Here are five keys to the game heading into the Week 7 match between the San Diego Chargers and Atlanta Falcons.
1. Defuse the Falcons with Pressure –There is a lot that can be said about the Atlanta Falcons' dangerous offense, but Defensive Coordinator John Pagano best summed up the task at hand when describing this week's opponent:
"I looked in the dictionary at the word explosive, and when I pulled it up a picture of the Atlanta Falcons showed up right there. They are explosive. They have threats all across the board from the wide receivers to the tight ends to the running backs to the quarterback to their offensive line. They are an explosive offense that can do a lot of things."
The stats back up what NFL fans see on a weekly basis as Atlanta ranks first in points per game (33.2), first in yards per game (441.5) and second in passing offense (329.5). How do you defuse such a potent attack? By disrupting the quarterback. Getting after Matt Ryan is pivotal to keeping the offense off kilter as the quarterback is a legit MVP candidate heading into Week 7. Ryan leads the league in passing yards (2,075), and ranks second in passing TDs (15) and QB rating (118.8). He also has an NFL high 11 completions of at least 40 yards, which are three more than Philip Rivers, who ranks second with eight. Number 17 is a fan of Ryan, and outlined what makes him a special quarterback:
"I've always thought Matt's a heck of a player. We're in different conferences and on other sides of the (country, but) I've always felt like he was a little bit under appreciated just as a pure competitor. I feel like when you watch him, he's just a heck of a competitor. Obviously, if you draw up a guy with a throwing motion and how you want a guy to play, he has that. But you add in the fact that he's a heck of a competitor, and they've won a lot of football games down there. He's got them off to a heck of a start, and you can tell he likes what they're in, what they're doing offensively and he's running the whole deal."
2. Who's on Julio? – There may not be a better wide receiver in the game right now than Julio Jones. The 6-3, 220-pound six-year veteran leads the NFL in yards (656), yards per catch (21.2) and yards per game (109.3), and is tied for fourth in the NFL with four touchdown receptions. Jones had one of the best games in league history a few weeks ago when he put up 300 yards against the Carolina Panthers. As a result, the Bolts must make sure they are aware of where he is on the field at all times and have a game plan to contain him. Pagano joked he'd have to pray in order to stop the "ultimate game wrecker" before striking a serious tone explaining what makes him so special:
"I'm heading to church right after this to be able to stop Julio. We're going to have to do some serious praying! … It's his work ethic. How he runs his routes. How fast downfield and the speed he goes. I've heard in practice it's even at a faster tempo so that when the games come around it's easier for him. You can see how he does that on the field. How he gets open and how he makes the vertical catch look so simple and easy. He's a great athlete. They throw that ball up to him. Ryan has a great deep ball and (Jones) is a playmaker. It gives him the ability to go up and make those types of catches."
3. Can't Settle for Three – It's safe to assume Sunday will be a high scoring affair. Not only do the Falcons boast the highest scoring offense in the NFL as mentioned earlier, but the Chargers are close behind. San Diego leads the AFC and ranks third in the NFL with 28.8 points per game. While the Bolts are putting plenty of points on the board, they've also left too many on the table as they have struggled at times in the red zone. Last week was indicative of their struggles as they scored a touchdown on their first trip inside the 20, but settled for four field goals the rest of the way. With Atlanta boasting such a powerful offense, it's critical that the Bolts match them blow for blow should a shootout arise. Rivers acknowledged that settling for field goals may not be enough against Atlanta, while stating he has confidence in the offense to find the end zone and the defense to limit the Falcons:
"Yeah (they lead the league), and we're right on their heels, too. They may feel the same way. It's a heck of an offense. (For us,) I think as an offense you can't let that effect your approach, but I think it can be an added understanding. Make sure we're all aware how key (it is) every time we get down into the red zone, where we've been (converting at around 50%) scoring touchdowns, that's probably not going to be enough. At the same time, obviously we have confidence in our defense to go out and play great."
4. Can Rookies Keep Rolling? –The Chargers draft class has garnered a lot of positive attention as they played a crucial role in the Week 6 win over the Broncos. However, the Bolts will need them to continue to play at a high level in order to string together consecutive wins. Hunter Henry and Derek Watt have boosted the offense, while Joey Bosa and Jatavis Brown were two of the top playmakers on defense. At the same time, Drew Kaser took home AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors after his standout game. The rookies' strong play was top of mind for Atlanta's head coach Dan Quinn, and he singled out Bosa and Brown in particular:
"(Bosa is) really settling in to this defensive end spot," Quinn said. "He's really active with his hands. I've always thought he's played really strong, but I think he moves a little better than I even thought. His quickness looks to be on point. Jatavis is another one coming out of Akron that we really had high hopes for. We were very interested (and) we knew he had speed so we were looking at him at safety as well. I was not surprised to see him really hauling. I saw him match up on running backs and play that well. I love his speed that he plays with (and) the tackling. We were not surprised that when he got selected (San Diego) had a real find there."
5. Gain the "Unfamiliar" Advantage – The Chargers and Falcons face each other once every four years, and have squared off only nine times in their existence dating back to 1973. As such, there is a great deal of unfamiliarity between the two teams. Head Coach Mike McCoy explained while some coach's systems might be similar, the players must rely on extra studying and film in order to get a better understanding of the opponent. Hopefully, the Bolts are able to get that edge:
"(The challenge) is more from a player's perspective of maybe not going against a certain player. That's when the film study really comes into play of saying, maybe as a receiver you haven't gone against this corner at a certain time or as often as someone you play on a yearly basis or every couple years. So really it just goes down to looking at all the film and really understanding how this opponent is going to play you on an individual basis because a lot of the schemes are carried over from where staffs come from (where they were in) previous years."