The Falcons praise Sam Howell’s toughness and likely plan to use it against him.

FLOWER BRANCH, Georgia. — Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith has been so full of praise for Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell this week that you wonder if it’s a trap.

“I don’t know what the numbers are, but he’s damn tough,” Smith said. “He’s very accurate and will sit there. You have to respect that.”

Smith praised Howell’s toughness at least three times in his Wednesday press conference, and while some of that is true, the Falcons may want to convince the 23-year-old quarterback to continue playing the way he’s played all season.

Here’s why: Howell has been sacked from the major leagues 29 times. He’s on pace to break the NFL single-season record (David Carr, 76, 2002) in that category. Atlanta ranks 31st in the league with five sacks, so the Falcons would be fine with Howell in the pocket on Sunday when the Commanders (2-3) play the Falcons (3- 2) at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Howell was selected in the same 2022 draft as Falcons starter Desmond Ridder. Howell went two rounds behind Ridder and will start his seventh NFL game on Sunday. In each of those games he was sacked at least three times, and in the last two games he was sacked 10 times.

“He throws a very accurate deep ball,” Smith said. “It’s a good passing attack. You see his toughness. He is a tough and smart football player. (Howell and Ridder) are different players, but we have a lot of respect for Sam.”

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Opponents also get to Howell without blitzing. His blitz percentage was 22.6 percent, the lowest in the league.

“Their young quarterback does a great job of taking deep shots,” Falcons assistant defensive coach Jerry Gray said. “They attack you down the field. They’re trying to get the ball in the end zone.”

Gray continued Smith’s praise for the Commanders’ passing game, which ranks 12th in the league with 232.8 passing yards per game. Washington is averaging 7.6 yards per attempt, which ranks 17th in the NFL, according to TruMedia.

“They have three, maybe four No. 1 players at receiver,” Gray said. “Everyone knows 17 (Terry McLaurin). He’s been doing this for a long time. (Jahan Dotson) suddenly becomes active. You see how he plays. They look the same to each other. Then suddenly you see No. 4 (Curtis Samuel) and No. 2 (Dami Brown). It’s like, “Man, how do all these guys keep showing up?”

So, the key questions going into this game are will the Commanders play the way the Falcons expect them to, and can Atlanta take advantage of that?

What does Jefferson’s addition mean?

Smith was coy this week about how much newly acquired receiver Van Jefferson could help on Sunday. But Jefferson, who was traded from the Los Angeles Rams to the Falcons on Tuesday, is optimistic.

“If you have the right mindset and you want to do it, it can happen,” Jefferson said Wednesday after flying overnight from Los Angeles to attend a practice with the Falcons. “It was a wild 24 hours. I haven’t slept yet.

Jefferson had just eight catches for 108 yards in the Rams’ first five games, but he should have more opportunities in Atlanta, where Drake London is the only receiver with more than 10 catches this season. The biggest way Jefferson could help is by increasing Atlanta’s positional flexibility.

The Falcons used 11 fewer personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers) than any other NFL team this year. Actually much less. They’ve used 47 snaps on 11 players this season. The San Francisco 49ers, the team with the second-highest usage rate, have had 11 members 117 times.

The newly acquired Van Jefferson should allow the Falcons to play three receivers more often. (Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today)

At the same time, the Rams have more 11 personnel on their roster than any other team in the league (317 times), and Jefferson has been in that system for more than three seasons. The 6-1, 210-pounder is a versatile receiver but has spent most of his career on the outside. During his career, Jefferson played wide 70 percent of the time and slot 30 percent, according to TruMedia.

“I just want to come in and be a team player,” Jefferson said. “Whatever they want from me, I will do my best.”

The trade reunites Jefferson, who grew up in Jacksonville, with college teammate Kyle Pitts and friend Jeff Okudah.

“It’s great to be back south, my daughter is a little upset that she has to leave school but other than that everything is fine,” he said.

Happy to be home

The Falcons’ average reported attendance this season is 69,436, which is 16th-highest in the league. It’s not a staggering number — especially considering Atlanta’s 92.6% capacity rate ranks last in the NFL, according to ESPN — but it was a welcome change for Falcons coaches and players, who have been unaccustomed to to a significant home advantage.

“The fans were phenomenal,” Smith said. “You could feel their energy in the fourth quarter (last week against Houston). This place was amazing.”

Improving the Falcons’ home game experience has been a “huge focus” following 2021, Smith said, when Atlanta went 2-6 at home in Smith’s first season. Since then, the Falcons are 9-3 at home, including 3-0 this season.

“We need to create this place (that is difficult to play in). These fans deserve it,” Smith said. “It’s a shared experience and it’s important for our guys. We must continue this trend.”

Ridder noticed more fans in the seats while watching game film of quarterback Logan Woodside last week. The quarterbacks watched last year’s game against San Francisco in preparation for playing Houston’s defense.

“You turn on the tape and you see it on the scoreboard and you can count the fans underneath it,” Ridder said. “I thought, ‘Man, this is crazy, just a year apart, what can he do.’ It’s just a huge testament to the whole city and what they do to support us.”

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What is the money for?

Washington will spend $58 million on its defensive line this year, according to Spotrac, making it the second-most expensive front in the league. For this, the Commanders currently have one of the worst defenses in the league.

Washington ranks 27th in the NFL in yards allowed per carry (4.8) and second-to-last in yards before first contact allowed per rush (2.11), according to TruMedia. Last week, Chicago rushed for 178 yards (5.6 per carry) against Washington.

Perhaps this week will turn around Atlanta’s once vaunted performance. The Falcons are averaging 4.1 yards per rush this year, 0.8 fewer yards per rush than a year ago and ranking 19th in the league. Atlanta’s 36.7% shooting percentage ranks 18th in the league.

Questions in advance

If right tackle Caleb McGary is unable to take the field Sunday because of the knee injury that sidelined him last week, it will end some pretty remarkable consistency on Atlanta’s offensive line. The Falcons’ four returning starters on the offensive line have started a combined 272 consecutive games. That looks like this: left tackle Jake Matthews (best active streak in the NFL with 149 consecutive starts), center Drew Dahlman (22 straight), right guard Chris Lindstrom (60) and McGary (41).

McGary was listed as limited in practice on Wednesday and Thursday. If he is unable to play, Storm Norton will make his first start as a Falcon. Norton, who was released from New Orleans’ practice squad on Sept. 1. 26 years old, has started 18 NFL games, most recently with the Chargers in 2021.

“He was ready to go (last week), went in there and you didn’t feel like you had to turn the game around,” Smith said of Norton.

“It’s the next man up, and that’s something I’ve learned pretty quickly in my career,” Norton said. “You have to prepare every week as if you were a starter. This is what it means to be a professional.”

(Top photo of Sam Howell’s firing: Bill Streicher/USA Today)


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