Every week, we take a closer look at how each team involved in the Falcons' matchup can find victory. This week, with a 5-0 start to the season at stake, we'll examine how Atlanta can stay undefeated, and how Washington can steal this one away in the Georgia Dome.
Atlanta's path to victory is an extremely familiar one, because it's the blueprint the team has used all year long to win.
On offense, it's a balanced, aggressive attack featuring heavy doses of Julio Jones and Leonard Hankerson in the passing game, a strong effort on the ground from Devonta Freeman (and perhaps Tevin Coleman, this week), and continued effective blocking up front. It's a simple enough gameplan, but it's one that's very difficult to stop when everything is clicking, and everything is clicking like a cricket chorus right now.
On defense, the Falcons face the familiar challenge of stopping a strong ground game featuring a dynamic pass catching back. Chris Thompson doesn't have a ton of receptions thus far in 2015, but he's exactly the kind of back the Falcons struggled with during the first three weeks of the season, and Matt Jones and Alfred Morris are both tough runners. Ideally, Atlanta wants to take away Thompson as a weapon and force Kirk Cousins into a pass-heavy game to his receivers, where Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford can become legitimate factors. Cousins has been a fine quarterback this year, but he remains somewhat turnover prone, and it'll only take one or two to put the Falcons in control of the football game.
The team with the worst nickname in pro sports is 1-14 in its last 15 road games, features vanilla Jon Gruden doppelganger and family member Jay Gruden as its head coach, and comes into the week at .500. There's plenty of paths to victory, here, but they ain't easy ones.
It starts with avoiding mistakes. Matt Jones is a gifted young running back who has had a couple of unfortunate fumbles. Kirk Cousins is a pretty accurate quarterback who has clearly grown, but has also chucked four interceptions in four weeks. Given that we know the Falcons' offense is good enough to pile on the points and Washington's offense can't necessarily match that pace, their margin for error is pretty thin.
Once you've got that out of the way, offensively the Redskins need to use Chris Thompson, Jones, and Alfred Morris effectively. The Falcons have been a fairly difficult team to run on thus far, but as Dallas showed us, it's certainly possible to get the ground game going, and it does wonders for the offense. Washington is arguably the toughest running team Atlanta has yet seen. Thompson is a shifty back who has 11 catches for 91 yards and a touchdown on the season, and as we noted above, he's the kind of player Atlanta has struggled to contain. Washington should definitely attempt to exploit that, and give them the chance to try out a couple of deep bombs if they can get favorable matchups in coverage.
Defensively, they have to stifle Devonta Freeman and get to Matt Ryan. They'll obviously put considerable resources toward stopping Julio Jones, as they should, but forcing the Falcons to go one-dimensional and taking away Ryan's most dynamic receiving option is still the most obvious way to slow Atlanta's offense down. Leonard Hankerson and/or Roddy White may well step up in that scenario, but if players like Ryan Kerrigan can punch through the Falcons' suddenly formidable line, they can disrupt the passing game's timing, potentially put Ryan in a funk, and perhaps force one or two of those ugly interceptions the Falcons' quarterback is occasionally prone to. Again, there's not a ton of room for error here because the Falcons have so many weapons and Jones is so hard to get a handle on, but the path is there.
The bottom line is that Washington needs to play really well to be able to beat Atlanta, which is a fun thing to type. If it sounds like I'm taking them lightly, I'm not, but short of a stinker from the Falcons, this one won't be easy for Washington.