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Cowboys vs. Falcons: How the game will be won or lost

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Can the Falcons rebound from a humiliating loss to Cleveland and prevail in a matchup between two desperate teams?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Following a disappointing loss in Carolina last season, the Atlanta Falcons fell to 4-4 and serious questions were being raised about their overall outlook. It was their fourth loss in five games. They were scheduled to face Dallas next in what was being billed as a judgment game. Would the Falcons start playing up to their talent level or did losing Kyle Shanahan leave a damaging effect on the entire team? A definitive one-sided victory started a three-game winning streak, which ended up sparking their playoff push.

Circumstances have certainly changed this season. The Falcons have won three of their last four games. It’s about the only positive when comparing both seasons. Unlike last season, the Falcons are nowhere near as good defensively. A combination of injuries, lack of talent up front, and underperforming cornerback group leaves them as one of the worst defenses in the league. For all of Matt Ryan’s tremendous efforts, there are going to be games where he slightly struggles and can’t lead the offense to 30 or more points. The situation looks bleak at the moment, yet all it can take is one win to revitalize a fading season. That season-changing win came against Dallas last season. Will history repeat itself one year later?

Quick Note: Due to this article being published Friday morning, Deion Jones wasn’t included. I didn’t want to dedicate an entire section to a player, whose status had yet to be determined.

Holding up against Ezekiel Elliott and co.

There are going to be two major changes from last year’s matchup. Atlanta won’t have the luxury of lining Adrian Clayborn up against Chaz Green. Although Tyron Smith is dealing with back spasms, the five-time Pro Bowler is expected to play. The other major difference involves Elliott being on the field. His six-game suspension couldn’t have happened at a better time for Dan Quinn’s defense. It put major pressure on Dak Prescott, who failed to show he could thrive without the phenomenal back.

Elliott is back with a vengeance this season. After being questioned about his commitment, he reassured everyone that Dallas made the right decision selecting him with the fourth overall pick. His vision, lateral agility, sharp cuts, and patience makes him arguably the most complete running back in the league. Losing an All-Pro center like Travis Fredrick would derail most running games. Excluding a few early-season setbacks, nothing has changed about the Cowboys’ ground game. Averaging 5.4 yards per carry on first down (per ESPN’s NFL Matchup) validates their efficiency. They’re a run-first team built to manhandle defenses. Dominating a stout Eagles’ front seven proved this team is capable of imposing their will on the ground against any opponent.

It will take a remarkable effort to keep Elliott from running wild. Atlanta’s undersized front normally struggles against power running teams. Teams that are proficient at using read-option can also rattle them. In an effort to make Prescott feel more comfortable, Jason Garrett is implementing similar play designs to what Mississippi State used for the embattled quarterback. This decision has paid off in making an already productive running game even more dangerous. There is enormous pressure on the Falcons’ defense, who recently allowed 191 yards on 23 carries to Cleveland’s running backs. They will need to do a far better job at being more disciplined within their gap assignments, creating more penetration, and tackling in the open field.

Pressure is rising on one of the highest paid cornerback tandems in the league

Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have been defensive mainstays since 2013. They transitioned from being the youngest players in a veteran-laden secondary to the oldest players in an extremely young group. Trufant’s rapid ascendance to stardom provided hope for a talent-barren defense. After years of struggling with penalties and poor decision-making, Alford showed excellent composure last year in what was the best season of his career. They established themselves as one of the more reliable cornerback duos in the league. That label appears to be outdated based on their recent play.

Both cornerbacks have conceded a plethora of big plays. Quarterbacks would avoid throwing to Trufant’s side, as they didn’t want to risk throwing into tight coverage. His positioning and route recognition made him a legitimate shutdown cornerback. Those days are gone, as Trufant doesn’t change direction or anticipate routes as well as he once did. Alford’s downfall is more drastic because of how often quarterbacks are having success targeting him. He was single-handily responsible for all of the Giants’ big plays last month. Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger repeatedly picked on him as well. Besides Duke Riley and Brian Poole, no Falcons’ defensive player has missed more tackles than him. It’s been a disastrous season for the fiery cornerback. Since the defensive debacle against Cincinnati, Alford ranks last among 110 cornerbacks in Pro Football Focus’ ratings.

