After two long weeks, the Atlanta Falcons return to the Georgia Dome, where they will finally face an opponent outside of the NFC East. The underachieving Houston Texans will be looking to ignite a spark in their underwhelming season. With the possibility of Arian Foster and Duane Brown playing, Houston should pose a formidable threat, because both players have to be ranked in the top ten at their respective positions.
Atlanta is still searching for a complete four quarter performance. Dan Quinn's motto of being a finishing team has been verified through three games, but the defense will still need to meet Quinn's "fast and physical" mantra following last week's horrendous first half display. Houston will likely be one of the more demanding challenges on an extremely favorable schedule.
Here are the key components to watch for on Sunday.
Containing a near unstoppable force and rising star
There have been many surprises throughout Atlanta's successful stretch against NFC East teams. No surprise has been greater than a makeshift offensive line looking cohesive. It was only one month ago that Mike Person and Ryan Schraeder were manhandled by the Dolphins' heavily touted defensive line, and James Stone was bullied into demotion by Earl Mitchell. Andy Levitre wasn't the most convincing upgrade at left guard based on his porous play in Tennessee.
Through three games, they've managed to allow only 13 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, though the competition has been favorable against Dallas and New York. Houston will present their most difficult challenge of the season, because J.J Watt is the most terrifying defensive player in the league. His excellence is well-documented through his adept handling of double teams on a weekly basis.
Jadeveon Clowney has shown flashes in three games, particularly against the run. Vince Wilfork is clearly declining, although his presence will always have to be accounted for on first and second down. Kyle Shanahan's game plan can always help alleviate pressure through three-step drops and continuously trying to run the ball. It will be essential for Atlanta to not play from behind, because as well as Chris Chester and Schreader have played this season, it's not a going ot be fun to block Watt for 40 to 45 pass plays.
Paul Worrilow bouncing back
After showing signs of improvement in pre-season, Paul Worrilow has looked like the same overwhelmed player from last season. The third-year middle linebacker still can't get off blocks consistently, and has an issue with endlessly taking poor angles. He accounted for three missed tackles last Sunday that included two big plays from Joseph Randle. Worrilow didn't fare much better in coverage, as he was always a step behind or simply lost his assignment. On Brandon Weeden's lone interception, he completely lost Jason Witten on a crossing route. A better quarterback makes him pay for that miscue. Weeden ended up catching Worrilow over-pursuing not too long afterwards on a completion to Witten.
Nothing has been reported about his calf injury suffered against the Giants being a severe issue, and luckily for Worrilow, Houston doesn't possess a dynamic pass-catching running back. Darren Sproles, Shane Vereen, and Lance Dunbar will provide plenty of mismatches against opposing linebackers. Worrilow needs to play much better in run support through taking better angles and shedding blocks more frequently. Dallas targeted him repeatedly last week. With Nate Stupar playing well in limited snaps and Brooks Reed close to returning, Worrilow will need to make an impact soon to ensure he remains a three-down linebacker.
Matt Ryan's first half performance
It has been a strange two weeks for Ryan. He has been fairly mediocre during the first half of each road game. From near interceptions to under-thrown passes, it was a disappointing display against two vulnerable defenses. That changed instantly in the second half, as Ryan looked comfortable in the pocket and made several big throws on third down to sustain long drives. Ryan has completed seven of eight passes for 213 yards on twenty-yard pass attempts on third down, according to Pro Football Focus.
As mentioned above, this is a much different matchup compared to New York and Dallas. No team wants to play from behind against Houston's ferocious defensive line, and Ryan can't be forced into attempting 40 to 45 passes against Watt and company. A fast start will be essential for this offense to remain balanced and unpredictable. Dan Quinn's theme has been focused around finishing strong. It would be wise to also implement an old Mike Smith motto by"starting fast". Ryan needs to start playing at a high level in the first half, which we haven't seen this season.
Tackling has to be refined
While this weekly feature is meant to focus on specific positions and players, this topic can't be ignored following last week's display of dreadful tackling. Quinn recorded eleven missed tackles against Dallas, which included nine missed tackles in the first half. Ricardo Allen led the way with three missed tackles. Randle's first touchdown run occurred after he shed multiple tackle attempts from Justin Durant, Worrilow, and Allen. Amateur open-field tackling enraged Quinn on the sidelines, and that rage was televised during the final two minutes of the first half.
The Falcons settled down in the second half, tackling low and not taking poor angles. Durant stood out by making several open-field stops on Randle and Dunbar. Those third down stops (Dallas went one for six) played a pivotal role in shutting out Dallas in the second half. According to Pro Football Focus (premium stats), Atlanta has missed 23 tackles in three games, and that is an unacceptable amount for a team that stressed tackling on a weekly basis through training camp. With Foster possibly returning on Sunday, the entire defense will need to be disciplined, wrap up, and tackle low to bring down the workhorse back.
Roddy White becoming more involved
Criticism over the four-time Pro Bowler's play has been overblown. After watching the All-22 of last Sunday's game, White was open on more than a few occasions. Ryan could have thrown to him on multiple crossing pattern routes. On both touchdown passes, White was open. Any quarterback is going to feed their most explosive weapon at any presentable opportunity, Jones has been unstoppable, and he deserves to be targeted heavily.
Defenses will start structuring their game-plan around containing Jones at all costs, although that is obviously easier said than done. Eventually, White is going to receive his fair share of targets. Ryan has spoken publicly about getting him more involved. Despite the "shocking" news that Leonard Hankerson has moved up in the depth chart, three wide receiver sets are going to be heavily used on a weekly basis. Houston has a solid cornerback trio in Kareem Jackson, Jonathan Joseph, and rookie Kevin Johnson. This should be an excellent opportunity for White to crush those milk cartons, and his outstanding blocking shouldn't go unnoticed either.