The three game stretch of games against NFC East opponents ends this week for the Atlanta Falcons. They travel to Dallas in a battle of unbeaten teams. Similar to 2012 against the AFC West, the Falcons have started the season against three teams in the same division, and they can start the season 3-0 as they did in that year. While Dallas will be without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, they still possess an outstanding offensive line and over-achieving defense.
Some analysts have labeled this as a trap game, while others have labeled Atlanta as the most fortunate 2-0 team in the league. They won't be able to silence critics either way, due to the circumstances surrounding Dallas. It would still be impressive for them to stop the Cowboys' rushing attack, along with producing some semblance of a productive running game. Here are the key components to watch for on Sunday.
Defensive line faces a rigorous test against an elite offensive line
Although we've only witnessed two games, fans haven't overlooked that Atlanta is currently ranked ninth in run defense. Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson appear to be revitalized in Dan Quinn's scheme, and while both players offer nothing as pass rushers, they were stellar against the run last Sunday. O'Brien Schofield has been a pleasant surprise setting the edge, and after being viewed as a situational edge rusher, Schofield has proven to be more versatile than advertised. With Dallas featuring an offensive line comprising three Pro Bowlers, it's hard to place heavty expectations on the pass rush. It will be the run defense that needs to continue their promising start here.
That's because the Falcons need to force Brandon Weeden into third-and-long situations. Dallas has issues at left guard with Mackenzy Bernadeau, who has been a complete liability so far. Incumbent starter Ronald Leary is currently dealing with a groin injury. That may be a spot for Adrian Clayborn and Ra'Shede Hageman to exploit in a favorable matchup. Both players have shown flashes this year, although Clayborn's tendency to over pursue can make him a liability against the run. Besides the possibilities afforded by Schofield and Kroy Biermann going up against Doug Free, it's hard to see Atlanta generating a pass rush against their stiffest test this season. If they can stop the run and force the game into Weeden's hands, they have met expectations for this particular game. They haven't been a good run stopping unit since Brian Van Gorder was at the helm in 2011.
Devonta Freeman carrying the load
After showing solid offensive balance in the first game, it became apparent that Atlanta had to become more pass-heavy against the Giants. Tevin Coleman's rib injury was a major problem, along with a ten-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Kyle Shanahan will search for balance without Coleman's services. Devonta Freeman isn't an ideal choice to carry the load, but they have no other option, because Terron Ward didn't show anything in preseason to suggest that he can be productive against first-string defenses.
Freeman has only averaged two yards per carry this season, which has fans concerned about his overall ability. Run blocking has been fairly mediocre so far with Andy Levtire standing out as the weak link. A lack of top-level burst seems to be Freeman's hindrance compared to Coleman, who has blistering speed that propels him into making something out of nothing. Freeman has excellent vision and runs in a violent manner for a five foot eight running back. Shanahan seems fixated on running stretch plays with him. Those play-calls have been mostly unsuccessful so far this season. If he can continue to excel on short yardage situations and contribute as a receiver, the former Seminole will remain as a key contributor. He will need to be somewhat productive to open up play-action against Rod Marinelli's disciplined defense.
Linebackers handling their responsibilities in coverage
With Dez Bryant injured, Dallas will clearly be more conservative offensively. They have utilized their running backs in the passing game extensively. In their comeback win over the Giants, Lance Dunbar had eight catches for 70 yards. On the final drive, Dunbar had two catches for 40 yards and took advantage of the below-average Giants' linebacker core. The middle of the field couldn't have been more wide open. While Justin Durant and Paul Worrilow have proven to be a decent pairing so far, they will need to step up against a quietly underrated Cowboys' running back rotation.
Everyone knows Brandon Weeden won't be taking many shots downfield. With Jason Witten suffering from multiple injuries, Dunbar and Cole Beasley will likely be his top receiving options. Both players excel from out-routes and curls. Durant's range and familiarity with Dallas should benefit him. Worrilow struggled last week, although a calf injury may have hampered him. His missed open-field tackle on Shane Vereen prompted a 37-yard catch on third down. Philadelphia's second half comeback came from mostly underneath passes in the open field. Both linebackers will need to close down all check-down passes and complete their tackles. Beasley and Dunbar constantly make tacklers miss, which doesn't bode well for a defense that continues to struggle wrapping up (16 missed tackles in two games). Durant and Worrilow have combined for eight missed tackles. With Weeden's lack of range, the linebackers could be tested frequently on passing plays.
Challenging Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne
In surprising fashion, Dallas has held up defensively so far. Orlando Scandrick's season ending injury caused major concern about Dallas' secondary. Despite drafting promising cornerback Byron Jones, it's hard to fully trust a rookie cornerback in a starting capacity. That has left the underachieving duo of Carr and Claiborne as their starting cornerbacks. Both player have played fairly well so far. They haven't been on the receiving end of any highlight reel catches or constantly being flagged for penalties. It can't be discounted that competition has been favorable for them so far based on Philadelphia's struggles and New York's lack of receiving options.
Opposing quarterbacks produced a 116.6 quarterback rating when throwing in Carr's direction last year, and he was continuously beaten by number one receivers. Claiborne has been repeatedly benched throughout his career, even and even if he's having a better year, cever route-runners have given him fits over the past two seasons. Although they limited Odell Beckham, Matt Ryan will get the ball into Julio Jones' hands through a variety of ways. The lack of cornerback depth should open up opportunities for Roddy White and Leonard Hankerson. As well as Rod Marinelli's defense has done so far; Atlanta's aerial attack is a significant upgrade and will likely challenge their cornerbacks throughout the game. Coleman's injury should make Atlanta slightly more pass-oriented.
Offensive line's continued progression
Before facing vicious front sevens in Houston and Washington, Atlanta's offensive line has a favorable matchup against Dallas. With Randy Gregory injured and Greg Hardy suspended, pass protection shouldn't be an issue. Their development within the zone-blocking scheme will be essential on Sunday, though. Tyrone Crawford has earned a long-term extension based on being one of the better interior pass-rushers in the league. Despite being an underwhelming pass rusher, Jeremy Mincey is stout against the run on the edge.
The return of Sean Lee has clearly been a monumental upgrade. His conversion towards playing at weak-side linebacker has been impressive through two games. Lee has been flying to the ball against the run and showed incredible awareness intercepting a Sam Bradford pass in the end zone. Chris Chester and Mike Person were effective getting to the second level last Sunday. This will be a great challenge for both teams in proving their legitimacy within a wide-open NFC conference. Besides Levitre, Atlanta's offensive line has been a pleasant surprise. The next step will be opening bigger holes in the run game, particularly on designed stretch plays. Containing Crawford and Lee will be crucial towards opening holes to keep Dallas' swarming defense from dictating the pace.