Atlanta Falcons vs. Miami Dolphins: Breaking Down Atlanta's Game Plan
Led by second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill and an opportunistic defense that's tied for the league lead in team sacks, the Dolphins began the season with a 23-10 victory in Cleveland before going into Indianapolis and beating Andrew Luck's Colts 24-20.
Sunday will be the first opportunity for players like Jonathan Massaquoi, Joplo Bartu, Patrick DiMarco, Jason Snelling and Jacquizz Rodgers to prove that they're up to the task of filling in for injured starters Kroy Biermann, Sean Weatherspoon, Bradie Ewing and Steven Jackson.
How should the short-handed Falcons offense attack Miami's defense? What does Atlanta's defense need to do to contain Ryan Tannehill? What impact will special teams have on the game?
We'll discuss the answers to those questions and more as we break down the Falcons' blueprint for a victory on Sunday in Miami.
When Atlanta Has the Ball: Falcons Offense vs. Miami Defense
The Dolphins are tied for the league lead in sacks and they're second in interceptions. The Falcons offense must protect the football if Atlanta is going to hand Miami its first loss on Sunday. Miami's defense is led by defensive end Cameron Wake, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, safety Reshad Jones and ex-Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes.
Wake, who's leading the Dolphins with 2.5 sacks, lines up at left defensive end so Falcons right tackle Lamar Holmes is set to draw the assignment of keeping Wake out of Atlanta's backfield.
On the other side of the line, Sam Baker will match up against Olivier Vernon, who's off to a disappointing start of his own.
Sun Life Stadium isn't the Superdome and it will never be confused with CenturyLink Field. However, given how both of Atlanta's offensive tackles struggled on the road in Week 1, Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter would be wise to adopt a similar game plan to the one he used against the Rams that called for shorter drops and quicker throws from Matt Ryan.
The Falcons may catch a break in the ground game as Dolphins defensive tackle Paul Soliai may miss Sunday's contest with a knee injury. Nevertheless, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick are still a formidable tandem on the inside.
Atlanta doesn't have to rush for 100 yards to win this game, but it's going to need enough of a ground game to slow down Miami's pass rush. Since neither Jacquizz Rodgers or Jason Snelling have proved to be 15-20 carry a game type backs, the Falcons need to find creative ways to get them the ball in situations where they can create positive yardage out of the backfield. That means calling shovel passes, screens/draws and running the ball on downs when the defense is expecting pass plays.
Sure, shovel passes and screens go towards passing yards, but in this case, a few big gains on those plays would be as good as a long gain on the ground for Atlanta because of the impact they would have on Miami's front seven.
In the air, the Dolphins have struggled to cover opposing tight ends through their first two games, as Browns tight end Jordan Cameron (9 receptions, 104 yards, 1 TD) and Colts tight end Coby Fleener (4 receptions, 69 yards, 1 TD) each had big games against Miami.
With that in mind, expect the Falcons to look for Tony Gonzalez early and often. If Tony Gonzalez can force Miami into using Reshad Jones against him, that should open up more plays for Atlanta's receivers.
Roddy White will probably be limited again on the outside, but Atlanta still has favorable matchups on the outside with Harry Douglas and Julio Jones taking on Brent Grimes, Dimitri Patterson and Nolan Carroll. Yes, Miami's secondary is off to a good start, but they haven't faced the caliber of wide receivers that the Falcons have yet.
When Miami Has the Ball: Dolphins Offense vs. Falcons Defense
Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill appeared on Miami's injury report this week after being sacked five times against the Colts last Sunday, but at this point it'd be surprising to see him miss Miami's home opener versus the Falcons.
Though he's very capable as a runner, Tannehill has done his damage through the air in Miami's first two games, as he's thrown for 591 yards, two touchdowns and completed a little over 65 percent of his passes.
Mike Wallace, Miami's top free-agent signing, had a quiet outing in Week 1, but Tannehill found him nine times for 115 yards and a touchdown in Week 2 at Indianapolis. You can bet that Miami will take a shot or two downfield for Wallace in its first game in front of the home fans.
Atlanta should also be wary of a misdirection or some other type of gimmick play to Wallace this week. He is Miami's best big-play option, and the best way to energize the home crowd early on is to dial up a touchdown via a long ball or a highlight-reel run.
