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Falcons vs. Cardinals: What to watch for on Sunday

A list of the most significant things to watch for on Sunday. Superstars facing each other on the outside, Tevin Coleman, and the pass rush are highlighted.

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Although they are coming off a bye week, the Atlanta Falcons are facing their second consecutive desperate opponent. Philadelphia badly needed a win following the NFC East’s ascendance into being one of the best divisions in football. Arizona faces a similar circumstance, as Seattle has taken over the NFC West, but facing one of the most potent offenses isn’t ideal for the Cardinals’ chances.

There is still plenty of pressure on the Falcons. With Carolina and Tampa Bay winning last week, Dan Quinn’s team needs to get back on track. They’ve only gone 2-3 since winning four games in a row, and all of their losses have been by single digits. It should be comforting that the Falcons play four of their last six games at home. Can they finish off a team who had Super Bowl aspirations one month ago? Here are five things to watch for on Sunday.

Superstars Collide

Julio Jones has faced a plethora of top-tier cornerbacks this season. Richard Sherman was viewed as the most anticipated matchup, given his ability and persona. While Sherman is an outstanding player, Patrick Peterson is the best cornerback in the league. The stellar cornerback doesn’t commit as many penalties as Sherman, at least when the officiating crew is competent. Peterson has excellent footwork, fluid hips, and blazing closing speed. He isn’t as grabby as Sherman either. That bodes well against a massive wide receiver like Jones.

Nobody will ever forget Jones annihilating Peterson in 2014. It can’t be discounted that Peterson was suffering from Type 2 diabetes during that season. By gaining fifteen pounds, he was slowed, sluggish, and on the receiving end of several big plays. Peterson is back to his elite form and shadowing the opposing number one wide receiver on a weekly basis. Will defensive coordinator James Bettcher allow Peterson to play press coverage without any safety help, if Jones has a repeat performance?

Former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles failed to make any adjustments during their previous matchup. With Tyrann Mathieu possibly returning this week, they could use him to provide support. Jones is essentially unstoppable, which makes this matchup so compelling. After not following wide receivers into the slot, Peterson tracked Stefon Diggs everywhere last week. Kyle Shanahan has started using Jones more often in the slot. Expect both players to see each other on practically every snap.

Containing David Johnson

Shutting down a stud running back isn’t plausible for this defense. The more realistic option is making the Cardinals’ offense one-dimensional. Bruce Arians tends to lean on his passing game far too often. They can get away from running the ball, especially when facing a two-score deficit. David Johnson is clearly Arizona’s biggest threat. With the Falcons featuring an undersized front seven, it’s highly unlikely that Johnson will be slowed down. Taking an early lead and forcing Palmer into making silly decisions could cause Arians to potentially abandon the run.

It will also be essential to contain Johnson in the passing game. He is very active with his underrated route-running and catching ability. Behind a decimated offensive line, Arians may call more screens to keep Palmer upright. Johnson is the complete package with his patience, vision, and jump cutting ability. Besides Le’Veon Bell, there isn’t a more dynamic running back in the league. He is going to pick up yards and make players miss in the open field. Keeping him out of the end zone and not allowing him to find much space is crucial for this defense.

Pass rush faces favorable matchup

The NFC West is notorious for having below average offensive lines. With Jared Veldheer and Evan Mathis suffering season ending injuries, a once formidable offensive line has become fragile. According to Pro Football Focus, Palmer was under pressure on 63 percent of his dropbacks against Minnesota. Mike Zimmer’s heavy dosage of blitzes certainly played a role in their success. Quinn has shown more willingness to blitz, as they found some success against Carson Wentz. They should be able to rely on their front four for this particular matchup.

Dwight Freeney will be playing against his old team. The all-time great pass rusher told me two weeks ago that he is nearing 100 percent. A healthy Freeney should give backup left tackle John Wetzel fits. With D.J. Humphries struggling in pass protection, Vic Beasley should continue his successful season. The second-year pass rusher has recently been bull rushing more frequently than usual. He should look to mix it up against Humphries, who is susceptible to getting beat by speed rushers. Freeney, Beasley, and Adrian Clayborn have emerged as a dangerous trio. Due to Freeney’s recent quad injury, they haven’t played much as a unit in recent weeks. Look for one of them to make a game-changing play against a turnover-prone quarterback like Palmer.

Tevin Coleman’s return

When evaluating Atlanta’s schedule, realize they’ve faced Denver, Seattle, and Philadelphia, which are three top-tier defenses. Ignore the Seattle game, as both running backs were nullified. Tevin Coleman was the ultimate difference maker in breaking down Denver’s stout defense. With Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, and Bradley Roby locking up Atlanta’s wide receivers, the dynamic running back carried the passing game. Coleman roasted Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis for big plays. It was a major statement performance that made defensive coordinators recognize Coleman as a multi-dimensional game changer.

Coleman’s emergence allowed Ryan to get the ball out quickly against a vaunted Denver pass rush. That wasn’t the case against Philadelphia, as the MVP candidate was under duress on several occasions. Terron Ward’s drop on this play made Coleman’s absence more noticeable. There is no denying that Shanahan abandoned the run against Philadelphia. With Coleman returning, he should continue implementing a balanced gameplan.

The second-year running back adds a diverse explosive element to an already dangerous offense. As Aqib Talib mentioned in his own phrasing last month, Coleman is a unique weapon based on his absurd speed. Arizona’s defense is still one of the top units in the league. With Chandler Jones and Calais Campbell leading the front four, Ryan will be forced into making quicker decisions. Coleman should receive plenty of action to get the Falcons’ offense back on track.

Forcing interceptions

On previous episodes, the "Around The NFL" podcast spoke about the Falcons reaching their full potential. They made a few comparisons to the 2009 New Orleans Saints’ championship team, which featured a phenomenal offense and opportunistic defense. Gregg Rosenthal made a great point about the Falcons defense needing to emulate New Orleans’ defense by forcing turnovers, despite not having the personnel to shut down opposing offenses. That hasn’t transpired, as the defense has only intercepted six passes. They’ve managed to force 12 fumbles, yet have only recovered five of them.

Derek Carr, Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Philip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers don’t throw many questionable passes. Facing countless top ten quarterbacks have played a role in the low stat total. That should change with the next four opposing quarterbacks being either below average or turnover prone. Palmer is known for pressing and taking chances downfield. Whether the system is an issue or the aging quarterback is on a steep decline, they have shown too much confidence in their underachieving wide receiving corps excluding Larry Fitzgerald.

Palmer will give any defense opportunities to make plays on the ball. Desmond Trufant is expected to return this week. That should boost their chances to intercept an inevitable errant pass by Palmer. Deion Jones was the last player to intercept a pass in Week Seven. At some point, this disappointing streak needs to end.