Week 9 is upon us, and the Falcons are looking to remain perfect on this fabled run in 2012. Continuing to add on to the best start in franchise history, they'll improve to 8-0 if they can manage another victory against a struggling Cowboys squad on Sunday night.
Tony Romo completely derailed Dallas' chances of winning last week before miraculously leading a comeback down the stretch against the Giants. Rob Ryan seems to believe the Cowboys already have Sunday night's game in the bag, but Mike Smith and the Falcons likely have a different scenario playing our in their mind.
Let's take a look at four crucial matchups for Week 9 that will be vital to the Falcons primetime success.
John Abraham vs. Tyron Smith & Doug Free
Abraham actually has more sacks rushing from the left side this season. According to Pro Football Focus, he's rushed the passer 69 times from the left to produce four sacks, one hit and 11 hurries. From the right side Abraham has 112 snaps for three sacks, two hits and five hurries. Smith is rated at 2.2 overall this season in pass protection on the left side after allowing two sacks and 20 hurries through seven games, while Free gets a -0.8 rating on the right side with 24 hurries allowed and 10 penalties on the season.
Both are susceptible to allowing pressure, but it's up to Mike Nolan to decide where he wants Abe attacking from. He's been tearing offensive lines apart lately, and the Falcons will need him to keep up the pace to rattle Romo.
Tyson Clabo vs. Anthony Spencer
Everyone will be talking about Sam Baker on DeMarcus Ware, but Anthony Spencer can't be written off. Clabo has settled down a bit since his atrocious outing against Charles Johnson. He's only allowed six hurries and one hit in his past three performances.
Spencer has a positive pass rush rating this season with three sacks and 11 hurries total. He's obviously not the biggest threat to Matt Ryan's well-being, but the Falcons will likely be sending Tony Gonzalez and some others to help chip DeMarcus Ware, leaving Clabo on his own. If he can handle the job alone, this will benefit pass protection in a huge way as the focus can primarily stick with Ware.
Julio Jones vs. Morris Claiborne
An article from Blogging the Boys shows that Carr is actually targeted more often than the rookie. Carr has given up 20 receptions on 34 targets, allowing 305 total yards and 15.3 yards per catch. Claiborne gave up 20 catches as well on 29 targets, but is only yielding 10.8 yards per catch. The kicker here, though, is the burn rate, a stat PFF compiles to show how often corners are giving up big plays. Claiborne's burn rate is far worse than Carr at 69 percent.
Carr is presumably covering Roddy White this weekend, so Julio Jones might be in for several deep looks downfield. If he can burn Claiborne like he did Nnamdi Asomugha last week, we could be in for more fireworks. Claiborne is physical, but Julio is a ridiculous athlete with more experience. He has the advantage here. For some reason Julio is only putting up impressive numbers on the road this season. In four road games he's hauled in 26 receptions for 392 yards and five touchdowns. The three games at home? Nine catches for 107 yards and no scores. Granted opposing defenses have actively sought to take away his presence at times, I think we're all ready to see a breakout game from Julio at home.
Robert McClain vs. Miles Austin
DOL wrote that Asante Samuel will be covering Austin this weekend, but he's not going to be the only one matching up against the Cowboys leading receiver in yardage and touchdowns. Austin ran 278 routes in his first seven games, and 71.2 percent of the time he lined up in the slot. McClain has 59 snaps taken in slot coverage, while Asante has 7 this season. Last week we saw several defenders face off against Austin, with Jayron Hosley arguably faring the worst against him. Hosley was thrown at six times in Week 8, all while covering Austin. He gave up five receptions for 90 yards, and while the Cowboys were in constant comeback mode, passing as much as possible, that's still not a promising statistic.
McClain was in for 57 snaps last week. He's starting to gain the trust of his coaches, and he can win them over again with a solid outing against Austin. Surely Asante will shadow Austin often, but McClain will be tested as well.