Falcons vs. Chargers: 5 Keys to the Game for Atlanta

Justin BlanchardContributor IISeptember 20, 2012

Falcons vs. Chargers: 5 Keys to the Game for Atlanta

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    The Atlanta Falcons (2-0) head west to take on the San Diego Chargers (2-0) in a Week 3 matchup that's sure to come with plenty of offensive fireworks.

    Fresh off their Monday night defeat of Peyton Manning's Broncos, the Falcons will have their hands full yet again as they take on Philip Rivers and his high-powered offense.

    But the same can be said for the Chargers, who have the difficult task of slowing down Matt Ryan’s up-tempo passing attack.

    Here are the Falcons' keys to victory.

Full 60-Minute Effort

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    The Falcons have yet to play a complete game this season.

    A slow start kept them level-headed with the Kansas City Chiefs before pulling away in the second half, but it was the opposite last Monday, when Atlanta carried a 20-point lead into the fourth quarter before nearly becoming the latest victim of a Peyton Manning comeback.

    Atlanta was fortunate to get the struggling Chiefs as well as Manning and his woeful deep passes to start the season.

    Neither "struggling" nor "woeful" applies to Atlanta's opponent this weekend. The Chargers match up very well with the Falcons, and this game could easily come down to the wire.

    It'll take a full 60-minute effort from both sides of the ball if the Falcons want to start 3-0 for the first time since 2004. 

Keep the Turnovers Coming

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    Atlanta's defense ranks just 17th overall in total defense, giving up 364.5 yards per game. The Chargers, who have a knack for connecting on deep passes, could easily drop that ranking even lower after Sunday's contest.

    But all the yards they pick up won't matter much if the Falcons keep making a knack of forcing turnovers.

    Mike Nolan's defense has forced a league-leading seven so far, which is a big reason why the Falcons currently stand at 2-0; it helped turn a close game in Kansas City into a blowout, while three Manning interceptions Sept. 17 helped the Falcons jump out to an insurmountable lead.

    If Atlanta can force and capitalize on a few Rivers interceptions on Sunday, victory is well within reach.

Keep Ryan Mathews in Check

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    Mike Nolan has turned a lot of weaknesses of the Falcons defense into strengths: pass-rush, pass defense, turnovers.

    But one area in which the opposite has been true is run defense.

    After finishing 2011 ranked sixth in stopping the run, the Falcons have given up the eighth-most rushing yards (135 yards per game), third-most rushing touchdowns (four) and 11th-highest rushing average (4.5 yards per carry) this season. 

    That doesn't bode well for a team set to face off against Ryan Mathews. San Diego's speedy running back is expected to make his first start of the season after missing the first two with a broken clavicle.

    Atlanta will primarily key in on Philip Rivers, but it can't let stopping the run become an afterthought, or the result could be even worse than the 113-yard, two-touchdown performance Willis McGahee enjoyed Sept. 17.

Pass, Pass and Pass Some More

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    It'll be the defense's job to stop Philip Rivers, but it'll be up to the offense to counter his scores.

    Fortunately for Atlanta, Matt Ryan is off to the best start of his career and of all quarterbacks this season, as he tops the league in passing efficiency through two games.

    Ryan looks as good as ever passing the ball, and there's no reason for him to stop now—especially not with the Falcons' 26th-ranked rushing offense taking on the NFL's top-ranked rushing defense this week.

    That puts the pressure squarely on Ryan and the passing game to flourish against the Chargers.

Stay Focused

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    Focus has been an issue for the Falcons.

    A lack of focus resulted in multiple dropped passes from receivers last week, including one in the end zone from Julio Jones.

    Matt Ryan was able to keep his turnover-free season alive against the Broncos, but luck has definitely played a part; the Falcons signal-caller got away with a few bad passes that easily could have been picked off by Broncos defenders, with one potentially costing the Falcons the game.

    Of course, the one who'll need to stay focused the most is Michael Turner, who expects to play this weekend despite being just days removed from his DUI arrest. Not helping his cause have been underwhelming performances so far this year. 

    The Falcons will need to tune out all distractions and focus on playing their best against the Chargers.