless otherwise noted.
So let's get to them. We begin with a long-time reader and first-time writer.
Dylan from Canton, GA
Happy New Year, Beek. This is my first time writing and I love your column and have been reading it every day since August. I have one question. I know you do not like looking too far ahead but, I think that the Falcons have a very good shot at making another Super Bowl run. They play a playoff-inexperienced Rams team with a new coach. If we do win this game, we would play the Philadelphia Eagles without Carson Wentz, which would make it an easier game unless Nick Foles goes off. If you win that game, you go on to the NFC Championship Game and play the Panthers/Saints/Vikings winner, teams the Falcons have played this year and know pretty well, especially the Panthers and Saints. What are your thoughts?
Matt: I can tell you've been reading because you're right, I think it's fruitless to look beyond any opponent. So much can happen (and change) in the NFL on any given week. Yes, I think the experience of having made a postseason run last season and understanding the finality of it all should serve these Falcons well, especially in their preparation and overall mindset this week. But, in the end, these games come down to the players – talent, execution and avoiding mistakes will determine which team advances to play another week. The Falcons have one opponent right now: the Rams. The rest is a bunch of "what if" scenarios that won't mean a darn thing without a win on Saturday.
Rashaad from Columbia, SC
First off, WERE IN THE BIG DANCE! I've been rooting for these Falcons all year through the good and bad and we finished our season strong. The defense seems to be rolling, which is a great thing heading into the playoffs. We all know our offense is a sleeping giant that can awaken at any moment. My question is, what problems do you believe the Rams defense will present to Atlanta's offense? Also, I enjoy this column you have! Keep up the good work!
Matt: Thanks, Rashaad. I appreciate that. You're right about the Falcons defense – that group has played really well this season. This team is much more balanced now – it's not all offense, all the time in high-scoring games. That's not this team's identity anymore. As far as the Rams go, they've got one of the best (if not the best) defensive tackles in the NFL in Aaron Donald. He's a special talent who can wreak a lot of havoc inside, blowing up run plays and bringing pressure up the middle to disrupt the timing in the passing game. The Falcons must have a plan for him. On the other side of the ball, Todd Gurley makes them go on offense. The third-year running back out of Georgia is having a fantastic year that's put him in the discussion for the NFL Most Valuable Player award. Gurley led the NFC in combined rushing and receiving yards during the regular season, finishing with 2,093 total yards from scrimmage and a league-leading 19 touchdowns, despite missing the Rams' regular-season finale. Gurley gained over 100 total yards in 12 of the 15 games he played this season, and he gained more than 100 yards as both a runner and a receiver in the Rams' Week 16 victory over the Titans, becoming just the third player in NFL history to accomplish such a feat. For more on the matchup, check out our piece on how the Falcons stack up against the Rams.
Todd from Memphis, TN
Enjoy reading your stuff Matt! Growing up in Atlanta and now living in Memphis means I miss getting to see all of the Falcons games and get stuck watching more Saints and Titans games than I ever care to watch! With that, what are the biggest factors to such a dramatic turnaround for the Rams this year and what can the Falcons take advantage of? Outside of Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley (maybe Sammy Watkins), it doesn't seem like a team that really strikes fear into you, but obviously they do a lot of things well! Thanks for responding.
Matt: Todd, every week we put out a piece on how to watch the Falcons games online or on TV, and it's helpful especially if you're in a different media market. Here is this week's post on the Falcons-Rams game. Well, when you mention Donald, Gurley and Watkins – that's quite a handful right there. And no one should take this team lightly. It's been quite a turnaround this year in L.A. – and the biggest reason for it is head coach Sean McVay and his staff, including defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. Think, too, for a minute about where this team was when he took over: the Rams finished last in the NFL in yards after each of the previous two seasons and outside the top 20 in offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) after each of the previous 10 seasons. As this piece from Alden Gonzalez points out, McVay overhauled the offense, which helped Gurley and Jared Goff blossom. How? The Rams got better at receiver, adding Watkins, Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Gerald Everett. Don't forget they still have Tavon Austin, too. And they upgraded the left tackle position big time by adding Andrew Whitworth in free agency.
Stephen from Marion, AR
I saw that Taylor Gabriel got hurt against the Panthers. How bad is it and will he play against the Rams?
Matt: Hey, Stephen. Gabriel injured his hamstring during the game. He was listed on the Falcons injury report Tuesday and was limited in practice. We should know more about his status for the Rams game later in the week.