Brian Hartline is a very underrated receiver on the other side of Wallace. He may not be the big-play threat that Wallace is, but he already has 14 receptions and Tannehill has targeted him more than any other Dolphins receiver. The Falcons defense needs to identify him pre-snap on every play because there's a good chance Tannehill will be looking for him.
Dolphins fullback Charles Clay has been playing more like a tight end since Dustin Keller went out with an injury in the preseason, and like Hartline, the Dolphins move him around their formations to exploit one-on-one matchups and find holes in zone coverages. Don't be surprised to hear his name called often on Sunday as Miami tries to attack Atlanta's depleted linebacker corps in coverage.
Up front, the Miami Dolphins have given up more sacks than the Falcons and they also have fewer rushing yards than the Falcons. Miami had more success getting running back Lamar Miller going in Week 2, but even with the injury to Kroy Biermann, Atlanta's defensive line should be able to win some one-on-one battles against Miami's offensive line, including Jonathan Massaquoi's matchup against ex-Falcon Tyson Clabo.
Dolphins kick returner Marcus Thigpen brought two kicks out from deep inside the end zone against the Colts and reached his own 30-yard line each time. He's primed for a big return if Atlanta isn't disciplined on its kick coverage teams.
With injuries forcing some of Atlanta's backups to play more prominent roles on offense and defense, the potential special teams impact cannot be ignored. The coaching staff needs to do its best to keep fresh bodies on the special teams units to avoid a lapse in coverage.
Falcons punter Matt Bosher had one of his better games last week against the Rams, and the Falcons need him to help control the field position battle in what figures to be a tight game on the road. There is a 30 percent chance of rain in Miami on Sunday, and if the rain does come, field position will become even more important.
Keys for Atlanta
1. Protect the Football. For all that was made of Atlanta's offensive line play against the Saints in Week 1, the biggest play of the game may have been Julio Jones' fumble that completely changed the momentum in the second quarter. It's tough to win games on the road in the NFL when you turn the ball over. The Falcons can't afford to lose possessions to this ball-hawking Miami defense.
2. Look for Tony Gonzalez in the Passing Game. The Dolphins haven't done a good job of covering tight ends through their first two weeks of the season. Tony Gonzalez has been relatively quiet for the Falcons, especially with Roddy White being limited. Something's got to give this week if Atlanta is going to win this game.
3. Find Creative Ways to Make Up for Steven Jackson's Absence. The Falcons struggled to get their ground game going once Steven Jackson left the game last week until Jason Snelling scored the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter. They've got to be more balanced against Miami to help nullify the Dolphins pass rush. Shovel passes, screens/draws and timely play-calling can all help the Falcons here.
4. Be Wary of Mike Wallace. Wallace bounced back with a strong performance in Week 2 after a quiet outing opening weekend in Cleveland. The Falcons defense must anticipate that the Dolphins will try to get a big play or two out of Wallace in his first game in front of the home fans.
5. Find Charles Clay. Charles Clay is a name that's probably under the radar, but he's done an admirable job at filling in for Dustin Keller for the Miami Dolphins. He had a 67-yard catch against the Colts and he can play out of the backfield as a fullback or line up off the line in the slot like a receiver. Miami could look for Clay often since Atlanta's linebacking corps will be without its best player.
6. Don't Let the Injuries Impact Special Teams. Many of the Falcons reserves who are now being called on to play feature roles on offense and defense were key special teams contributors. It's times like this that teams are vulnerable to a big returns in the kicking game because the coverage units will either be exhausted or playing some guys who haven't played much on special teams. Atlanta needs to look out for this on Sunday and stress disciplined special teams play.
Which matchup concerns you the most this week against Miami?
The Falcons will be shorthanded when they head to South Florida to take on the 2-0 Dolphins, but even still, this is a very winnable game for the Falcons. Miami's two wins came on the road against Cleveland and Indianapolis, so while impressive, their 2-0 record still may not be indicative of how good this team is yet.
This figures to be a hard-fought, tightly contested game, so the difference may come down to which team is able to protect the football and which team makes the big plays in the fourth quarter.
If the Falcons can execute these keys, they should be able to hand Miami its first loss of the year.
ALL STATS ARE FROM ESPN.COM, ALL SCREENSHOTS ARE COURTESY OF NFL.COM'S GAME REWIND
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