After the thrilling 37-34 win in overtime against their division rival, the New Orleans Saints, the Falcons are looking to continue their winning ways as they travel to Cincinnati to face A.J. Green and the tough Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday afternoon. Sunday will mark the Falcons' first trip to Cincinnati since 2006, when Atlanta won 29-27 against Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and the high-powered Bengals offense at the time. Eight years later, the Bengals have a similar offense with A.J. Green and Andy Dalton at the helm, however, the Bengals are a team known for their defense.
Similar to the Falcons, Cincinnati pulled out a late-game opening divisional win over the Baltimore Ravens with a score of 23-16 after a late A.J. Green touchdown sealed the victory. Atlanta's defense will need to rise to the occasion after earning no sacks and surrendering 34 points against the Saints. Andy Dalton isn't Drew Brees, but without any pressure from the Falcons on Sunday, this could be a long day in Ohio. Here are the keys to victory, match-ups to watch, and a final prediction.
KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Continue to Establish Balance on Offense
Yes, Matt Ryan had a tremendous outing against the New Orleans Saints defense, in which he posted a franchise record of 448 passing yards, 3 touchdown passes and a quarterback rating of 128.8 on the afternoon, which was pretty amazing for a opener, wouldn't you think? However, another big factor in the Falcons' win was the ability to balance the offense. On Sunday, the Falcons posted 123 yards on the ground, and we saw the Falcons utilize a running back by committee approach in the ground attack, which was unusual for Atlanta, yet pretty successful. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter must allow Steven Jackson, Devonta Freeman, Jacquizz Rodgers and fan favorite Antone Smith to all receive a balanced amount of carries and snaps, which will keep the backs fresh and will prevent the Bengals defense from understanding Atlanta's game plan. Establishing some yards on the ground will be so critical, especially facing a solid Cincinnati defensive line led by Geno Atkins.
In the win against New Orleans, Atlanta had 43 passing attempts and 25 rushing attempts, and for a pass-first offense like the Falcons have, that's pretty good. That will be a major test for the Bengals defense. Establishing a solid ground attack can open up opportunities yet again for the Falcons' receivers. One of the toughest things for the Bengals will be attempting to defend Atlanta's four-receiver set which consists of Roddy White, Julio Jones, Harry Douglas and Devin Hester. Atlanta's offense can score on some of the best defensive units in the league, but on Sunday, it's imperative to bring a balanced attack into the game. A one-dimensional approach give the opposing defense an advantage. Also, having a balanced offensive game plan gives Matt Ryan a better chance to flourish against a decent but aging secondary in Cincinnati.
2. Battle of the Lines
This could be the difference between a Falcons victory or loss on Sunday afternoon, especially on the offensive side of the football. Atlanta will enter the contest without the services of first round pick Jake Matthews, so Gabe Carimi and Lamar Holmes will need to bring their best efforts on Sunday and contain the Bengals' aggressive pass rush. To their credit, Atlanta's offensive line unit only surrendered one sack on Sunday against a Saints defense that recorded 49 sacks last season led by Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette. Jordan and Galette combined for zero sacks last Sunday, and that was a huge benefit because Matt Ryan was able to pick apart the New Orleans secondary due to the excellent job by his tackles. The battle of containing Geno Atkins will be another challenge for the Falcons offensive line. If Jon Asamoah, Joe Hawley, and Justin Blalock can hold their own against Cincinnati's aggressive defensive line, the Falcons could have a huge day on the road.
Defensively, the Falcons must find a way to generate some pressure against Andy Dalton. Last Sunday, the Falcons recorded zero sacks on Drew Brees despite getting a few pressures in the second half. Atlanta's rushing defense looked improved from last season and they were able to create some 3rd and long situations for the Saints, however, a lack of getting pressure on the quarterback gives the opponent a chance to convert first downs and extend drives. Mike Nolan must dial up a scheme to cause havoc for Andy Dalton and make the Bengals' home opener a stressful one. The Bengals boast one of the league's top offensive lines, however, they have a rookie center starting, and the Falcons should apply pressure up the middle. That could benefit Atlanta.