Kevin from Feeding Hills, MA
I think we have a real chance at limiting Todd Gurley, after only allowing Alvin Kamara to 2.7 yards per run and Christian McCaffrey to 2.3 in our latest two meetings. If we get Jared Goff throwing more, is that the best way to win?
Matt: Your stats are correct, but just because the Falcons held Kamara and McCaffrey to less than 3 yards per run doesn't mean the same will be true against Gurley, who is averaging almost 5 yards per run (4.7). In the four games that the Rams lost this season with Gurley playing (he sat out the finale), teams held him to less than 100 yards rushing. While there is no magic or guaranteed formula, yes, limiting Gurley and making the Rams more one-dimensional would likely bode well for the Falcons. They won't be an easy out, though. If you recall the Eagles-Rams game back on Dec. 10, Philly escaped with a 43-35 win – and that was with Carson Wentz (who suffered a season-ending injury later in that game).
JC from Vidalia, GA
Happy New Year Beek! Not only were the Falcons 5-3 at home and away, they were a dropped pass in Charlotte from 6-2, three miscues in New England, and three miscues in New Orleans from 8-0. I wish we were smoother, but winning ugly is a win. Although on the road, if we take it one game at a time and perform better in short yardage, I like our chances in L.A., then Philly, then, most likely, New Orleans. Speaking of short yardage, do you think they now realize we lost an all-pro fullback? It looks like an area from improvement for next year. Go Falcons.
Matt: Winning in the NFL is never easy, especially on the road. And I could care less in what it looks like – they all count the same, pretty or not. And I definitely agree with the "take one game at a time" approach, JC. Yes, the Falcons have been inconsistent at times in short-yardage situations during the season, but you can only worry about and coach up the players on this roster – not the ones who are no longer here (and I'm assuming you mean the departure of fullback Patrick DiMarco, who's now in Buffalo). Winning in the trenches and getting that push up front will be key against the Rams.
Rick from Cooper City, FL
Hi Beek, longtime NYC Falcons fan who moved to the Sunshine State, but still do the Dirty Bird whenever possible. Huge question regarding Adrian Clayborn. Seemed like he got emotional on the bench after his leg injury and that usually is a sign that your season is over. Please say it isn't so ... Big AC missed last year's playoffs as well and we need him big time, as he's having his best season. Beek, tell me he's playing against the Rams or I'll be crying as well.
Matt: Hey, Rick. Clayborn was officially listed as limited on Tuesday's injury report with a calf injury. As with any injury, we should know about more his status for the Rams game as the week progresses and we receive more updates.
Billy from Dallas, GA
Do Matt Bryant and Matt Bosher have individual kicking coaches?
Matt: No, they do not have specific kicking coaches, Billy. Keith Armstrong is the special teams coordinator and Eric Sutulovich is the assistant special teams coach.
Kevin from Q-West, Iraq
Happy New Years, Matt! Thank you for providing this column for fan interactions and for your responses to my previous posts. Great, great victory this past weekend and thank you to those fans in their seats! I am writing to ask, how fortunate for our team and fan base, that we have leadership that is willing to allow for the growth and maturation of coach Dan Quinn's process during the past three years? Mr. Blank and Mr. Dimitroff's decision to bring DQ on board was the spark required to take our previous success to the next level. We should be grateful for this leadership group who hired coaches Mike Smith and DQ, unlike other franchises, who seek to hire the latest flavor of the month. Apologies for this long note, but the fans should look at other franchises' firing of coaches this week and should appreciate that Atlanta Falcon ownership is showing the patience required for DQ to continue to build this team in his image and not overreact by jumping on the coach of the moment carousel. This top-to-bottom Brotherhood allows for occasional hiccups without fear of failure. Thanks, Matt! Falcons 24, Rams 14
Matt: Hey, Kevin. Always great to hear from you and thanks for your comments. The Falcons are 29-19 in the regular season and 2-1 in the postseason under Dan Quinn, which includes last year's Super Bowl run. In short, it's been a tremendous three-year run – and it continues Saturday with another playoff game in Los Angeles. The Falcons are the only NFC team from last season to return to the postseason – it's that tough to make it, which says even more about the job Quinn has done here.
Chris from Fresno, CA
Will we wear our home uniform against the Rams? Will the Rams be wearing all-white or all-yellow?
Matt: The Rams will wear their white jerseys for this one. So that means that the Falcons will indeed wear red jerseys.
