A year removed from the NFC Championship Game, the Falcons are 2-9 and officially eliminated from playoff contention. A lot has gone wrong from a personnel standpoint, but is this the kind of season that could lead to a coaching change, or is Mike Smith safe?
Choate: I think he's safe. There's a spirited debate about whether he deserves to be, given some of his issues with getting the best talent on the field, his conservatism and occasionally weird play-calling. I'm sympathetic to the viewpoint, certainly.
In the end, it probably won't make a lick of difference. The Falcons had their best five year stretch under Smith, and owner Arthur Blank is very interested in building a team that's going to be successful for a long time. He's got a new stadium to sell to fans in 2017, after all. I think he's weighed the costs and benefits of giving Smith another shot against bringing in an entirely new coaching staff and decided to give him another year.
That said, Smith will by necessity be on the hot seat in 2014. If the team can't deliver after what we hope will be a strong off-season, he may be moving on.
Matt Ryan is undoubtedly safe, considering that his offensive line has struggled and he's playing without his top receiving target. What should Bills fans expect from him this week?
Choate: I think he'll have a decent week, but he's going to get hit a lot. This line simply can't block effectively for him, and the Falcons can't get rid of the ball quickly enough to mitigate that every time. Couple that with a mediocre ground game and it's going to be a long day.
The Falcons will attack the Bills primarily by throwing lots of short passes and a few screens, looking to bust a big play. Harry Douglas can be deadly after the catch, and if Roddy White is healthier, he's always dangerous. I think something like we saw last week—a game where Ryan was fairly efficient but not excellent—is about the expectation.
On the positive side of the coin, Harry Douglas has emerged as a productive starting-caliber receiver after several injury-plagued years to start his career. Buffalo has struggled to defend smaller, quicker receivers on the boundary this season. Is Douglas the type to take advantage of that weakness?
Choate: He's exactly the type of receiver to take advantage of that. The question is when he will.
Douglas still struggles with consistency. I tend to think his greatest weakness is getting separation on a consistent basis. He's likely going to give your secondary fits for stretches, but you'll see an entire quarter or two where he's nowhere to be seen. The question is whether he'll be able to do enough in between to help the Falcons win the game.
I sincerely hope so. I do think Douglas has earned a larger role in the offense this year and next, when Julio Jones returns.
For years, John Abraham spearheaded the Falcons' pass-rushing efforts. Now, Osi Umenyiora is in that role. Atlanta ranks near the bottom of the league with 22 sacks this season. What kind of pass rush can E.J. Manuel expect to face in Toronto?
Choate: Not a very good one. The Falcons knew that Geno Smith struggled mightily when facing a competent pass rush, so they tried to dial that up and failed miserably. I see no reason why they're going to suddenly start wreaking havoc against Manuel.
If they can at least get guys in the backfield consistently, I think they can force some bad throws from Manuel. My expectations just aren't very high at the moment.
The Falcons also rank near the bottom of the league in run defense, surrendering 130 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. The Bills have struggled to run the football lately. Bills fans expect C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson to get right this weekend; have you seen anything from Atlanta's run front that could dispel those expectations?
Choate: Nothing at all, unfortunately. Pierre Thomas and Bobby Rainey have made the Falcons look foolish in back-to-back weeks. While there are some individually useful run-stoppers here, they haven't been able to do a whole hell of a lot as a unit.
The only reason to hope is that the Falcons should have rookie end Malliciah Goodman back this week. Goodman has shown he's capable of setting the edge and blowing up plays in the backfield, but it's an open question just how healthy he'll be.