The Atlanta Falcons are officially in playoff contention with a .500 record in the month of November for the first time in three seasons. But they’re set to face a tougher slate of opponents for the remainder of the 2021 season than they have up to this point, which means they’ll have to step their game up.
Fortunately, we saw the team do exactly that a week ago against the New Orleans Saints, but their next opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, presents new challenges.
One of them will be on the Falcons’ defense slowing down a Cowboys offense that outside of last week has put up points with ease. In Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott’s last 16 starts, the team has averaged 31.8 points per game. And the Cowboys' offense has been even harder to slow down in Dallas, where the Falcons face them. The Denver Broncos allowed just 16 points on the road to the Cowboys a week ago, snapping an eight-game streak in which the Cowboys had scored at least 36 points at home.
With the Cowboys averaging over 38 points per game in Prescott’s last nine home starts, it’s likely the Falcons will have to eclipse their season-high of 30 points scored if they want to be above .500 this time next week.
Should Sunday’s game devolve into a shootout, obviously the odds favor the Cowboys, who enter the game with the better defense. According to Football Outsiders, the Cowboys' defense currently ranks seventh in their defensive DVOA rankings, while the Falcons rank 31st. In a high-scoring game where a few stops might decide the results, confidence in the Falcons defense to generate those stops will be hard to come by.
But this piece won’t attempt to try and convince you that the Falcons defense has much more than a wing and a prayer to go on. Instead, it’s meant to convince you that this might be another opportunity for the team’s offense to showcase its development. In a game where the winner might be decided by who possesses the ball last, it gives the Falcons and their offense a legit chance to pull off the upset.
And those odds likely lean heavily on the hands, feet, and shoulders of rookie tight end Kyle Pitts.
Pitts should feast on Cowboys man coverage
The Cowboys' defense has been vulnerable to the big play thus far this season. They have given up 34 passes of 20 or more yards this year, which ranks as the sixth-highest allowed this year. Thus, we could be in store for another dominant Pitts performance, given that he leads the Falcons with 11 such plays.
Notably, the two teams that have given up the most 20-plus yard passes this year are the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets, two teams that Pitts showed out against earlier this season when he combined for 16 catches, 282 yards, and a touchdown.
Another factor going against the Cowboys is their high prevalence of man coverage. Pitts has been dominant when facing man coverage this year, earning Pro Football Focus’ third-highest grade among all pass-catchers thus far.
However, that success didn’t translate the past two weeks against the Saints and Carolina Panthers, where Pitts was limited to a combined five catches for 75 yards. That lack of production was likely in part due to the presence of cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Stephon Gilmore, who were both tasked primarily with containing Pitts.
The results show that both players were effective at executing that assignment. This should be no surprise since both have graded out very high in man coverage this year. Gilmore is PFF’s highest-graded corner in man coverage thus far this year, and Lattimore is not far behind, ranking in the Top 10 of all man corners that have at least 100 coverage snaps this year.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, do not have a comparable coverage ace. The closest is cornerback Anthony Brown, who is the only member of the Cowboys secondary with a grade above 65 in man coverage this season. But Brown isn’t exactly a player known for being tasked with taking out the opposing team’s No. 1 receivers, which is Pitts’ role in Atlanta.
Instead, one can expect the Cowboys to use a variety of defenders to try and keep Pitts contained. That strategy was not very effective for the Dolphins nor Jets, and one can be optimistic that the Cowboys will face a similar fate.
Falcons offense is best when it’s explosive
If Pitts can dominate, it makes everything else so much easier for the Falcons offensive attack. If the Falcons can consistently target Pitts and generate explosive plays when they do, it should create ample opportunities for the Falcons to keep pace with Prescott and the Cowboys' offense.
The importance of generating explosive plays is amplified because the Falcons’ offense has struggled to score points without them this season. On drives that include at least one gain of 20 or more yards, the Falcons have scored 81 percent of the time. Contrast that to drives that lacked a 20-plus-yard play resulting in scores just 25 percent of the time.
Big-play drives result in touchdowns for the team 52 percent of the time, and drives without them lead to touchdowns just 12 percent of the time.
It’s not a coincidence that the two games in which the Falcons were prevented from generating a single explosive play, against the Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers, also featured their lowest offensive outputs of the season as they scored just a single touchdown between those two outings.
As mentioned earlier, Pitts has been the team’s most reliable explosive playmaker this season, yet, they got contributions elsewhere a week ago in a relatively quiet outing for the rookie pass-catcher.
Obviously, it would be ideal if the team can spread the ball around to other options like Cordarrelle Patterson, Russell Gage, and Olamide Zaccheaus, just like last week. But getting Pitts going will be key, since it should be the most favorable matchup on the field for the Falcons.
Cowboys cornerback Trevon Diggs leads the NFL with seven interceptions, and while his overall play has been both up and down this year, tempting fate with a pivotal turnover might not be in the Falcons’ best interest.
After all, the team may be fishing for their own takeaways on defense. Much like last week’s timely turnover on James Vaughters’ strip-sack, those could prove pivotal to deciding the outcome of any potential shootout between the Falcons and Cowboys.
Do you think this will this be another big week for Pitts? Or will the Falcons offense have to find other avenues and targets to generate explosive plays against the Cowboys?