At 4-5, the Falcons aren’t out of the playoff race, but their next game will be a critical one. At home, they’ll face off against a Cowboys defense that has been better than in previous years, but that may still have some holes that can be taken advantage of. Here’s how these two units match up.
Note: Assessments are based on PFF scores and ranks
In the trenches
The Falcons offensive line started off the year slowly, but has really come along in recent weeks. Alex Mack is returning to his best form while Jake Matthews is arguably one of the five best left tackles playing right now. Wes Schweitzer has settled in decently at left guard while Ben Garland has potentially been an upgrade over Brandon Fusco at right guard. Ryan Schraeder has been inconsistent, but is capable of playing at a high level. When this unit plays well, they are capable of dominating. When they aren’t, they can’t keep this offense from moving at all. Much depends on who is facing them on the other side.
The Cowboys defensive front has some amazing players. Demarcus Lawrence is the kind of pass rusher you have to watch out for, as he can turn games around. At the other end, Tyrone Crawford is more run stuffer than pass rusher, but isn’t exactly a world-beater at either. Taco Charlton and Randy Gregory don’t offer much more as pass rushers either. On the interior, Maliek Collins is merely ok and Antwaun Woods is not a substantial upgrade either. This is a unit that does a great job of stopping the run (3.6 ypc average, 96.7 yds per game) and does get to the QB periodically. It’s just not a particularly dominating unit.
With the Falcons playing at home and with both replacement guards playing well in recent weeks, the home team gets the nod, if only just slightly.
The skill positions
Matt Ryan is putting together another fantastic season that could go to waste. He’s roughly on-track with his 2016 numbers when he won MVP and first-team All-Pro honors. Julio Jones continues to be one of the most dominant WRs in the game. Mohamed Sanu is a well-rounded receiver who does well in traffic and plays physically. Calvin Ridley has been phenomenal, showcasing great route running and top-tier speed, but has also frustrated with periodic drops and mental lapses. Austin Hooper has become a great receiving TE option for Ryan, even if he lacks in pass blocking. Running backs Tevin Coleman and Ito Smith are a dynamic one-two punch that has made the name Devonta Freeman seem like an after thought. This is still a great unit, even if they did go into Cleveland and stink the place up. Let’s hope they bounce back from that debacle.
Corner Byron Jones is having a great season for Dallas and should be in serious Pro-Bowl consideration. He could match up well with Julio. Second year corner Chidobe Awuzie is not having such a season and could be someone the team targets often. In the slot, Anthony Brown also figures to be someone to be targeted in nickel situations. Safety Xavier Woods is playing ok this year, but has fallen off a little from a good rookie season. Jeff Heath is a capable strong safety, but is not playing his best ball this year either. The Cowboys linebackers, however, are a good bunch. Rookie Leighton Vander Esch should be a contender for defensive rookie of the year while Jaylon Smith has looked like a great “risk” draft pick two years ago. Damien Wilson - who comes off the field in nickel sets - is the only weak link in this linebacking corps.
The Cowboys have some very good players on the back end of this defense, but the underwhelming play of guys like Awuzie, Brown and Woods could be the big difference here. I expect Atlanta to try and take advantage of these repeatedly.
The Falcons need a win to stay in the playoff chase. Dallas has a good defense, but it can be scored on - as the Titans demonstrated a couple of weeks ago. So long as the Falcons play to their ability, they should be able to put points on the board. That’s a big if, though, especially considering what they did in Cleveland. I do think they’ll bounce back, but my confidence level wanes hourly.