The Atlanta Falcons will come into Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday looking to begin the season with a win over the Chiefs. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Roddy White will lead the charge for the Falcons and must overcome crowd noise that is one of the loudest in the NFL.
Passing the ball is what the Falcons do best, but Kansas City boasted the one of the best pass defenses in 2011. Despite the turnover in the Chiefs secondary, the Falcons should not count on the passing game alone.
Atlanta will test a banged-up Kansas City secondary, but it should also attack the interior of Kansas City’s defense. The Falcons defense should load the box to stop the run and put pressure on Matt Cassel to force him to make mistakes.
Attacking Kansas City’s Defense
The Chiefs are old-school; they run the ball and play good defense. Kansas City’s defense should keep it in a lot of games in 2012, as it did last year. The Chiefs were 6-4 in games decided by seven points or less and 6-4 in games in which the defense allowed fewer than 21 points.
Kansas City got blown out five times in 2011, and each time, the defense was victimized in the passing game. Matthew Stafford, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Mark Sanchez each accounted for four touchdowns against the Chiefs.
There is also a lot of transition going on in Kansas City’s secondary, and it will be without its top pass-rusher in Tamba Hali due to a one-game suspension. The Falcons only need to worry about Justin Houston as a pass-rusher and should chip him with a tight end or running back.
Star cornerback Brandon Flowers has been nursing an injured heel and has been limited in practice the last two days. He’s expected to be a game-time decision on Sunday.
If Flowers plays, the Falcons should immediately test the 5’9” cornerback with 6’3” wide receiver Jones. The expectation is the Falcons would attack the Chiefs in the deep passing game, but a heel injury might be better tested by forcing Flowers to plant his foot and come forward. The Falcons should attack Flowers in the short passing game and force him to make tackles on bigger receivers.
If Flowers doesn’t play or the Chiefs use more zone coverage than anticipated, the Falcons should attack Jalil Brown who would be making his first career start at cornerback. The most common issue for a young cornerback is a double move, and the Falcons should be able to hit on one or two explosive plays to the right side by exploiting a cornerback without much experience.
The Falcons can also test veteran cornerback Stanford Routt on the opposite side. Ryan should look for Routt in man coverage and have his receiver run a deep route that forces Routt to turn his back to the quarterback.
Routt is capable of shutting down half of the field, but is also prone to committing costly defensive pass-interference penalties. The replacement referees have been giving pass interference calls for minor contract, so the Falcons shouldn’t be afraid to do a little acting after the play.
The replacement referees haven’t thrown many flags for offensive pass interference on pick or rub routes and the Falcons should be able to use that to their advantage against Routt. Routt was surprisingly poor at defending the short slant route last season, and the Falcons would be wise run short slants with a rub or pick in the red zone.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez can also take advantage of the banged-up Kansas City secondary. Safety Kendrick Lewis has not participated in practice and isn’t expected to play. If Gonzalez can get a free release, he can do damage against his former team in the middle of the field. Ryan should just be mindful of Eric Berry lurking in the secondary and waiting to make a big play.
Passing is just one of the ways the Falcons can exploit Kansas City’s defense. The Chiefs could also be susceptible to the run up the middle. Starting nose tackle Anthony Toribio and star middle linebacker Derrick Johnson are nursing ankle injuries. Toribio didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday and Johnson has been limited. Javon Belcher—the other inside linebacker—did not participate in practice on Thursday due to a groin injury.
Toribio, Johnson and Belcher are the interior triangle of the defense in Kansas City. Every good 3-4 defense has a good nose tackle, and without Toribio, the Chiefs would be forced to start rookie Dontari Poe.
Poe is raw and has not shown that he can clog two gaps or beat a double team. Veteran center Todd McClure simply needs to keep his pad level low, and Poe should be easily neutralized. The Falcons should be able to get a lineman to the second level to block the linebackers if Poe starts at nose tackle.
If Johnson or Belcher do not play or are otherwise limited, Kansas City's linebackers might have a tough time without Toribio eating up blockers. The inside linebackers would have to shed the blocks of the offensive lineman and try to bring down the 240-pound Michael Turner, which is considerably harder than just filling the running lanes and wrapping up running back.
Considering all of the injuries in the interior of the Kansas City defense, the Falcons should feature a heavy dose of interior running plays to complement the vertical passing game.
Attacking Kansas City’s Offense
The Chiefs are healthy on offense for the first time since 2010. Last season, the Chiefs lost Matt Cassel, Tony Moeaki and Jamaal Charles to injuries for all or most of the season. The addition of Peyton Hillis this offseason gives the Chiefs a two-headed rushing attack.
If Charles and Hillis run wild on Atlanta’s defense, Cassel will be able to use play action and have more manageable third-down situations. Running the ball also controls the clock and keeps Kansas City’s defense fresh.
The best way to attack the Chiefs is to force Cassel to throw. To do so, the Falcons need to put eight men in the box and make sure Charles and Hillis can’t get going. Hillis is big and tough to tackle, so the Falcons need to fill gaps and force Hillis to move east and west.
Charles is more effective moving laterally, but he will rarely run a defender over. He’s tough to stop in the open field, and the Falcons need to maintain gap integrity on the defensive line and the linebackers need to square up Charles in open field.
The Falcons also need to get a lead so they can truly put the game in the hands of Cassel and eliminate the threat of the run. With the running game stopped, the Falcons can focus on pressuring Cassel and forcing him to make mistakes.
Cassel will force throws under pressure, and there is no greater way to make a quarterback feel pressure than to bring it up the middle. Cassel can be effective when he is able to step up in the pocket away from the pressure, so it makes sense to collapse the pocket from the middle.
The middle of the Chiefs offensive line is also the weakness. Rodney Hudson is adjusting to the center position after playing guard last season, and left guard Ryan Lilja’s starting job was in question after the Chiefs drafted offensive lineman Jeff Allen. Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Jerry need to dominate at the line of scrimmage and open up possibilities for their teammates to make plays.
Christopher Hansen is the AFC West lead writer for Bleacher Report. Be sure to Follow @ChrisHansenNFL on Twitter and "like" the AFC West blog on Facebook. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.