Will from Cocoa, FL
Hey, Beek. I trust all is well. I just wanted to chime in on something. I know there are fans out there that have been down on Matt Ryan and Steve Sarkisian, but I read something that surprised me. Everybody is saying Ryan is having a bad year, but Sark has generally put them in position to make plays. Here's something – the Falcons led the league in drops this season with 28. Only 11 last season. Just something I thought I'd throw out there. You probably knew this but maybe not all the masses. It's not on Matt or Sark. I'm not sure how many of these turned into interceptions but these are plays the receivers generally made last year. Anyway, we are in and the defense has totally stepped up this year. Excited!!! Happy New Year, Beek. Keep doing your thing. We love it!
Matt: You are correct, Will, about the drops and deflected passes. They were much more of an issue, earlier in the season. And yes, some of them did result in turnovers (see the Lions game as an example).
David from Columbus, OH
Good afternoon, Matt. I'm writing to say that I believe in this team and have ever since 2008 when I became a fan as I watched Matt Ryan as a rookie get his first comeback victory against the Chicago Bears. I really and truly believe that we will win, taking it one game at a time and win these next four games focusing on the opponent in front of us first. My question is, don't you think, as I do, that offensively as long as the Falcons start out mixing running the football and passing to Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman that we cannot be stopped? You see when they throw to our two highly skilled all-purpose backs, it attacks the opposing defense then BAM!! Jones for 27, Sanu for 18, Hooper for 12, then back to Freeman running, then Coleman for a 14-yard reception, then Freeman for a 17-yard reception. Do you see where I'm going with this? An offensive rhythm as long as we keep throwing to our backs, no defense can stop us. Freeman and Coleman are the key to our passing game being super successful and they open things up for Julio Jones, Mohamed Sanu, etc. Also, is there any updated status on Taylor Gabriel and Adrian Clayborn? We need them both they are vital to our success.
Matt: Hey, David. Lots to chew on there. Yes, the Falcons are much more effective moving the ball and sustaining drives if they are balanced with both the run and pass. An effective running game also opens up the Falcons passing game, especially the play-action – and those explosive plays downfield. Unstoppable might be a little strong, though. As with any game, if the Falcons are efficient on third down and in the red zone, good things should follow. On the flip side, the Falcons defense will need to come up big in those same areas.
Kevin from Sierra Madre, CA
It is good to be a Falcons fan in California right now. My mom and I have tickets for the Falcons vs. Rams game on Saturday, and it was also good to have Georgia here as well in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl/playoff game – Go Dawgs. I just wish people will stop saying Matt Ryan is just OK. He is elite and showing improvement each Sunday. He also is 16th all time in pass yardage now.
Matt: No argument from me, Kevin. I've always held Matt Ryan in high regard and believe he's an elite quarterback. The numbers back it up, too. Falcons fans are lucky to have him.
Bob from Las Vegas, NV
Hey Matt, well we made the playoffs, which is great! I am perplexed that we are one of the most penalized teams in the league. We are constantly getting big plays called back by a stupid penalty, like blocking someone in the back. It seems to me like this is a coaching/discipline problem, since these guys are professional athletes. I really like Quinn as a coach but is he too lenient with the guys on this? What is your opinion on this?
Matt: I'm going to disagree with you on this one, Bob. Unless I'm reading the statistics wrong, the Falcons are not among the most penalized teams in the league – on offense or defense. But I will say this much, they have had some untimely and costly penalties at different times this season. Some of have cost the Falcons turnovers, first downs and scores – which, in close games, can mean the difference sometimes between winning and losing.
Chris from Los Angeles, CA
Hey Beek! Thanks for all your hard work and insight this year. Much appreciated especially for Falcons fans on the left coast. We had a target in our backs and fought through all year to give us a chance. Plus, the most impressive stat – we are the ONLY NFC team to return to the dance. My question to you is Hooper seems like a force, when used but we rarely use him to catch passes. Opening up the middle with him in route will loosen the linebackers and help free and Coleman break runs. Any reason we are not using Hooper as much, throwing to him more. He is solid. I think he can be a significant difference-maker. My wife and I will be there in the Coliseum screaming for our birds! Thanks.
Matt: Hey, Chris. Hooper has been targeted 65 times this season and he's caught 49 passes for 526 yards and three touchdowns. That's up considerably compared to last season when he hauled in 19 catches for 271 yards and three scores. That's decent growth for the second-year tight end out of Stanford.