When the Dallas Cowboys and the Atlanta Falcons meet in the Georgia Dome Sunday night in prime time, the biggest question on everyone’s mind will be about the Falcons’ undefeated streak. Can Atlanta stay perfect and move to 8-0?
The more important question should be, can the potent Falcons offense continue to thrive facing the Cowboys' stingy defense?
In Atlanta’s first seven games, this offense has played against two teams (Denver and San Diego) ranked in the top 10 in overall defense. Only Denver ranks in the top 10 (No. 8) against the pass, which is Atlanta’s strong suit.
The Cowboys have the fourth-ranked defense overall and the No. 3 pass defense in the league. This will be Matt Ryan’s biggest test to date.
If the Falcons want to move to 8-0, and take advantage of the national limelight of playing on Sunday night, here are a few ideas for the Atlanta game plan.
Forget About Records
Even though the Falcons are a perfect 7-0 and the Cowboys are a humble 3-4, Atlanta would be well suited to forget about the standings.
Dallas’ four losses have come at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks, the Chicago Bears, the Baltimore Ravens and the New York Giants. Those teams are currently a combined 21-9. Dallas has been losing, but the Cowboys have played a tough schedule.
On the other hand, Atlanta is 7-0 but against seven teams with a combined record of 19-33.
Take away the Week 2 win over the Denver Broncos and Atlanta doesn’t have a win over a team that currently has a winning record. Only twice—Denver and San Diego—have the Falcons played a team that had a winning record at the time of the game.
Atlanta might not be as good as its perfect record. Dallas is definitely better than its 3-4 record. Maybe the Falcons should just forget about previous wins and losses and focus on what’s worked for them all season.
Win the Turnover Battle
Dallas has at least one turnover in every game they've played this season—five against the Bears and six against the Giants.
Atlanta has at least one takeaway in six of the seven games they've played—four against the Broncos, four against the Chargers.
The fact that the Falcons rank No. 4 in the league in giveaway/takeaway margin and the Cowboys rank 31st should bode well for Atlanta.
Of Dallas’ 19 turnovers, 15 have come when Tony Romo was in some way involved. Romo has 13 interceptions and two lost fumbles. The Falcons must continue to keep pressure on him, hitting him frequently.
According to Pro Football Focus, Romo’s thrown more interceptions when under pressure than any other quarterback in the NFL. He’s thrown six picks and been sacked 13 times when opposing defenses get good pressure on him.
Romo also ranks No. 28 (55.6 percent) among passers in accuracy percentage, a Pro Football Focus statistic that looks at a quarterback’s aimed passes and counts completions and drops as a completion.
The key to getting Romo to cough up the football is to get good pressure on him. John Abraham said Wednesday that he didn’t care who was in front of him protecting the quarterback.
“I don’t care if you’re old or young, I feel like I can beat you," said Abraham.
Keep Spreading the Attack Around
It’s no secret that one of the keys to Atlanta’s success this season has been the aerial assault on defenses. No one seems able to contain Ryan and his army of more-than-capable receivers.
With 2,018 yards passing through seven games, Ryan’s on pace to throw for a tick over 4,600 this year, which would be more than a 10 percent increase over his franchise record-setting total from 2011.
Who will win on Sunday night?
More important than the uptick in yardage is Ryan’s increased completion percentage and the way he’s finding multiple targets. He’s completed 68.7 percent of his passes this season, a 7.4 point increase from last year, and already has connected with seven receivers on touchdown passes.
It’s almost unfair to defensive coordinators to have to game plan for the onslaught of Atlanta receiving options.
It’s tough enough to have to figure out how to contain Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Teams have focused on one or two of Atlanta’s “key three” targets but have never been able to fully cover all three. That’s what makes Atlanta so tough.
With touchdown passes to Drew Davis and Jason Snelling last week, now defenses have to try and guess just where Ryan is going throw and how he’s going to beat them through the air.
Ryan needs to continue throwing efficiently and keep getting multiple receivers involved.
Programming Note: To see how the Cowboys might game plan for the Falcons, check out Brad Gagnon's thought's on how Dallas should play.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.