Editor's note: The Falcons' 2017 schedule is comprised of AFC East and NFC North opponents as well as their traditional NFC South opponents. The series continues with Week 3 and the Detroit Lions.*
Over the next two weeks we're going to take a closer look at the Falcons' 13 opponents this season, with the final three scouting reports focusing on their NFC South rivals.
Scouting the Falcons schedule:
Next up:Detroit Lions
All-time series record:Lions lead, 24-12
Last meeting: Lions won 22-21 on Oct. 26, 2014, at Wembley Stadium in London
When they play in 2017:Sunday, Sept. 24 at Ford Field in Detroit
Best draft pick:The Lions struggled getting to the quarterback in 2016 – their defense ranked 30th with 26 sacks – and they desperately needed to address the defense, especially at the rush-end spot. While they didn't pick a defensive end until the seventh round – Eastern Michigan's Pat O'Connor with the 250th overall pick – they did take Florida inside linebacker Jarrad Davis 21st overall. Davis (pictured below) – who some scouts compare to Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson – is a high-energy defender with great closing speed and should make an immediate impact in Detroit.
Best free agent acquisition:Tackle Ricky Wagner was considered among the top free agents available at his position, if not the best. Pro Football Focus ranked Wagner second among available tackles behind Andrew Whitworth, who left Cincinnati to sign with the Los Angeles Rams. Wagner started the last three seasons in Baltimore and his new deal – which will pay him $9 million per year – set the market for tackles. Pairing Wagner with tackle Taylor Decker, their top pick in 2016, solidifies the bookends for the Lions up front – and goes a long way in protecting franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Toughest matchup:The Lions tackles vs. the Falcons revamped defensive front should be intense – and fun to watch, especially if you enjoy those battles in the trenches. Wagner and Decker should have their hands full trying to slow down the likes of Vic Beasley (15.5 sacks in 2016) and Co. and make keeping Stafford upright a challenge. If the Falcons can find other ways to generate pressure and get to Stafford, it could make the Lions more one-dimensional (more on that below). Newcomers Dontari Poe, Jack Crawford and rookie pass rusher Takkarist McKinley should give Falcons defensive coordinator Marquand Manuel plenty of options. But if Stafford – who thrived in Jim Bob Cooter's offense last year – is allowed to sit in the pocket and read coverages, he'll pick you apart.
Most favorable matchup:Detroit was among one of the worst teams in rushing offense in 2016 – according to Pro Football Reference they averaged 81.9 yards per game on the ground, good for 30th in the league. Their leading rusher was Theo Riddick, who tallied a grand total of 357 yards. The next best rusher? Zach Zenner at 334, who led the team with four rushing touchdowns. In all, the ground game wasn't rollin' in the Motor City. Will the addition of Wagner and the reshuffling up front help? It should. The Falcons' run defense, which ranked 17th in yards allowed on the ground in 2016, should be better with the addition of Poe, who's playing on a one-year prove-it deal.
Unsung storyline:The Falcons will be coming off an emotional game – a rematch of the NFC title game and the regular-season debut of their new stadium in nationally televised game on Sunday night. The Lions will also be coming off prime-time game – and a short week at that, after playing the Giants on "Monday Night Football." While this isn't a quick turnaround – like playing on a Thursday night – both of these teams will have to guard against experiencing any sort of hangover or emotional letdown. Both of these quarterbacks – Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford – will make teams pay dearly if they can catch you on an off day … or an off play.
And one more thing: While there's really no such thing as an easy schedule in the NFL, the defending NFC champs have their work cut out for them with this slate. There's a brutal stretch from Oct. 22 to Nov. 20 when four of Atlanta's five games are on the road – and that one home game just happens to be the Cowboys. The Falcons also play three games in 12 days heading into the all-critical month of the December. And speaking of that final stretch, five of Atlanta's final six games are against NFC South opponents. And chew on this: Just five of the 13 teams on the Falcons schedule had losing records in 2016. The other eight – the Buccaneers, Cowboys, Dolphins, Lions, Packers, Patriots, Seahawks, and Vikings – had an eye-catching 83-44-1 combined mark.