When the schedule was released back in April, this game looked like it would be an easy victory for what figured to be a division-leading Falcons team at this point—not much was expected from the Jets.
Instead, it's Geno Smith and the 2-2 Jets who will come to the Georgia Dome on Monday night with a better record than a Falcons team that can no longer afford to take any opponent for granted.
Although their record is a bit of a surprise, the Jets have enough talent on both sides of the ball to give the Falcons issues if Atlanta doesn't come to play.
Let's preview Monday night's contest by taking a look at how the Falcons should attack the Jets on offense, defense and special teams based on our film study of the Jets first four games.
WHEN ATLANTA HAS THE BALL: FALCONS OFFENSE VS. JETS DEFENSE
Although the Jets defense is ranked eighth in the league in passing yards allowed (thanks in large part to Josh Freeman, E.J. Manuel and a bad game from New England's receiving corps), New York's secondary has had some trouble moving on from the Darrelle Revis days.
Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson (7 receptions, 154 yards), Patriots receiver Julian Edelman (13 receptions, 78 yards), Bills receiver Stevie Johnson (6 receptions, 86 yards) and Titans receiver Nate Washington (4 receptions, 105 yards, 2 touchdowns) all had big games against the Jets. In addition, Bills tight end Scott Chandler (5 receptions, 79 yards, 1 touchdown) found plenty of room to work as well.
Even though cornerback Antonio Cromartie is still playing at a relatively high level, Kyle Wilson and rookie cornerback Dee Milliner have struggled at times. Wilson had a particularly rough outing against the Bills when he clearly let his frustration get the best of him and was called for three consecutive penalties on a Bills drive in the fourth quarter.
That means if Atlanta can keep Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (12 tackles, 3 sacks) out of its backfield, there should be plenty of opportunities for Atlanta's receivers, even if the Jets borrow a page from the Patriots playbook and bracket Julio Jones.
Other than Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, a name that's familiar to many Falcons fans because of his impressive one-year stint in the SEC, is the other player to watch along the Jets defensive line. He's very active on the inside and he will penetrate Atlanta's backfield and make plays if Peter Konz, Garrett Reynolds and Justin Blalock play with poor technique.
OFFENSIVE KEYS FOR ATLANTA
1. EXPLOIT KYLE WILSON AND DEE MILLINER IN THE PASSING GAME
Wilson and Milliner are the weak links in the Jets secondary right now. If the Jets opt to put Antonio Cromartie on Julio Jones, the Falcons need Roddy White and Harry Douglas to win their matchups with Wilson and Milliner.
2. FIND MUHAMMAD WILKERSON AND KEEP HIM OUT OF THE BACKFIELD
Muhammad Wilkerson may be the best defensive linemen that the Falcons have faced this year, considering that Vince Wilfork and Cameron Wake left with injuries early on in their games against Atlanta. The Jets move him around, so Atlanta's offensive line must find him and account for him.
3. LOOK FOR EXPLOSIVE PLAYS
Here's a possible solution for Atlanta's red-zone woes: Get the ball in the end zone without having to go through the red zone. The Falcons must create some 20-plus yard plays against the Jets to help break out of their offensive funk.
4. GO NO HUDDLE
This is an aggressive Jets front seven that loves to use multiple fronts. The Falcons can create some confusion for the Jets and their eager defense by going no-huddle and preventing the Jets from getting set into Rex Ryan's complex defensive sets.
5. PROTECT THE FOOTBALL
If the Falcons hand the Jets a couple of turnovers, they could very well find themselves in a fourth quarter ball game—if the Jets are able to run the ball. To avoid that, the Falcons must protect the football.
WHEN NEW YORK HAS THE BALL: JETS OFFENSE VS. FALCONS DEFENSE
New York has out-rushed each of its first four opponents, and stopping the ground game is the key to stopping the Jets. That's probably going to be even more true for Atlanta's defense after Geno Smith's four turnover performance against the Titans in Week 4, as well as some recent injuries the Jets have sustained in their receiving corps.
Given how Legarrette Blount gashed them last week, Atlanta's defense may have a tough time with Jets running back Bilal Powell because he's faster than Blount and runs with just as much power. Atlanta's front seven has to be ready to play run defense with an attitude.
Expect Geno Smith to look to tight end Kellen Winslow even more in the passing game against Atlanta because he may be without his top two targets on the outside in Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill. Hill could still play Monday night, but he's going through the league's concussion protocol per ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini.
If Hill does play, Atlanta should expect Smith to take at least one deep shot to the Atlanta native because he's done so in every game New York has played.
Most of Smith's 11 turnovers (eight interceptions, three fumbles) have come when he has held the ball too long, so if Atlanta's secondary can take away Smith's first two reads, they can put the defense in position to get some much-needed takeaways.
DEFENSIVE KEYS FOR ATLANTA:
1. MAINTAIN GAP DISCIPLINE AGAINST THE RUN GAME
The Falcons can't afford to allow Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory to break off any long runs like the one Legerrette Blount had on Sunday. The Jets rely heavily on the run game and they'd love to be able to get their ground game going to set up some play-action passes to Stephen Hill and Kellen Winslow.
2. TAKE AWAY KELLEN WINSLOW
Like most rookie quarterbacks, Geno Smith targets his tight end a lot because Winslow is often his best checkdown option in New York's offense sets. If Atlanta's linebackers can take Winslow away from Smith, it could lead to a couple of sacks for Atlanta's defensive line.
3. BE READY TO TAKE THE BALL AWAY
The Jets have turned the ball over at least once in every game they've played so far. The Falcons can no longer settle for "almost" plays on defense. They need to take the ball away from Smith the way New York's first four opponents did.
4. AVOID PENALTIES
A few bonehead penalties by the Falcons defense may have almost as damaging an effect as Falcons turnovers on Atlanta's prospects for winning this game. The Falcons need to play with discipline if they're going to build and maintain a lead against the Jets.
5. LIMIT BIG PLAYS
The more plays the Falcons force Geno Smith to execute, the more likely they'll force a turnover. If Holmes and Hill don't play, the Jets may be more conservative on offense. Nevertheless, the Falcons defense cannot get lax and allow someone to get behind them in coverage.
Clyde Gates and Jeremy Kerley aren't household names, but they are both capable return men who have a great deal of pure speed. Neither one of them has returned a kick for a touchdown yet this year, but the Falcons will find out the hard way if their coverage units don't run their lanes and make sure tackles.
The more injuries the Falcons sustain, the more vulnerable their special teams units become. In a game like this, a special teams touchdown could be the difference between winning comfortably at home and having to sweat out another victory like the Falcons did in Week 2 against the Rams.
This is a game that the Falcons should win because they are facing a rookie quarterback who struggled in his first two road starts, but these Falcons have already proven that nothing is guaranteed with them this year.
Nevertheless, so long as Atlanta takes care of the football and doesn't commit foolish penalties, they ought to be able to handle a Jets team that has some talent, but has probably overachieved to this point.
ALL STATS ARE VIA ESPN STATS AND INFO, ALL SCREENSHOTS ARE VIA NFL.COM'S GAME REWIND.
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