Yet another week where we're talking about a potential trap game. This schedule is a labyrinth of horror, I tells ya.
The Cleveland Browns are tougher than their record indicates, no doubt. The Falcons are a smarter, more well-rounded team than they've been in recent memory, so it's not like they're going to waltz into beautiful Cleveland and be surprised by anything the Browns throw at them. I expect this to be much more like the 49ers game than the Cardinals game.
To win, the Falcons will have to give Matt Ryan time to throw, win the battle in the trenches and make Jake Delhomme wish he had retired to his houseboat in Louisiana. None of those things are impossible. To find out the specifics, hit the jump like you mean it.
Falcons Offensive Line vs. Browns Defense
These Browns are not pushovers at the point of attack. Matt Roth (2 sacks), Scott Fujita (1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble), and Marcus Benard (2.5 sacks) lead a decent pass rush that has 8 total sacks on the year, and they've picked three passes. Not outstanding, but the Falcons ignore quality pressure at their own peril.
We're learning just how much Ice is affected by the pass rush, so it's imperative the offensive line flash some muscle and competent footwork and give him a precious extra second or two to make his reads. If the offensive line can win out, the Browns' secondary isn't so good that Ryan can't gut it like a pig.
If that happens, I'm predicting a huge game from Roddy White, but all Falcon receivers should benefit. This would be an excellent game for Harry Douglas to break out, because I doubt Michael Jenkins is returning to the field this week and the Cleveland's defense lacks in top-flight speed across the board.
Falcons Front Seven vs. Peyton Hillis
No matter what the notoriously batshit Eric Mangini says in his injury report, Peyton Hillis is going to play. He battered us a little bit when he played for the Broncos a couple of years back, scoring twice, and the Falcons won't want to deal with him near the goal line in this one. He's like a big white bowling ball out there.
The Falcons have shown an impressive ability to shut down backs this season, excepting a couple of excruciatingly long, seemingly slow-motion runs. They slowed Frank Gore, ground Pierre Thomas and Rashard Mendenhall mostly to a halt, and made Tim Hightower look like a chump on all but one carry. Hillis is definitely not better than Gore or Mendenhall, and probably not better than Thomas, but he's a punishing back that will wear down a defense.
Fortunately, the Falcons have a great deal of depth in the front seven, so they should be able to keep guys fresh. The key will be stuffing Hillis frequently enough and building a lead so the Browns are forced to abandon what they do best. That leads us to our next point.
Falcons Defense vs. Jake Delhomme
The Falcons know Jake Delhomme about as well as you possibly can know a quarterback. They've played against him many, many times, and they're very familiar with his ongoing decline phase.
In my opinion, the Browns are making a mistake starting Delhomme, if they indeed decide to do so. Seneca Wallace is no threat to strike downfield, but the Falcons struggle more with the short to mid-range throws anyways, because they occasionally have a massive brain fart when it comes to tackling. Delhomme offers the ability to huck it and put up solid numbers against the Falcons last year, averaging 7.7 yards a pass and posting 3 TDs vs. 1 INT, but this Falcons defense is light years better in coverage. There's also the small fact that they lead the NFL in interceptions, and Delhomme has thrown 20 dating back to last season.
With their decent but far from elite receiving options, the Browns may struggle to get open all day, and if the pass rush can gear up, they're going to kill Delhomme. The worst case scenario would be that the Falcons' propensity for giving up big plays catches up with them and Delhomme throws a couple long bombs that go for touchdowns. There's no denying that would be a difference maker. He's going to be incredibly sharp to do so, however, and anything less and he might single-handedly cost the Browns the game.
Falcons Special Teams vs. Browns Special Teams
Not a single named player this week? How about that!
Special teams has quietly been a problem. Eric "Special" Weems has gotten the job done on returns and Matt Bryant has been rock solid, but the kick and punt coverage has been putrid and Michael Koenen has alternated his trademark booming punts with weak little farty punts that look like they were kicked by off the foam leg of an effeminate pirates. The Browns also just so happen to employ Josh Cribbs, one of the most dangerous return men in the business and a guy who is capable of making the Falcons pay for mistakes.
The team will have to right the ship this week. Pin Cribbs down, choke up any potential open lanes for him to dance down and hit him when they get the chance, and they'll limit the damage. Anything else would be unacceptable.