The Falcons have an away game against a team with a terrific defense, which both now and in the past has been a cause for concern. It remains one with the Falcons rolling out Harry Douglas & Friends at wide receiver.
Still, this is another winnable game for the Falcons, who need to truck over the Arizona Cardinals this week and the Carolina Panthers the next to return to .500 and have some kind of shot at a successful season. That entails keeping the offense humming and improving the defense, he said for the 6,000th time since 2008.
It's doable, in other words, but it won't be easy. Here's the four matchups I can see influencing the outcome of this game.
Tony Gonzalez vs. Cardinals Linebackers/Safeties
The Cardinals have been eaten alive by tight ends this season, allowing seven tight end scores in seven games. Their linebackers are impressive pass rushers and their safeties are brutal against the run, but taken together they can't shut down even above-average tight ends with any regularity. Yeremiah Bell is a particularly big culprit.
The Falcons have a rare opportunity to get Tony Gonzalez some lightly contested throws here. The Cardinals seem unlikely to do the smartest possible thing and stick Patrick Peterson on Gonzo, likely limiting his impact and letting a quality all-around secondary try to deal with Harry Douglas. They can double team Gonzalez and hit him at the line of scrimmage, of course, but they run the risk of drawing some penalties that way. My expectation is that early on the Cardinals will try Bell and their linebacking corps to slow down Gonzo, so even if the Falcons have to deal with the usual double teams later on, they may be able to make something happen early.
If Gonzo can get open or get opportunities to make contested catches—frankly, no one's better at them in the NFL today—he could have a pretty big game and set the Falcon passing attack up for a nice day.
Offensive Line vs. Cardinals Pass Rush
The Cardinals pass rush is not a joke. They're tied for 14th in the NFL with 19 sacks, or five more than the Falcons have, but they have some truly dynamic pass rushers.
Everyone's hyping John Abraham for obvious reasons, but Abe is not my primary concern. As we all know by now, he can get extremely hot in any given game and wreak havoc, but outside of last week he's been a non-factor most of the season. Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington are much bigger concerns. All four are powerful, physical players capable of making Matt Ryan's day a living hell.
So the line needs to step up. They put together a workmanlike performance a week ago against the Bucs, which was encouraging. They'll need to be a lot better against Arizona, and they really can't afford to let the Cardinals punish Peter Konz the way pretty much every other team has thus far. Watch him closely up the middle and hope he holds up.
To add complexity, it appears Sam Baker is gung-ho to return to the lineup. If the Falcons think he's ready, they're likely to slot him right back at left tackle, with Lamar Holmes moving to right tackle or the bench. In this humble writer's opinion, it would be beyond foolish to take Holmes out of the lineup right as he's hitting his stride, but this team has had a severe case of Baker's blindness for a while now. We'll have to see what they do.
Of course, it will help as always if Ryan can get rid of the ball quickly. That brings up to our next matchup.
Steven Jackson/Jacquizz Rodgers vs. The Poor Saps Covering Them
The Falcons have one more matchup on offense to exploit: Throwing to the running back.
The Cardinals have been studly against the ground game all year, which means the Falcons aren't going to get much traction against their front seven. As the Falcons showed us a week ago, you can use screens and short passes to the backs as a proxy for a running game, and I expect they'll try to do it again.
The best argument for this is that Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers become much more difficult to deal with in space. Jackson is a bull who can cause problems for even the hardiest defender—assuming he plays—while Rodgers mixes surprising power with game-changing lateral agility. Quizz has scored four touchdowns recently, and he's done so by being a royal pain in the ass to tackle.
There are some excellent players on this Cardinals defense, but not all of them have the change-of-direction and tackling ability necessary to slow these two down. If the Falcons can spring them with some nice screens, good things can happen.
Falcons Corners vs. Michael Floyd/Larry Fitzgerald
I'm cautiously optimistic that Mike Nolan is going to start getting more out of the pass rush. Malliciah Goodman was getting close a week ago, the safety/linebacker hybrid blitzes led to a couple of successful plays and hell, they can't possibly be lousy forever.
Even if the pass rush gets home, the Falcons' coverage will need to be excellent. That's because for all his numerous flaws at this stage of his career, Carson Palmer has a big arm and the Cards have Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald out wide. Fitz has struggle, sure, but Floyd is one of the league's truly dynamic young receivers and Fitzgerald could go off at any time.
It'll be up to whatever combination of Asante Samuel/Desmond Trufant/Robert Alford they throw out there to contain the threat and give the rush time to get home. The coverage has been a mixed bag all season, but all of these guys are capable of stretches of sustained excellence. They'll need it Sunday.
What are your matchups for the game?