After earning their first win of the season on Sunday against the St.Louis Rams, the Falcons fly south to Miami to face the Dolphins in a NFC-AFC showdown. The Falcons have won the previous two match-ups against the Dolphins and will look to extend their streak against the AFC East opponent. Miami, is looking to open 3-0 for the first time since 2002, and when it most recently started 2-0 in 2010 after beating Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts 24-20 and ended Indianapolis' winning streak at home, which was a huge boost of confidence for the young team and they will face an even bigger test in their home opener against the Falcons.
Atlanta is coming off a 31-24 home win over the St.Louis Rams and will look to earn a win after a rough week where the victory came with a price. During the victory over the Rams, Steven Jackson, Sean Weatherspoon, Bradie Ewing, and Kroy Biermann all suffered injuries and unfortunately, Biermann and Ewing went down for the remainder of the 2013 NFL season. The banged-up Falcons will have to rely on Matt Ryan and the Falcons' passing attack to make Miami's first home game of the season a loss.
The Dolphins' defense is up for a challenge as Matt Ryan has completed 71.6 percent of passes, which is second best in the NFL, and receiver Julio Jones has 258 receiving yards, which is second best in the league as well. Sunday's contest will be a very competitive match-up with a Falcons team looking to earn another win and the Dolphins hoping to make a statement against one of the most high powered offenses in the NFL. Here are the keys to victory, match-ups to watch, and final prediction.
KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Falcons Must Start Fast and Finish Strong
Atlanta must set the tone early in front of a raucous Miami home crowd by scoring early and often on offense. In last week's win against the Rams, the Falcons managed to take a 21-0 lead in the second quarter, and that's the pressure that the Falcons must place on the Dolphins this week. Atlanta needs their running game to set the tone for Sunday's game, especially to give Matt Ryan and the passing attack the opportunity take flight. That's due to the limited snaps for Roddy White, who is suffering from a high ankle sprain and now the injury to Steven Jackson also makes matters tough on the Falcons.
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter must give the running attack more carries and split carries between Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling and Josh Vaughan. Atlanta will have to find a way to establish some impact on the ground because many opposing defenses are going to focus more on the passing attack with the injury to Jackson over the next few weeks. In the Falcons' two games so far, the running backs have received a combined 30 carries compared to 81 passing attempts by Matt Ryan.
Despite Ryan's success in the air, they still need to find a way to produce yards on the ground in order to prevent teams from blitzing. The offensive line is still trying to form a sense of chemistry, and Atlanta's one-dimensional approach on offense won't benefit them in trying to establish themselves as a decent run blocking line.
Also, one of the Falcons biggest issues is maintaining their impact on games after establishing huge leads. Despite taking a 21-0 lead early and carrying a 24-3 lead into the half, the Rams managed to pull within seven points on Sunday afternoon. The Falcons must continue to play with the urgency that is presented early in the game.
One of the Falcons' biggest concerns is continuing to struggle in the third quarter, which has been consistent over the last few years. Atlanta can't allow teams to come within a few points of the lead or even take the lead from the Falcons. The team must continue to keep their strategy consistent throughout all 60 minutes of the football game. This team has a tendency to go into a conservative approach after establishing leads, and in the NFL, you can't continue to do that. If the Falcons get a huge advantage early, it's imperative that the lead is maintained.
2. Red Zone Efficiency:
In last week's win against St.Louis, the Falcons improved their efficiency in the red zone as they would convert two of three red zone attempts into scores, and that's a positive step ahead for an Atlanta offense that can sometimes struggle to score touchdowns when the offense is within their opponents' 20-yard line. This Sunday, Atlanta can't afford to have long drives come to an end with a field goal or no points at all, and it starts with execution from the offense. With the injury to Steven Jackson, don't be surprised if the Falcons use Jason Snelling as the goal-line running back. Last week, Snelling ran for an 11-yard touchdown to secure Atlanta's win, and he could be used in many ways such as running the ball or even shovel passes. The seventh year running back is well known for scoring off those plays.
Another key factor to Sunday's contest is Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez's number could be called upon in red-zone opportunities as the Miami secondary have struggled to contain tight ends to open the 2013 season. Miami surrendered 108 yards and a red zone touchdown to Browns tight end Jordan Cameron in their 23-10 win in the season opener and 69 yards and another touchdown to Colts tight end Coby Fleener in their 24-20 win over the Colts last week.
