Although it won't take place on primetime, the Atlanta Falcons are playing in the most anticipated game of the week. Following multiple offensive explosions, this revitalized offense is going to face their toughest task of the season. The Denver Broncos' defense has held all four opponents under 20 points and 200 passing yards this season. With a star-studded cornerback trio and the most feared pass rusher in the league, they've wrecked opposing offenses.
It's rare for the Falcons to take part in the best game of the week. After three disappointing seasons, Dan Quinn's team is on the verge of something special. The upcoming West Coast trip could establish them as a true contender in the NFC. Anything is possible with a number-one ranked offense. Here are five things to watch for on Sunday.
When selecting five featured topics, it usually pertains to particular players or matchups. This is a rare occasion when two complete units are being emphasized.
The Falcons' offense is currently ranked first in almost every major category. All of their off-season additions have helped them transform into a fearsome balanced attack. Denver remains as the best defense in the league. They allow the fewest yards per play and lead the NFL in sacks. Despite missing DeMarcus Ware for the past two weeks, Von Miller and company are still generating pressure on a consistent basis.
It should be a fascinating matchup, given Atlanta's recent success and Denver continuing their dominance from last season. What makes this matchup even more compelling is the coordinator battle. Kyle Shanahan is starting to regain his status as one of the top offensive masterminds. Wade Phillips constantly gets the best out of his defenses. He knows how to blend blitz designs and coverage disguises. Shanahan will need to be cautious calling bootlegs, as Denver's defense possesses a plethora of athletically gifted edge rushers and linebackers. While everyone will be glued onto what transpires on the field, the chess match between both coordinators should play a significant role.
Robert Alford faces daunting task
Don't allow the box score to fool you. Robert Alford is coming off his worst game of the season. The inconsistent cornerback was called for two pass interferences, along with allowing a 48-yard completion to Devin Funchess. When I was watching him concede those big plays, it was concerning to see him a step behind or not reacting quickly enough against a massive wide receiver, who doesn't beat opposing cornerbacks very often. Losing concentration tends to be a reoccurring issue for Alford. He commits unnecessary penalties far too often. These setbacks prevent him from ascending into a top-tier cornerback.
Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders present matchup problems for any cornerback tandem. Based on watching Desmond Trufant shut down Brandin Cooks and Kelvin Benjamin over the past two weeks, he shouldn't be overwhelmed. It's highly unlikely that he'll shadow either receiver, given their playmaking ability. Alford will need to cope with Sanders' crisp route running and Thomas' size. Covering the former Georgia Tech standout may be more difficult, as bigger wide receivers tend to give Alford more trouble. Thomas knows how to use his frame and initiate contract to draw penalties.
There aren't too many secrets about Denver's offense. They will primarily focus on their two star wide receivers. It wouldn't be surprising to see Alford targeted six to eight times in this game.
Leaning on the running game
Identifying a flaw on Denver's defense is nearly impossible. Only one stat makes them partially vulnerable. They are currently ranked 22nd against the run. After losing Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan in free agency, a small decline was expected. Jeremy Hill found success against them recently, and Sylvester Williams and Jared Crick are being pushed around at the line of scrimmage. Todd Davis isn't on the same level as Trevathan, especially when it comes to handling coverage responsibilities.
Establishing the run is going to be crucial for the Falcons. With Tevin Coleman's sickle cell trait issue, Devonta Freeman may have to carry the load. He vastly outplayed Coleman last week against a stout Panthers' front seven. To avoid third-and-long situations, they will need to run the ball effectively. The offensive line continues to excel as a unit. Alex Mack has been a difference maker in Shanahan's zone blocking scheme. From making key second level blocks to taking defensive tackles like Star Lotulelei seven yards downfield, the Pro Bowl center is easily the best free agent signing for Atlanta since Michael Turner.
Ryan Schraeder vs. Von Miller
When Pro Football Focus rated Ryan Schraeder as the best right tackle in the league, it wasn't completely accepted. The undrafted free agent has developed into one of Atlanta's unsung heroes. He wasn't tested against great competition last season, which may have left some questions. That hasn't been the case this season. Schraeder was terrific against Khalil Mack and Cameron Jordan. After being known as a strong pass blocker, Schraeder is making excellent blocks in the running game on a consistent basis.
There isn't a more terrifying edge rusher than Miller. Attempting to block him one-on-one doesn't usually end well. Sean Payton used his tight ends to chip Dwight Freeney and Vic Beasley in their matchup. It would be wise to follow a similar game plan. Levine Toilolo had one of his better games as a blocker last week, while Austin Hooper is becoming useful as well. As good as Schraeder is, no offensive tackle can solely contain Miller. His explosive first-step and bull rush crumbles opposing tackles. Chipping him at the line of scrimmage would be the best possible solution. Shanahan should call more running plays, when Denver's defense lines up in their nickel package. Schraeder can get his hands on Miller much easier. That will allow him to gain leverage and overpower the defensive player of the year favorite.
Unsettling linebacker situation
After receiving decent play from their linebacker unit, the coaching staff faces a major dilemma. Deion Jones and DeVondre Campbell haven't practiced this week. A.J Hawk was recently signed to replace Sean Weatherspoon. It's difficult to rely on a 3-4 inside linebacker to replace an athletic (albeit declining) weak side linebacker. Hawk was always considered a liability in coverage. With Phillip Wheeler and him as veterans for a young linebacker group, the Falcons don't have much depth or range at their disposal. LaRoy Reynolds showed flashes against Carolina, but isn't known for his abilities as a three-down linebacker.
Denver's offensive line has made drastic improvements following last year. According to Pro Football Focus, they are rated as the sixth best offensive line in the league. Russell Okung and Donald Stephenson have been massive upgrades at both tackle positions. Center Matt Paradis is becoming their enforcer in the running game, which sputtered last season. With a physical downhill running back like C.J. Anderson, Atlanta's front seven will have their hands full. They've struggled against draws and stretch plays this season. Without two of their promising linebackers, an already below-average defense is going to struggle to get off the field.