After having an extra week to prepare for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Falcons saw marked improvement in their pass protection, third-down defense and red-zone offense.
Let's kick off our Falcons-Cardinals game week coverage with our weekly look at the NFC South standings, the Falcons injury report and the areas where the Falcons need to improve if they're going to get another win this Sunday.
NFC South Standings
|NFC South Standings|
|Team||Record||vs. NFC South||vs. NFC||Week 8 Opponent|
|New Orleans Saints||5-1||2-0||4-0||vs. Buffalo|
|Carolina Panthers||3-3||0-0||3-2||at Tampa Bay|
|Atlanta Falcons||2-4||1-1||2-1||at Arizona|
|Tampa Bay Buccaneers||0-6||0-2||0-4||vs. Carolina|
The Falcons are still in third place in the division after Carolina won its second straight game and reached the .500 mark. The Falcons will get a shot to move ahead of the Panthers in two weeks when they make their annual trip to Charlotte, but before that happens, Carolina has a Thursday night date with the Buccaneers.
If the season ended after Week 7, the Detroit Lions (4-3) would get the final wild-card spot in the NFC. The Falcons may be three games back in the division, but they are still very much alive in the early race for the last wild-card spot in the NFC since they're only a game and a half back of Detroit.
At 3-4, the Arizona Cardinals are one of the teams currently between Atlanta and Detroit in the standings, so it would behoove the Falcons to take care of business on Sunday if they want to be relevant in the NFC playoff picture this time next month.
|Player||Injury||Expected Return Date|
|Julio Jones||Foot||Out for Season|
|Kroy Biermann||Achilles||Out for Season|
|Bradie Ewing||Shoulder||Out for Season|
|Mike Johnson||Leg/Ankle||Out for Season|
|Sean Weatherspoon||Foot||Possibly Week 11|
|Steven Jackson||Thigh||Expected to Practice this Week|
|via NFL.com, ESPN.com, AtlantaFalcons.com and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution|
The Falcons got some good news on Monday when head coach Mike Smith announced that running back Steven Jackson, who's been out since the first quarter of Atlanta's Week 2 win over the St. Louis Rams, will return to practice on Wednesday.
Atlanta was able to throw the ball around against the Bucs, but it'll probably need more balance against a stout Arizona Cardinals defense that gave the Falcons all they could handle at the Georgia Dome last season. Jackson's return would certainly help the Falcons with that.
What Needs to Improve
The Falcons defense was improved against the Buccaneers, but it did give up another big play when Bucs receiver Vincent Jackson caught a 59-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Atlanta's defense is going to have to do a better job at preventing the big play this week against Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals.
In addition, the Falcons have to find a way to run the ball with or without Steven Jackson. That burden falls mostly on the Falcons offensive line, but fullback Patrick DiMarco and offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter both have key roles to play as well.
We'll see if the Falcons can make it two in a row on Sunday afternoon.