3. Contain A.J. Green and 3rd Down Defense Must Improve
This is one of the biggest tasks for Atlanta's defense heading into Sunday's game. A.J. Green is one of the league's top receivers, and the Falcons secondary will be need to be up for the challenge, similar to how the opposing defense will need to be ready to face Julio Jones, the other elite receiver from the 2011 NFL Draft. Sunday will be the first time Julio Jones and A.J. Green are facing each other. The Falcons will need to apply double coverage, perhaps with Desmond Trufant in coverage against Green, William Moore or Dwight Lowery assigned to assist Trufant, which could force the Bengals to try to get their offensive production from other members of the Bengals offense. Green will get his production because he's a very tough player to defend. Due to the injuries to Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, Andy Dalton will look to his top source of offense in order to have a successful game, so the Falcons defense must find a way to limit some of Green's impact on the game Sunday afternoon.
Cincinnati's lack of weapons could lead to Green and former first round pick Jermaine Gresham being the key targets for the Bengals in attempts to convert third downs in this contest. The Falcons defense has to find a way to stop long offensive drives for the Bengals. Last week, Atlanta's defense allowed 8 of New Orleans' 13 third down conversion attempts to be successful, and that's a recipe for a Falcons loss. Forcing the Bengals offense off the field will give Atlanta's offense more opportunities to score throughout the game. Last week, the Bengals were awful on third down conversion attempts, converting only 4 of their 14 attempts in the win versus the Ravens. The Falcons defense made some critical third down stops when it counted in the win against the Saints. However, the entire defense must improve their third down efficiency, whether by getting sacks or applying pressure to the quarterback to force incompletions or turnovers.
4. Stop the Young Running Backs:
Cincinnati will look to throw a balanced dose of rookie running back Jeremy Hill and second-year explosive back Giovanni Bernard at the Falcons defense. Last week, New Orleans posted 139 rushing yards with a combined group of Mark Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas each averaging at least four yards per carry. On Sunday, the Falcons defense must control Jeremy Hill, who is a physical runner, and with the Bengals offense missing two of their weapons in the passing attack, they will test Atlanta's defensive line with their rushing attack. If the Falcons can limit Cincinnati's production on the ground, it'll be a huge advantage against a Bengals team that's banged up offensively. Atlanta must also find a way to limit the explosive aspect to the Bengals rushing attack in Gio Bernard. Bernard is a speed back who can turn a small play into a 70-yard touchdown, and the Bengals could also utilize him in the passing attack.
Bernard brings the game-changing factor to the Bengals offense, so Atlanta's linebackers must be aware of that or the Bengals could bring out screen passes and any other tools they can use to ensure their running game is solid in their home opener. The Falcons will want to make Andy Dalton, who can make very questionable decisions at times, have to win the game against Atlanta.
1. Atlanta's receivers vs Bengals secondary
The Falcons receivers--Julio Jones, Roddy White, Harry Douglas, and Devin Hester--each posted at least 50 yards receiving in the victory over the Saints, which is amazing, and for opposing defensive units such as Cincinnati, could be scary. The Bengals secondary is decent, but they will have their hands full. Leon Hall is solid, but facing Julio Jones is a nightmare for any opposing secondary. Terrance Newman is average, and facing Roddy White is not the ideal match-up anyone would want for Newman. Cincinnati's best option is for their secondary to assure they play tight coverage and try to force Matt Ryan into turnovers.
2. Geno Atkins vs Joe Hawley
The Bengals' explosive defensive tackle is the heart and soul of their defense, and on Sunday, Hawley must limit Geno Atkins' impact for the Falcons offense to take flight in Cincinnati. Atkins is still recovering from his torn ACL injury that ended his 2013 season. Hawley's a physical and aggressive center, and with the assistance of Jon Asamoah and Justin Blalock, the Falcons offensive line should be ready to battle.
3. Giovani Bernard vs Falcons linebackers
As I mentioned earlier, Bernard brings the game-changing factor to the Bengals offense, so Atlanta's linebackers must be aware of that, because Bernard can make an impact on the ground and as a dynamic receiver out of the backfield, which is something Andy Dalton is surely hoping for. Joplo Bartu, Paul Worrilow, and Prince Shembo can't allow Bernard to have that impact, or the defense could very well enter yet another shoot-out.
The Bengals went 8-1 at home last season and they will be pumped up to play their home opener against a dynamic Atlanta Falcons offense and prove to the league that their defense can contain one of the best offenses in the league. I expect the Falcons to have a solid game on offense and hope to see Atlanta's defensive issues improve over the next few weeks. Atlanta and Cincinnati could hvae a close contest, but I could see the defense making a game-changing stand, allowing Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense to close out the game and give the Falcons a 2-0 record. Until next week, RISE UP and beat the Bengals!