It has been nearly a month since the Falcons played in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. A largely forgettable three-game road trip is finally over for Dan Quinn’s squad. They return home to face the surging Cowboys. This is a huge matchup, as both teams have fallen behind in their respective divisions. This game could play a significant role in determining tie-breakers.
Some can argue that playoff scenarios shouldn’t apply to the Falcons. They need to stop finding ways to lose in ridiculous manners. A combination of reckless penalties, dropped passes, and fading away in the second half puts them in a difficult position. The upcoming five game slate features Dallas, Seattle, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and New Orleans. That is a grueling stretch of contenders (and the Bucs). Sunday is going to be a barn-burner. Can they somehow muster a victory?
Facing the near unstoppable monster
When it comes to reliable greatness, the Cowboys’ ground game is right up there with Tom Brady. Shutting them down is practically impossible. Defenses can hope to only contain them by winning on first down. With support from their offense, it’s essential to play with a lead against Dallas. Allowing them to get ahead and implement their game plan usually leads to destruction. Not many defenses can go blow for blow with their dominant offensive line. The star-studded trio of Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zach Martin continue to play at an unbelievable level. Jonathan Cooper has done well replacing Ronald Leary. Nothing has drastically changed in their overall performance level.
The spotlight will be on Dontari Poe. These are the kind of games, where the front office envisioned him being a difference maker. It has been an inconsistent first season in Atlanta for Poe. The coaching staff has used him more than most anticipated. Poe is a decent pass rusher, but it’s surprising to see him heavily used in their nickel package. It’s fair to wonder if he is playing too many snaps. Adding Ahtyba Rubin should provide some support. Poe does tend to wear down in games, as he hasn’t been handling double teams as well as you would expect from a two-time Pro Bowler.
Ezekiel Elliott will finally serve his six game suspension, which leaves Dallas figuring out how to incorporate all three of their running backs. Alfred Morris should receive the bulk of the carries. Although he is limited, Morris has always been perennially underrated as a pure runner. The Falcons are prone to struggling against physical running backs that know how to get yards after contact. Rod Smith has garnered some buzz for his explosiveness. After being mostly used on special teams, Dallas will likely use him as the primary back on passing downs. Darren McFadden poses the least threat, as the one-dimensional running back has been a healthy scratch all season.
Another element to their running game comes from using read option. Dak Prescott is so effective at making defenses look silly when utilizing it. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan loves using it in the red zone. Prescott has already scored four rushing touchdowns off read option in his young career. After seeing how much the Falcons struggled against Mike Shula’s option designs, this is a notable concern. Carolina’s offense is a bit more complex based on what Christian McCaffrey offers as a player. They are also willing to give Cam Newton more flexibility compared to Prescott. Dallas still does an excellent job keeping defenses on their toes. Mixing in run-pass options has done wonders for Prescott. Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell must stay disciplined on these plays, along with everything else that is thrown at them.
Getting the running game back on track
There haven’t been many open running lanes over the past two weeks. It has left Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman evading defenders at the line of scrimmage. If you eliminate Coleman’s 52-yard run against the Jets, they combined for 71 yards on 26 carries. The dynamic running back duo only gained 51 yards on 16 carries against Carolina. With Steve Sarkisian’s persistence on staying committed to the run, they need to rediscover their form. Dallas’ undersized front seven should provide the right matchup for them.
While the play calling continues to be an issue, the players up front haven’t necessarily played well. Alex Mack missed several blocks against Carolina. In a big divisional matchup, you would expect the best players to rise to the occasion. Mack whiffed on multiple occasions against Luke Kuechly and struggled when isolated versus Star Lotulelei. If the running game is going to be efficient again, it starts with Mack creating movement inside and making those crucial second level blocks.
There are other players not handling their assignments. Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo were major assets in the running game last year. They made several gap-opening blocks to elevate Freeman and Coleman. That hasn’t been the case this season. Both players were responsible at times for the Falcons’ short-yardage failures. It takes a collaborative effort for a running game to completely flourish. Without Patrick DiMarco and Sarkisian not valuing the full back position, that puts added pressure on them to make their blocks. Sarkisian did use a three-tight end set on four plays last week. Utilizing Eric Saubert could help bolster the offense.
This game is likely going to be a shootout. Time of possession will be more valuable than ever. With the defense struggling to get off the field, the running game must take charge. How they respond from last week’s short-yardage woes will be interesting. Mike Conti posted an incredible stat about the Falcons averaging 0.1 yards per attempt on nine plays, where they only needed to gain two yards or fewer to secure a first down. That’s how embarrassing their execution and play-calling was against Carolina. Sarkisian only used Derrick Coleman in four of those nine short-yardage situations. With a likely bigger emphasis on short-yardage plays in preparation for this game, he could opt to use the full back more often.
Right side collision course
The outstanding matchup between Ryan Schraeder and DeMarcus Lawrence was going to be the main discussion. Similar to Vic Beasley last season, Lawrence has transformed into the NFL’s breakout defensive star. He was a one-man wrecking crew during the early part of the season. No edge rusher has been more consistent. Kansas City was the first team to prevent Lawrence from recording a sack last week. That didn’t stop Dallas from causing havoc. The entire pass rush has emerged during their three-game winning streak.
As Lawrence morphs into one of the league’s most terrifying edge rushers, David Irving’s emergence gives Dallas another talented weapon. The massive defensive lineman has produced a sack in four appearances this season. His long arms and violent hand usage gives opposing guards fits. Rod Marinelli has started to use Lawrence and Irving on the same side. It didn’t take long for them to find their rhythm on stunts. This isn’t about Schraeder and Lawrence anymore. Wes Schweitzer will have his hands full against Irving. The first-year starter’s lack of strength continues to become more evident on film. It will on both players to provide enough protection. If they hold up, Matt Ryan should find plenty of success against an inexperienced secondary.
Despite only allowing 21.5 points per game, the Falcons’ defense hasn’t taken the necessary steps in their development. Not forcing enough turnovers has been a major talking point. Quinn continues to be vocal about their poor turnover margin. Nobody knows what to expect from the run defense and pass rush on a weekly basis. What has been consistent about this group is their inability to get off the field. Robert Mays posted an alarming stat about their struggles. No defense is allowing more plays per drive than the Falcons.
It doesn’t fall solely on not getting third down stops. They are right at the league average in that category. The issue stems from allowing these lengthy drives, particularly in the third quarter. Buffalo orchestrated a ridiculous 19 play drive that took over 11 minutes. That is practically an entire quarter. Miami produced a near nine-minute, 15 play drive. Their shortcomings continued against New England by allowing 10 and 13 play drives. Carolina had multiple drives over five minutes in the third quarter last week. Each of these drives occurred in the second half, as all four games ended in defeats. It has become a problematic trend. A struggling offense needs as many opportunities as possible. The defense isn’t providing much support at the moment. Things need to change, which starts by stopping teams from manufacturing long drives.