For the second week in a row, the Atlanta Falcons will be facing an opponent that has had an extra week of film study to prepare for them. I feel certain the Dallas Cowboys paid close attention to the Falcons past two victories against San Francisco and Chicago.
In those two weeks, one thing stands out. Defense.
The Falcons defense ranks 23rd in the NFL in yards allowed (359.2 per game) but third in points (15.4) and touchdowns (eight) allowed.
They have totaled only 10 sacks, which also ranks 23rd. That said, their five interceptions (10th in the NFL), 10 forced fumbles (second only to New England’s 11), seven fumble recoveries (fourth) and 12 total takeaways (tied for fourth) put them in the top 10 in total defense.
Bend, don't break while forcing the opponent to make mistakes. Even when the Falcons defense appears bad, they are deceiving. Dallas will find this a challenge.
The Cowboys are ranked high in offensive stats such as passing (ninth in the NFL) and rushing (third in the NFL) but have found themselves behind the eight ball against teams with winning records.
Of their two losses, they were defeated by teams with a combined record of 11-1. Of their three victories, their opponents' records are 3-14. The one-loss Chiefs took them into overtime prior to the Cowboys bye week, and a great play by receiver Miles Austin saved the day.
A lot depends on which Tony Romo shows up on Sunday. Known to be a "gunslinger" like his idol Brett Favre, Romo can strike gold or kill you with his decision making. One thing is certain, he will test the waters deep against the Falcons.
The Falcons secondary took a hit with the loss of cornerback Brian Williams. Williams was a huge part of the process that Coach Mike Smith preaches every week. Having coached Williams in Jacksonville, part of the process was implementing this stingy red zone defense the Falcons have incorporated.
It's not uncommon to watch teams dink and dunk their way down into the red zone. This is where the field shrinks and the Falcons speed defense takes over.
On the other side of the coin, the Cowboys have some serious red zone woes. In 15 trips this season, they have come away with a touchdown only seven times.
"Our efficiency down there hasn't been as good as we need it to be," said Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. "There have been opportunities we haven't taken advantage of. We just have to tighten it up."
This is a poor week to come to that declaration. The Falcons shine in the red zone. They have allowed only 37.5 percent of the opponents trips to result in a touchdown. That ranks them third in the NFL.
When the Falcons take over on offense, the first thing Cowboys defenders need to be aware of are the Nasty Boys. Former Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking elaborated earlier this week.
“I’m just letting them know how nasty Harvey Dahl and Clabo are," said Brooking. "Be careful. Those guys will sneak up on you in a heartbeat,” Brooking said. “I think the offensive line, like last year, has really come together. Those guys are playing together; all good offensive lines do that.”
When Dallas Has the Ball
The Cowboys love to spread out defenses. They play a lot of three wides and Jason Witten in a single back set. Out of that set they try to open the middle of the field to allow either Witten to exploit the zone defenses or delay a draw play with Felix Jones.
The Falcons have had issues with both draw plays and screen plays this season. Much of the yardage surrendered by the Falcons defense came in just that fashion. It will be a test to the line-backing corps to prevent the big play come Sunday.
Dallas usually runs the ball early in the game, and later in the second half they start taking shots downfield. If they can get the play-action passing game going it will slow down the pass rush of the Falcons front seven.
The Cowboys have announced that Miles Austin will be taking the spot opposite of Roy Williams on Sunday after his breakout game against the Chiefs.
Austin will be going against Williams replacement. No word on whether that will be second year LSU star Chevis Jackson, rookie Chris Owens, or backup Brent Grimes at this time.
When the Falcons Have the Ball
The Falcons are going to try to run the ball. It doesn't matter if it's a four man front or nine. They want to dictate the tempo of the game and it all starts with Turner.
Typically, the Falcons will run two tight end sets with Gonzalez and Peelle while lining up Roddy White wide. With Ovie Mughelli hurt, Jason Snelling gets the fullback spot. That alone may dictate some of the formations the Falcons are able to utilize.
Matt Ryan will make his pre-snap read and get the ball out quickly if he audibles into a passing play. Otherwise, expect to see Turner following the nasty boys Dahl and Clabo to the right side.