Gonzalez is well known as one of Matt Ryan's most utilized targets when throwing in the red zone, and Sunday could be an opportunity for the future Hall of Fame Tight End to make a huge impact for the Falcons offense. Defensively, the Falcons struggled in the red zone as St.Louis converted three of four red zone visits into scores last week. Sam Bradford threw three second-half touchdowns to keep the Rams within reach of the football game during that game.
Bradford's three touchdown passes were very uncharacteristic for a Falcons defense that, despite losing the previous week in New Orleans, held Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense to one of three successful trips to the red zone, and forced them to settle for two field goals. The Falcons were one of the best secondaries in preventing opposing passing attacks from scoring touchdowns last season, and they will need to step up to the challenge and come up with some crucial stops to make Sunday very difficult for the Dolphins at home.
Although Miami's offense has scored only one offensive passing touchdown, Mike Wallace could be their key target against the Falcons' defense on Sunday. Atlanta must look for the screen game, because the Dolphins scored an 18-yard touchdown against the Colts last week and Wallace's speed and the ability for their offensive lineman to set up screen passes could haunt Atlanta. Mike Nolan must tighten up coverage on their receivers on Sunday.
3. Establish Balanced Offensive Attack:
In Atlanta's win over the St.Louis Rams on Sunday, Matt Ryan and the passing attack were very effective once again. Ryan finished 33 of 43 with 374 yards passing and two touchdowns. Ryan also finished with an outstanding QB rating of 117.8. The Dolphins' defense will have their hands full against an efficient quarterback such as Matt Ryan. However, Atlanta needs to establish a sense of balance in order for their offense to continue to take flight on Sunday afternoon.
Miami's defense has recorded nine sacks, which is the second-most in the NFL, and in order to keep Cameron Wake and the rest of the Dolphins defense from causing havoc in Atlanta's backfield, Dirk Koetter must stick with their game plan in order to keep the defense honest and assure that the Falcons' strategy does not prove to be predictable. The Falcons can't give the Dolphins' defense a chance to aggressively blitz Matt Ryan and get their home crowd involved.
If the Falcons can establish an balanced offensive game plan, that could open up even more opportunities for Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, and the Falcons' high-powered passing attack, which is the last thing Miami's defense wants to happen. In the first two weeks, Miami has allowed five completions of 20 or more yards and two of 40 or more yards, so Atlanta's offense could be in for a huge afternoon.
Establishing a sense of balance will also prevent the Dolphins defense from taking away Atlanta's explosive passing attack because in the first two weeks, Miami managed to hold their opponents to a passer rating of 62.4, which is the fourth-lowest in NFL. Granted, their first game was against Brandon Weeden, however, they managed to hold their own against Andrew Luck as well. On Sunday, expect Matt Ryan to test the young Miami defense early and often.
4. Atlanta's Defense Must Throw Sophisticated Looks at Ryan Tannehill:
Although the Dolphins are off to an outstanding 2-0 start, their offensive line has struggled in both games. Through the first two weeks, Miami has surrendered nine sacks, which is the third-highest in the NFL. The Falcons need to throw aggressive looks to interrupt the Dolphins' offensive flow and cause havoc for Ryan Tannehill. Atlanta only has recorded two sacks in the first two weeks, however, the defensive front will look a little bit different against Miami. Jonathan Massaquoi will start opposite Osi Umenyiora in place of Kroy Biermann, who is out for the season.
Mike Nolan is well-known for disguising his schemes and confusing opposing quarterbacks. On Sunday, the Falcons must use this to their advantage and confuse a young quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. Last season, Atlanta thrived off creating opportunities by forcing turnovers on defense, and this could be a chance to disrupt the Dolphins on Sunday afternoon.
1. Mike Wallace vs Desmond Trufant:
On Sunday, Desmond Trufant will be up for a challenge as he'll face explosive receiver Mike Wallace on Sunday. Wallace is coming off a strong performance in Week 2 after a quiet outing opening weekend in Cleveland. Although Trufant possesses a lot of speed, Mike Wallace is a veteran receiver who can make big plays, especially on deep routes. Miami will target Wallace in multiple routes and of course will take deep shots on the rookie cornerback as well. If Trufant can limit Wallace from making an impact on Sunday's contest, it could be a huge win for the Falcons defense.