If the Falcons are going to make any sort of playoff push, both cornerbacks need to start playing up to their reputation. It begins by limiting the Cowboys’ crafty wide receivers. Dallas may not have much explosiveness offensively, but they do possess the type of slick route-runners that can give Trufant and Alford fits. Amari Cooper is off to a promising start since joining them last month. With Scott Linehan moving him across different formations, every cornerback will get their shot at the in-demand receiver. Cole Beasley tends to do most of his damage in the slot, yet Cooper’s arrival has allowed him to play more on the outside. The secondary will need to be wary of him, particularly on third down. Stopping Dallas’ efficient ground game is going to be a challenge in itself. Allowing them to produce big plays through the air will leave their defense essentially hopeless. Trufant and Alford must be at the forefront in preventing Prescott from finding his rhythm.

The importance of getting Calvin Ridley further involved

One of the more startling aspects about the Falcons’ loss to Cleveland was their inability to produce explosive plays. Only four of Matt Ryan’s 38 completions went for 15 yards or more. Besides getting outcoached by Gregg Williams, the other major issue consisted of Ridley being a non-factor. The spectacular rookie receiver didn’t catch his first pass until the middle of the third quarter. For a dynamic player to be targeted five times on 52 pass attempts correlates with how the offense only scored 16 points.

A one-game blip shouldn’t diminish how well Steve Sarkisian has used Ridley. From utilizing him on shallow crosses to pairing him with Mohamed Sanu on rub route concepts, Sarkisian’s vision of how he can scheme him open is working. This is evident when the Falcons are either playing with a lead or involved in a tight game. When they’ve been forced to play from behind, Ridley becomes a peripheral figure. A special talent like him can’t be an afterthought under any circumstance. Ryan’s passer rating when throwing to Ridley is 138.9 per Pro Football Focus. That ranks sixth best in the league showcasing how lethal their connection has been. His value as a multi-dimensional weapon, who can be effective anywhere on the field, must be properly featured.

Getting him involved will be crucial against Dallas’ stingy defense. According to ESPN’s NFL Matchup, the Cowboys have allowed the fourth fewest explosive plays in the league. Stretching their well-organized secondary will be difficult, especially with Byron Jones playing at an All-Pro level. That’s why a player that can create separation and blow past defenders in the open field needs to be featured as much as possible. Ridley’s game-breaking speed could be the best solution towards breaking open a vastly under appreciated defense.

Take two for a new hopeful pass rush

The signing of Bruce Irvin generated plenty of buzz across Atlanta. It’s rare to add a capable edge rusher during the season without having to trade a draft pick. Pairing Irvin with Takkarist McKinley and Vic Beasley gives Quinn’s defense an abundance of speed across the defensive line. Although they wouldn’t be used together often, the possibility of using them three or five times a game is enough to make a difference. That is when the Falcons force their opponent to throw the ball. As proven last week, it’s not easy when you’re playing from behind for the majority of the game.

Baker Mayfield only dropped back 23 times last week. The defense was lined up in nickel on 13 of those drop backs. Freddie Kitchens deserves enormous credit for eliminating any threat of a pass rush. Most of Mayfield’s throws were quick slants, screens, dump offs, and throws off play action. Brooks Reed was the only player to touch Mayfield. The lack of snaps and opportunities must enrage a defensive line that knows they haven’t been good enough this season.

McKinley has struggled to generate much pressure after a hot start to the season. Beasley’s struggles are well documented, as the 2016 sack king isn’t evolving as an edge rusher. Grady Jarrett and Jack Crawford have been the lone consistent bright spots for an otherwise lackluster group. Can Irvin provide the necessary jolt for a defense desperate for difference makers up front? They will at least get more than 13 opportunities against a slightly diminished offensive line. Rookie Connor Williams has been a major liability in pass protection. Despite having impressive traits, La’el Collins can get beaten around the edge. There are matchups where the defensive line can flourish. Can they finally start playing up to expectations in a must-win game? Time will tell.