For the Week 3 Monday Night Football showcase, the Denver Broncos will go into Atlanta to face the high-flying Falcons aerial attack. Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez combine to form one of the better passing offenses in the NFL, and slowing them down is no easy task.
The Broncos may be able to slow down the Falcons' aerial assault, but they might not need to slow it down to win the game.
Ryan averaged 262 yards per game in 2011 and had 29 touchdown passes to just 12 interceptions. The Falcons are expected to be even better in 2012 with Jones entering his second professional season and a new offensive coordinator.
The Falcons' entire offense is based around the pass, and it would stand to reason that they will win games with the passing game. That was certainly the case in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs, when Ryan had 299 yards passing and three touchdowns.
What’s odd is the Falcons actually lost more games when they had above-average yardage passing games last season; five out of seven of their losses were when the Falcons passed for more than their average of 262 yards. In fact, the Falcons' top four passing days by yardage were losses.
In reality, the Falcons' success and failure had much more to do with touchdowns and turnovers than the sheer number of passing yards. Ryan lost only two games in 2011 in which he didn’t throw a single interception—against the New Orleans Saints in Week 16 and against the New York Giants in the playoffs.
The Falcons were 3-5 in games in which Ryan threw at least one interception and 6-1 in games in which Ryan had two TD passes. The Falcons lost just one game when Ryan’s quarterback rating was above 90.
So what does this all mean for the Broncos?
Ryan is going to get his passing yards, and if he isn’t, that means the Falcons likely have a comfortable lead early in the game. With a lot of space to operate, the Falcons' passing game is too good to stop with any consistency.
Instead of trying to stop the passing game, however, the Broncos should focus on creating turnovers between the 20s. They will fail more than they succeed, and again, the Falcons will get their passing yards, but the benefit of just one or two interceptions is huge.
The Broncos can get turnovers by sending extra pressure on Ryan and taking chances in coverage. The Broncos should just be wise and keep a safety deep to protect against big scoring plays.
Perhaps, this is something of a universally successful strategy in the NFL today? Maybe there is something to the bend-don’t-break philosophy of defense? Of the five worst pass defenses in yardage in 2011, four were playoff teams.
What's the single most important factor in slowing down a good passing offense?
If the Broncos are not successful at creating turnovers between the 20s, they need to at least keep the Falcons out of the end zone. Slowing down Atlanta's aerial attack is surprisingly easier when the field is condensed, with more defenders in a smaller amount of space.
Creating turnovers can be as simple as letting the cornerbacks drive on underneath throws by giving them help over the top or as complex as disguising coverages. The Broncos can try both, and if unsuccessful, simply take their chances man-to-man in the red zone: Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter versus Jones and White. Force the Falcons’ best weapons to beat the Broncos’ best defenders.
In essence, the Broncos don’t need to slow down the Falcons' aerial assault; let them speed. Just make sure to throw up a few walls for them to crash into.