The Dallas Cowboys (3-4) will face the Atlanta Falcons (7-0) this Sunday. Here’s a look at the Falcons entering the contest.
On Offense: The Falcons made it clear they were going to put this season in quarterback Matt Ryan’s hands and he hasn’t disappointed. The Falcons have the eighth best passing offense in the NFL so far, averaging 270.7 yards per game. The Falcons have been assembling this group for years, starting with drafting Ryan in the first round in 2008. In the past four years they’ve drafted wide receivers Roddy White, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas, and signed tight end Tony Gonzalez as a free agent. White, Jones and Gonzalez have a combined 121 receptions and 13 touchdowns. White and Jones stretch the field while Gonzalez and Douglas handle the underneath routes. It’s a near-perfect formula. Ryan is a highly-accurate quarterback who makes few mistakes and can make practically every NFL throw. The Falcons can still run the ball, but Michael Turner is not the back he used to be. He’s averaging less than 4 yards per carry, he’s only scored three touchdowns and he’s averaging less than 20 carries per game. That may pay dividends for the Falcons down the road, as Turner has logged plenty of miles in that offense since joining the team in 2008. But he only has one 100-yard rushing game this year. Jacquizz Rodgers comes in to change the pace, but he’s only dangerous if you let him roam in space. The offensive line is above-average and practically home-grown. Four of the five starters were drafted by Atlanta. Right tackle Tyson Clabo was an undrafted free agent who signed with Denver and stayed with the Broncos for a year before coming to Atlanta. The left side of the line — tackle Sam Baker and guard Justin Blalock — are first- and second-round picks, respectively. The line has given up 15 sacks, but Ryan helps them out by getting rid of the football quickly.
On Defense: The unit is ranked in the Top 10 against the pass, and it’s easy to see why. The Falcons have one of the best pass rushers in the game in defensive end John Abraham, who has seven sacks this season. The Falcons have a nice rotation on the opposite side with Ray Edwards and Kory Biermann, with Biermann entering the game with two sacks. The back row of the defense is formidable, led by cornerback Dunta Robinson, whom the Falcons lured away from the Houston Texans three years ago, and safety Thomas DeCoud, who leads the Falcons in interceptions with four. The Falcons also acquired cornerback Asante Samuel during this offseason and the unit as a whole makes it hard on opposing passing games. Combine that with Abraham’s pass rush and you have a great combination that keeps passing games from getting comfortable. Meanwhile, outside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon leads the team in tackles and has three sacks. Stephen Nicolas, the other outside linebacker, is second on the team in tackles. If you’re the Falcons, you’re a bit concerned about the run defense, ranked No. 26 in the NFL. The middle might be the area to attack, if you’re Dallas. Tackle Peria Jerry has been inconsistent and is a full-time starter for the first time. Jonathan Babineaux, the other tackle, is a savvy veteran. Middle linebacker Akeem Dent has just 19 tackles. Should the Cowboys manage to get an interior push with its offensive line, the middle could be vulnerable.
On Special Teams: Kicker Matt Bryant has missed just one field goal and made both of his attempts from 50 or more yards. Punter Matt Bosher is averaging 47.1 yards per punt, but his net is 41.0, so he’s not outkicking his coverage. The Falcons have not returned a kickoff or punt for a touchdown this year.
Overall: The Falcons are undefeated because they have so much offensive firepower that opposing defenses are having trouble keeping up. Since the Falcons aren’t running the ball as well or as often as they used to, teams are loading up with more nickel and dime packages to try and slow down the passing game. The problem is the Falcons execute so well that the coverage doesn’t always matter. The Cowboys did a good job slowing the Giants down last week, but some of their issues were self-inflicted. The key is making the Falcons sustain drives and go the length of the field. Defensively, the Falcons seem soft against the run and if the Cowboys could run the ball well in the middle of the field that could force the Falcons to commit safety help to stop the run and put Miles Austin and Dez Bryant against single coverage. If DeMarco Murray is able to play, that would obviously help Dallas’ run game significantly. That sounds unlikely, however. There’s enough talent in the Falcons’ secondary to limit a team that tries to use the passing game alone to beat Atlanta.