When the Falcons and Texans square off tomorrow, Houston will be gunning for .500 and Atlanta will be hoping to wind up at 4-0. Let's take a closer look at how these two teams can achieve victory in the Georgia Dome, and what the likeliest course to a win looks like for both the Falcons and Texans.
It's the same plan that has been so successful for the Falcons the last couple of weeks, plus an additional wrinkle or two on the defensive side.
On offense, the Falcons are facing the best defensive line and arguably best pass rush they've seen this year, so it'll be a true test for this line. I don't anticipate Devonta Freeman popping off for 140 yards again, but they need to maintain a balanced offense to avoid getting into situations where J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are just teeing off on Matt Ryan. Mixing in the quick hitters that have been so successful for Ryan and feeding the immortal Julio Jones whilst moving him all over the field figures to work as well as it ever has, because the Texans don't have a truly great secondary. This is also the week to target Freeman in the passing game, given that he'll be up against the Texans' middling linebackers. Basically, Kyle Shanahan and his players just have to execute the same kind of gameplan that led to the team scoring 39 points a week ago, and they should be able to get enough points to make this a winnable game.
On defense, the Falcons don't have to face a Darren Sproles, Shane Vereen, or Lance Dunbar for the first time all year, which can only help. Containing Arian Foster will be critical if he plays, but the biggest trouble spot of all is probably DeAndre Hopkins, who figures to get plenty of face time with Robert Alford. Expect Ryan Mallett to feed Hopkins all game long until Alford makes him pay, so an early turnover from the opportunistic cornerback (or Ricardo Allen/Robenson Therezie, who figure to be involved in coverage) would make a huge difference. If the Texans don't have Foster, the Falcons just need to bottle up Alfred Blue on the ground and limit Hopkins, and Houston will be extremely unlikely to put a ton of points on the board.
It actually sounds simple on paper, especially at home, but the Texans do have a quality defensive front and Foster is a wild card. Let's hope they can execute.
Houston's path to victory is a little more complex. They haven't managed more than 20 points in a game thus far despite playing the Buccaneers a week ago, and the defense has been good but not great en route to a 1-2 record.
The offensive gameplan hangs on establishing the run. Joseph Randle had a ton of success against the Falcons in the first half a week ago, and regardless of whether Foster starts or Blue plays in his stead, you'll see a ton of carries for those guys. The Texans need balance and effective running on offense to keep things humming, so it would be disastrous for them if Atlanta's able to shut down the run early. Ryan Mallett needs quality protection to wind up on long throws, and he needs Hopkins to play well and Nate Washington to draw a little heat away from the Texans' top receiver. This is a limited offense piloted by a merely decent quarterback with a big arm, so the best-case scenario here is probably about four scores.
That means there's a ton of pressure on the Texans defense to limit Atlanta. In essence, their best shot to win this comes from mirroring Atlanta's defensive gameplan: Shut down the run, bottle up the team's top receiver, and make someone else beat you. The Falcons have more weapons and can likely survive a quieter game from Julio Jones, but it'll be an uphill slog, and time in the pocket reading the defense is time for the Texans' defensive line to feast on Matt Ryan. If the pass rush gets home and forces Ryan into mistakes, it will generate scoring opportunities and favorable field position for Houston, and that would be not so great for Atlanta.
In essence, this game will hinge on whether the Texans' defense can slow down the Falcons' offense and the Houston offense can deliver its best game yet. I wouldn't be on that outcome, but the Texans probably won't be a pushover, either way.