If the Falcons go no-huddle then watch out. Ryan is almost perfect in that formation. If the Cowboys allow Ryan to determine the defensive sets he will cause Wade Phillips fits with his hard counts and quick release.
Dallas must disguise their blitzes well. Ryan is a very cerebral quarterback.
Who is Thomas Decoud?
DeCoud (Day-Coo) was voted the NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his two interception day last Sunday. Stepping in for the departed Lawyer Milloy, DeCoud has shown his ability to find the ball.
If the ball stays in the air too long, look for him to be there waiting. He dropped two sure interceptions against the Niners, but he made up for it against the Bears.
Who Will Replace Brian Williams?
The Falcons have suffered some pretty devastating injuries this season. Peria Jerry, the Falcons first round defensive tackle selection, went down with a knee injury in week two and last weekend cornerback Brian Williams was hurt at the end of the game covering an end zone pass from Jay Cutler.
It's been musical chairs for the Falcons at corner this season. Both Williams and former first rounder Tye Hill joined the team after a poor showing the final week of preseason.
Williams, who played for Smith in Jacksonville, moved into the starting role opposite Chris Houston in week one.
With Williams injury, it could be Hill, second year player Chevis Jackson or rookie Chris Owens. The smart money will be on resident over-achiever Brent Grimes, but until Smith makes the call Sunday, it's a mystery.
Crayton Not a Happy Camper
Cowboys receiver Patrick Crayton lost his starting job in Kansas City after the show put on by Austin. He was none too happy about the situation. I know it's rare, but a Cowboys receiver is bitching to the media. He said he was never told of the switch prior to practice that morning.
"I would have loved it," Crayton said of an explanation from head coach Wade Phillips or offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. "It would have been real stand-up. That's not what happened. Oh, well."
If what Crayton says is true it would be a crappy way to find out. But Phillips insists Crayton knew. He went a step further and made the demotion appear obvious.
"I mean, it's obvious," Phillips said. "[Austin] had 250 yards receiving in one game. We said it all along—it's hard to say that you're not going to play the guy. I think he deserves to start."
So I guess it was obvious. That is to everyone but Crayton.
Matchups to Watch
Cornerback Terrence Newman vs. Receiver Roddy White
I've spoken to several Cowboys fans this week and the one consistent is they all feel Newman is overrated. I've watched Newman before and felt like he was a pretty solid player.
White can bring it on just about any player at any time so this one will be fun to watch.
Defensive Tackle Jay Ratliff vs. Center Todd McClure
This one may not be so much fun to watch. Ratliff is playing out of his mind right now. He's by far the best player on the defensive line. McClure has a tendency to get overpowered in the middle by stronger tackles.
He is much better suited to the stunting under-tackles than true nose guards.
Running backs Marion Barber and Felix Jones vs. Middle Linebacker Curtis Lofton
Literally dubbed thunder and lightning (much like Turner & Norwood), Barber and Jones present serious problems. The running backs for the two teams are like mirror images.
It will be up to Lofton to assure the two backs do not break loose down-field. Lofton has played as well as any MLB in the game right now.
Running back Michael Turner vs. Inside Linebacker Keith Brooking
What Falcons fan doesn't want to see this develop? Turner in the open field with only Brooking to make the stop. It will probably never happen, but enquiring minds want to know.
What would happen? Turner is rarely tackled by the first, or second, defender that engages him. His yards after contact is where he makes his money.
So Who Will Win?
Home field is a huge advantage. A stadium with right around 100,000 people will be very loud. Ryan will need to run the no-huddle to keep the defense off guard, and it's difficult in those hostile situations.
I believe coaching will make the difference. Which team is more prepared?
Even with an extra week to game plan, I still believe Mike Smith, Mike Mularkey, and Brian Van Gorder care better coaches than their opponents.
All that remains is that the players need to execute. The Falcons are the more disciplined team and they have the better leader in Matt Ryan.
Falcons 31, Cowboys 20
Look for turnovers to be the downfall of the Cowboys. They may put up more total yards than the Falcons, but I expect the Falcons to capitalize more with their opportunities.