The Falcons have a difficult task ahead of them on Sunday afternoon. Finally, after three brutal weeks, Atlanta gets to return home. But they’re now 4-4 and two games behind the Panthers and Saints, with a match-up against a red-hot Cowboys team on the docket.
Lose and you’re potentially even further down in the division with a head-to-head loss to one of the other potential NFC Wild Card contenders. Win and you’re back above .500 and have a leg up on the competition. The Falcons really need to win this game, as putting the season on the line in a road game against the Seahawks isn’t a great recipe for success.
With all that in mind, here are some of the players I’ll be keeping an eye on during Sunday’s game.
RBs Devonta Freeman & Tevin Coleman
The Cowboys are vulnerable on the ground, as they’re currently allowing 4.4 yards per carry to opposing teams (25th in the league). Atlanta (read: Steve Sarkisian) has been blatantly misusing their RBs ever since the Buffalo game, and it’s time for a course correction. We need to see more of the outside zone runs that were a staple of Shanahan’s offense, and we need to see more targets to the RBs out of the backfield. Coleman has only 3 catches since the Buffalo game, where he had four.
This is inexcusable, and if Sark wants the team to have any confidence in him whatsoever, he needs show basic understanding of his personnel. Leaning on the outside zone and passes out of the backfield to the best RB tandem in the NFL would certainly help in that regard. If the Falcons hope to take down the Cowboys on Sunday, they’ll need a strong and consistent performance from their ground game.
The run defense
This is a lot of players, obviously, but the entire run defense of the Falcons needs to step up in a big way on Sunday. The Cowboys might be down LT Tyron Smith, and WR Dez Bryant suffered a high ankle sprain last week—even if he plays, he’s likely to be significantly limited. This task got much easier with the loss of star RB Ezekiel Elliott to suspension, but the Cowboys will still try to establish the run early to take advantage of a Falcons’ defense that has a penchant for giving up long drives.
Ahtyba Rubin and Dontari Poe will likely play more snaps in this game than they have in any other all season. The LBs will have to be disciplined to keep RB Alfred Morris and QB Dak Prescott in check. Everyone will have to be on their A-game to prevent Dallas from chewing up the clock and wearing out this defense. We saw flashes of what this run defense was capable of against the Jets—hopefully they can return to that, instead of the absolute mess we saw against Carolina.
TEs Austin Hooper and Levine Toilolo
One of the biggest disappointments this year has been the blocking performance of Hooper and Toilolo. Hooper performed well in that area in 2016, and was expected to take the next step as a receiver. Toilolo is really only known for his blocking (and catching 20+ yard passes when completely uncovered). Both have been downright awful at times this season, for no apparent reason.
Maybe it’s the changes in the offensive scheme, but neither has shown any consistency as a blocker and Hooper has been very hot-and-cold as a receiver. The Falcons will need better production from their TE group going forward if this offense is going to get back on track. Against the Cowboys, the TEs will be instrumental in getting the run game going—and the Cowboys LBs are vulnerable to athletic options like Hooper in the passing game.
QB Matt Ryan
Ryan has undoubtedly been part of the problem on offense this year. He’s been missing throws, particularly deep balls, and has generally looked uncomfortable in Sarkisian’s offense. We saw a better game from Ryan against the Jets, but he appeared to regress substantially against the Panthers. Obviously, the receivers dropping wide open TDs and tripping on downfield throws aren’t helping, but Ryan hasn’t been anywhere close to his efficient 2016 self in 2017.
The offensive line should be back to full health and the Cowboys’ secondary is very vulnerable with plenty of young players to take advantage of. Atlanta will be at home coming off a pretty disappointing three-game road stretch. This is Ryan’s time to re-establish control of the offense and prove that he can help this team orchestrate a better performance in the second half of the season.
What are your thoughts on this match-up of two of the NFC’s best teams from 2016? Do you think the Falcons have a chance? Who are some players you’ll be watching closely on Sunday?