It's usually not an easy task to face an NFL team after its bye week. With an extra week for the coaching staff to prepare, and for the players to heal, teams can put up stellar efforts after a week of rest.
Their records are worlds apart. Oakland has just one win to three losses, and Atlanta is a perfect 5-0. But Atlanta's had to fight for its last two wins, and Oakland has had a lot of time to pick apart game film.
On the surface, this matchup looks like a contest of two poor run defenses against two running backs—Darren McFadden for Oakland and Michael Turner for Atlanta—that haven’t hit their grove yet.
There’s also an injury factor wreaking havoc on Oakland’s secondary. And that’s not a pleasant situation, facing this powerful Atlanta offense.
Here’s how Atlanta should draw up a game plan for the visiting Raiders.
Attack Through the Air
With weapons like Roddy White, Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez, who’s leading the league with 39 receptions, is there any other top option that could be suggested for the Falcons to use on an opponent?
But it gets deeper than just the skill and depth the Falcons have on offense. Atlanta has too many elite-threat options for any defense to stop all of them.
Even though the distribution was even, the Kansas City Chiefs attempted to take Gonzalez out of the game, and Jones caught two touchdown passes. The San Diego Chargers tried to take Jones and the deep route away, and Atlanta hit Gonzalez nine times underneath that deep coverage.
Most recently, the Washington Redskins looked to stop White and take away the deep option. The result was 13 catches for Gonzalez and a message to the league: Whatever you try to do to stop us, we’ll counter.
Matt Ryan said Wednesday that in-game scheme changes and waiting for opportunities was key to Atlanta success.
“We’ve been played different ways,” Ryan said. “You just have to react to it and adjust throughout the game. Last week, they dropped a lot of guys on some of our deeper stuff and forced us to be a little patient. However they come out and play, we have to adjust to that and execute.”
The Oakland secondary hasn’t put up much of a fight this season, allowing nine touchdowns through the air and ranking 27th after giving up 283 yards per game.
Injuries to starting cornerbacks Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell have forced not only an inexperienced Pat Lee to the starting rotation, but the Raiders asked Michael Huff to move from safety to cornerback, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, to help the depleted unit.
Atlanta should attack through the air, and it may be a relentless and brutal barrage of passes.
Don’t Let McFadden Gain Momentum
The Raiders are last in the NFL in rushing, averaging just 60.8 yards per game on the ground. Running back Darren McFadden busted up the Pittsburgh Steelers for 113 yards in Week 3 but has been held below 35 yards a game in his other three games this year.
What’s the Oakland coaching staff going to do to help get McFadden going this Sunday in Atlanta?
For starters, Atlanta’s rush defense ranks No. 28 in the league, so that will help. But the Raiders have another plan too: give McFadden the ball more.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, running backs coach Kelly Skipper plans to get McFadden more involved in the offensive attack.
“You’ll see a big change,” said Skipper on how often McFadden will touch the ball in the Georgia Dome. “The more reps you get, the better you get at it.”
Using his 113-yard outburst against Pittsburgh as proof, McFadden can explode if he gets a head of steam under him. Atlanta cannot let that happen on Sunday.
Explode the Middle of the Line
The Falcons have pushed the ball up the middle more times during the rushing attack this season than any other direction a play can go. Atlanta’s rushed the ball 29 times up the middle, nine times more than the 20 times around each end the Falcons have gone.
As a team, Atlanta averages 4.38 yards per carry on runs through the middle of the line, and conversely, this is where most teams attack Oakland.
Opposing offenses have run 49 run plays—which ranks fifth in the NFL—into the middle of Oakland’s defensive line for an average of 4.35 yards per carry.
The Denver Broncos had success using cross-blocking schemes to burst Willis McGahee through the Raiders line. Expect the Falcons to give Ryan’s arm a break every now and again and use Michael Turner to exploit this weakness.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.