Cowboys vs. Falcons: 5 Matchups That Will Decide SNF Clash
The Dallas Cowboys (3-4) travel to Atlanta Sunday night in an attempt to do what no team has done so far this season: beat the 7-0 Falcons.
Of course, the Cowboys have a recent history of doing just that.
Over the past six years, Dallas beat an unbeaten Indianapolis Colts team in 2006 and the 13-0 New Orleans Saints in 2009. Will the Falcons be No. 3 Sunday night?
In the following slides, we break down the five matchups that will decide whether the Cowboys improve to 4-4 or the Falcons roll to 8-0.
Cowboys RB Felix Jones vs. Falcons Run Defense
Felix Jones and the Cowboys run game may be Dallas' best avenue to an upset Sunday night.
While unbeaten, the Falcons are allowing over five yards a carry and 136 rushing yards a game in 2012. Both rank near the bottom of the NFL this season. Compounding those numbers will be the loss of linebacker and leading tackler Sean Weatherspoon, who won't play Sunday night.
The benefits of getting Jones going are two-fold.
Finding an identity on the ground early would take some of the enormous pressure off quarterback Tony Romo while also controlling the time of possession and keeping Matt Ryan and the Falcons passing game off the field. Running the football is a must for Dallas Sunday night.
Cowboys OLBs vs. Falcons OT
When the Falcons offense hasn't produced, it's been because the offensive line hasn't kept Matt Ryan clean in the pocket. Games against Carolina and Oakland come to mind, with the Falcons struggling up front against each defensive line.
For Rob Ryan and the Cowboys defense, the outside linebackers need to be the ones consistently controlling the edges against the pass.
Falcons tackles Sam Baker and Tyson Clabo have been far from poor this season, but neither is an elite pass protector. DeMarcus Ware, still one of the game's very best pass-rushers (7.5 sacks), and Anthony Spencer are capable of making life for Ryan very difficult Sunday night.
Cowboys TE Jason Witten vs. Falcons LBs
The Cowboys offense runs at its highest efficiency when the running game is working and tight end Jason Witten is controlling the middle of the field.
Witten held up his end of the bargain last Sunday against the New York Giants.
Despite his offense ultimately coming up short, the veteran tight end caught a franchise-record 18 passes in Week 8 as the Cowboys rallied from a 23-0 deficit. He could have another big game Sunday night with Weatherspoon already ruled out.
Witten obviously won't catch 18 passes again Sunday night, but expect Romo to continue leaning heavily on his security blanket. The Falcons don't have a linebacker capable of handling him for 60 minutes.
Cowboys QB Tony Romo vs. Falcons Secondary
There's a dangerous combination brewing in this matchup for Tony Romo and the turnover-prone Cowboys offense.
A week after throwing four interceptions, Romo faces a defense that has forced the third-most turnovers in the NFC this season. Overall, the Cowboys have turned the ball over an NFC-high 19 times this season.
On the other end of the spectrum, Atlanta has 10 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries already in 2012. This is one of the NFL's best team in turnover differentials.
If the Cowboys want to have any chance of pulling off the upset, Romo and the Cowboys offense have to take care of the football. Giveaways could turn this into a cakewalk for the Falcons.
Cowboys CBs vs. Falcons WRs
This Falcons offense is a far cry from the one that used to protect Matt Ryan with the running game. Once mostly ground-and-pound, Atlanta loves spreading out teams and exploiting the vertical passing game with Julio Jones and Roddy White.
The Cowboys, sensing that trend in offenses league-wide, spent valuable resources on upgrading the cornerback position this past offseason. However, first-rounder Morris Claiborne and free-agent signee Brandon Carr may have their most difficult task of 2012 Sunday night.
There will be times when defensive coordinator Rob Ryan brings pressure and leaves the two cornerbacks on an island. How they respond to that challenge might be the biggest factor in how the Cowboys handle the Falcons' explosive offense.