2. Charles Clay vs Falcons Linebackers:
Atlanta's linebacker core has been through many ups and downs when it comes to defending opposing tight ends and on Sunday, the Dolphins will try and get FB/TE Charles Clay involved. Last week, Charles Clay posted 5 receptions for 105 yards in Miami's 24-20 win, including a 67-yard reception. Atlanta can't forget about this versatile athlete in Miami's offense.
One thing the Falcons will have to pay attention to is, Miami likes to motion Clay and give him opportunities to expose mismatches in zone coverage, and Akeem Dent will be one of the main targets by Tannehill on Sunday. It's imperative that the Falcons linebacker corps does not allow Clay to impose his will on the defense, or it could be a long afternoon for Atlanta.
3. Tyson Clabo vs Jonathan Massaquoi and Jonathan Martin vs Osi Umenyiora:
With the injury of Kroy Biermann, Jonathan Massaquoi, the second year defensive end, will make his first career start against a former teammate in Tyson Clabo. Clabo, who was released by the Falcons during the offseason and signed with Miami, has struggled early, as he has surrendered three sacks in the first two weeks. Massaquoi must use his speed and edge rushing skills to create havoc on the Dolphins offensive line and pressure Ryan Tannehill.
Osi Umenyiora will face Jonathan Martin, who is struggling to prevent sacks by opponents as well. In Umenyiora, Martin will be facing an All-Pro defensive end who looks to have a big contest on Sunday afternoon. Miami's strategy will probably involve double teams on Umenyiora; however, if Massaquoi can step up to the challenge and apply pressure against the Dolphins, Atlanta's defensive line could have a big day.
4. Julio Jones and Atlanta's receiving corps vs Dolphins secondary:
Coming off a monster performance against St.Louis in which Jones posted 181 yards and a touchdown, the Falcons will look to attack an opportunistic Miami secondary on Sunday afternoon. For cornerbacks Brent Grimes,Dimitri Patterson, and Nolan Carroll, it's imperative that the Dolphins try and contain Matt Ryan. However, Ryan is one of the biggest mismatches around the NFL today, and it will show again against Miami.
Similar to the Rams secondary last week, Miami's secondary struggles against quick receivers, and with Roddy White still recovering from an injury, Harry Douglas could be in for a good afternoon. Douglas could expose the Dolphins' weakness against quick receivers and provide the Falcons with another valuable receiving option.
5. Tony Gonzalez vs Dolphins safeties/linebackers:
As I mentioned above, the 2013 Miami Dolphins have struggled to contain tight ends in the first two weeks of the 2013 season. Miami surrendered 108 yards and a red zone touchdown to Browns tight end Jordan Cameron in their 23-10 win in the season opener and 69 yards and another touchdown to Colts tight end Coby Fleener in their 24-20 win over the Colts last week.
Matt Ryan could have a favorable match-up as the Dolphins linebackers will face a huge test with the future Hall of Fame Tight End Tony Gonzalez. As the Falcons continue to get Roddy White back to full speed, Tony Gonzalez has a huge opportunity for a great afternoon, and I think he's going to play a huge part in the Falcons passing attack.
6. Cameron Wake vs Falcons offensive line:
Again, the Falcons are taking on yet another effective pass rusher in Wake, who's coming off an amazing 2012 season in which he led Miami with 15.0 sacks. Wake is also is the current sack leader on the Dolphins with 2.5 sacks so far in the 2013 season. Wake will match-up on both sides of the field against either Lamar Holmes or Sam Baker, and the Falcons' offensive line needs to keep Wake from having any impact in the backfield.
Atlanta's offensive line must find a way to double team this explosive defensive end, because Wake is a nightmare for any offensive tackle. Limiting the impact of Wake could prove to be an ultimate reason why the Falcons win on Sunday afternoon.
With the injuries that are affecting the Atlanta Falcons, and the hot start of the Miami Dolphins, many people expect Miami to do enough and win the game, however, the Falcons' offense is too good and explosive to allow this to happen. I expect both football teams to compete and play great football, but Atlanta will continue their winning streak. I'm also expecting a 100-yard game from Julio Jones. Tony Gonzalez will also have a great afternoon and will do enough for the Falcons to earn their first road victory on Sunday afternoon.
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