With Week 1 mercifully in the rear view mirror, it’s time for us to turn our attention to Atlanta’s next opponent: the Dallas Cowboys (0-1). Dallas had a lackluster season-opener, dropping a low-scoring game to the Rams as they struggled to sustain drives on offense and gave up over 150 rushing yards to Los Angeles. That’s a disappointing start to the season for a team with Super Bowl aspirations, and you can bet that they’ll be motivated to keep from falling into an 0-2 hole on Sunday.
I’ve already taken a closer look at how Atlanta and Dallas match up statistically on offense and defense. Today, let’s examine some of the key players to watch as the Falcons travel to face the Cowboys.
Despite a strong start on the ground in Week 1, the Falcons rushing attack ultimately fell far short of expectations. Much of this had to do with game script getting totally out-of-hand in the second half, but another issue was Dirk Koetter seeming to move away from the outside zone to a more interior-focused approach. When Koetter stuck to the outside zone early in the game, Gurley looked fantastic and was even up over 5.0 YPC at one point.
The Cowboys have a struggling run defense that allowed over 150 yards to the Rams in Week 1, and the unit is now missing star LB Leighton Vander Esch. Atlanta might put up gaudy passing numbers, but the team is best when they deploy a more balanced attack. Hopefully, the game script will support a better overall day for Todd Gurley in Week 2.
Atlanta’s new starting TE had a bit of a quiet beginning with the team, posting 3 catches for 38 yards. He was also targeted on a long pass that could have easily been a TD if not for an excellent play by the defender. Hurst figures to be a bigger part of the game plan against a Dallas defense that is down two starting LBs—and that doesn’t feature one of the premier safeties in the NFL in Jamal Adams. Expect a higher target share for Hurst in this game as the Falcons look to spread the ball around, as we can expect the Cowboys to focus most of their attention on Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley.
The run defense
There were two parts of the Falcons’ defense that actually performed well in Week 1, and one of them was the run defense. Despite a bit of a rocky start, the unit got it together and actually did an excellent job limiting the production of Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde. Unfortunately, the pass defense couldn’t stop Russell Wilson in the slightest, but that’s another topic. Outside of one 28-yard Russell Wilson scramble, Atlanta’s defense allowed just over 50 yards and under 3.0 YPC against one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks.
That’s an encouraging start for a defense that now faces another stiff test with Ezekiel Elliott. While there has been a ton of hype surrounding the Dallas passing attack, the Cowboys relied heavily on Elliott to move the ball in Week 1. If the run defense can continue their strong play in Week 2, the Falcons can neutralize arguably the biggest strength of the Cowboys.
A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, and Darqueze Dennard
Atlanta’s new CB trio was a disaster in Week 1. The secondary as a whole was picked apart by Russell Wilson, and the weak play of the CBs was a big part of that. It wasn’t surprising to see rookie A.J. Terrell struggle in his first NFL start—with no preseason and only a truncated offseason to prepare—but it was disappointing to see veteran slot CB Darqueze Dennard do the same. Dennard was victimized repeatedly by Tyler Lockett and even aging TE Greg Olsen, and both CBs allowed a 100% completion rate into their coverage.
Third-year CB Isaiah Oliver was only slightly better, but gave up arguably the biggest play of the game: a 4th-and-5 touchdown to Seattle WR D.K. Metcalf. I mostly blame the defensive coordinator for leaving Oliver on an island against a receiver who has almost a full quarter-second on him in the 40-yard dash, but that was a crushing play for the defense. Things don’t get any easier on Sunday, as the Falcons face one of the NFL’s best WR trios in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and rookie CeeDee Lamb. The starting CBs absolutely must take a step forward, or the Falcons will need to score 30+ to win in Week 2.
The pass rush
Perhaps the best aspect of the Falcons’ defense in Week 1 was the retooled defensive line, who kept Russell Wilson under constant duress from the first snap of the game. Takkarist McKinley looks slimmer, faster, and more explosive. Grady Jarrett looks as dominant as ever from the interior, making plays against both the run and pass. Dante Fowler, despite a quiet game, provided a much more steady presence against the run than Vic Beasley ever managed. Overall, this group had a very encouraging start to the season—and second-round rookie DT Marlon Davidson wasn’t even on the field yet.
It’s very possible that Davidson could make his debut on Sunday against Dallas, and that would be a welcome boost to a pass rush that put together an impressive 30.8% pressure rate in Week 1. For those that don’t understand that stat, it means that Atlanta’s defense recorded a pressure, QB hit, or sack on almost a third of Seattle’s passing snaps. That’s an incredible mark for a team that managed only 28 sacks in all of 2019, even against a shaky offensive line. The Cowboys have their own OL issues heading into Week 2, with RT starter La’el Collins and swing tackle Cameron Erving both on IR. UDFA Terence Steele is now the starter there, and the once strong interior OL of Dallas is showing some cracks with LG Connor Williams and new C Joe Looney struggling early. Keeping the pressure on Dak Prescott would be an excellent way to help out a young secondary that needs any boost they can get.
Who are some players that you’ll be watching in Week 1? What are some of the key matchups for the Falcons against the Cowboys? Do you think Atlanta has a shot to steal a win in Dallas on Sunday?