When Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension was upheld this week, the Falcons’ chances in this game got a whole lot better. After a painful loss to Carolina, this team needs all the help they can get.
Obviously, Elliott is a monster and would’ve caused serious problems for this Falcons’ defense. With Dez Bryant and Tyron Smith banged up and questionable to play, the focus is put on containing Dak Prescott, Dez Bryant, and Cole Beasley.
The Cowboys’ defense (14th total) has some good pieces like Sean Lee, David Irving, Byron Jones, and budding-star Demarcus Lawrence, but as a whole, they’re about an average unit. The Falcons (13th total) actually allow less yards and almost a point less per game.
For the Falcons to get this season back on track, they’ll need to make good use of their personnel advantage and win the following matchups.
Falcons’ offensive line vs. Cowboys’ pass rush
The primetime matchup of possibly the entire game looks like Ryan Schraeder and Demarcus Lawrence. Lawrence has been on an absolute tear this season with 10.5 sacks already, and Schraeder has been mostly excellent since returning from a nasty concussion suffered in Week 2.
The other dangerous pass rusher Dallas has is David Irving, a big addition since returning from a PED suspension. Irving has been a beast with six sacks in just four games. Listed as a DT, Irving plays both inside and on the edge, giving the Falcons something that will be difficult to game plan for.
With Alex Mack coming off one of his worst games and Andy Levitre questionable with a knee injury, the Falcons’ offensive line is something to keep a close eye on this Sunday.
Cowboys’ receivers vs. Falcons’ secondary
The Cowboys present some unique challenges for the Falcons’ cornerbacks.
Bryant, when healthy, is one of the most physical wide receivers in the game and a lethal red zone weapon. Odds are good that he’ll likely see a lot of Desmond Trufant in this one, making this a high-octane matchup. With Elliott out, the Cowboys will likely look to lean more on Bryant in this one.
Terrance Williams isn’t great at any one thing, but he’s been known to have a big game or two. Last week against the Chiefs, Williams caught fire with 9 receptions for 141 yards, doing a lot of his damage after the catch. The Falcons, particularly Keanu Neal and Ricardo Allen, do a great job at limiting YAC, but the corners will also need to have a strong game here.
Cole Beasley is a nightmare to defend in the slot. With Brian Poole as the nickel corner, he’ll likely see Beasley the most. Poole has been decent this season, but he’s an incredible tackler. Tackling won’t matter too much if Poole gets beat at the line, particularly in the red zone, where Beasley scored twice last week against the Chiefs.
The Falcons’ defense has been abysmal at forcing turnovers this year, and a lack of interceptions falls primarily on the secondary. Atlanta has only two interceptions this year, good for 31st in the league. 17 players have more interceptions than the Falcons do this year.
Falcons’ running backs vs. Cowboys’ linebackers
Pro Football Focus lists Devonta Freeman as the highest-rating running back in the league, a testament to how well he’s played despite getting banged up and questions around his usage.
With Tevin Coleman not as big of a weapon in the pass game under Steve Sarkisian, his value has diminished some now that he’s being used as a between-the-tackles type.
These two still average a healthy 4.75 yards per carry, though converting on 3rd and 4th downs and in the red zone have been an issue this year.
With Cowboys’ linebacker Sean Lee playing better than ever, this is a matchup that should be fun to watch. Lee is a Luke Keuchly-type that can cause problems against both the run and the pass.
The Falcons would be smart to try and avoid Lee, running more in the direction of Jaylon Smith and Anthony Hitchens. Smith was an incredible player at Notre Dame, but he’s still getting up to speed and recovering from a severe knee injury. His mobility issues are evident, and a one-on-one matchup in coverage against Freeman or Coleman would largely be in the Falcons’ favor.
Sarkisian has taken a lot of heat, largely because he hasn’t consistently put his players in the best position to succeed. Against the Cowboys, it would be nice to see him get these two running backs in space and force the linebackers win in coverage.
Which matchups are you keeping an eye on?
Michael Aprile is the editor-in-chief of fellow Falcons site Rise Up Reader, where you can find more Falcons coverage. He is a cohost of the Falcoholic post-game podcast that airs weekly.