Friday, October 23, 2009

Game Plan Friday: Atlanta Falcons


When the schedule came out in April, a few non-NFC East games jumped off the page at me. The Back-to-Back in December of my preseason Super Bowl teams San Diego and New Orleans looked incredibly formidable.

And then there was this one; the first ever Sunday Afternoon game played at the Brand New Death Star against last year's Cinderella playoff story, the Atlanta Falcons.

I wrote about their franchise in pretty elaborate detail yesterday , so check that out if you want to see more about the impressive building of this team. But, today, let us visit about what this all means and how the Cowboys can seize a big opportunity to make a move in the NFC Playoff picture.

First, let's remember that there is no more powerful tie-breaker in football than the head-to-head tiebreaker. Assuming that the Giants and Saints win both of these divisions (which is surely not a lock, but it is where the smart money is at this juncture) then that leaves 2 Wildcards for the Falcons, Eagles, Cowboys, Bears, Packers, and either the Cardinals or 49ers as it currently shakes out. I know it is early, but bear with me. That is 2 spots for 6 teams. You must go to Philadelphia and Green Bay later in November, so my best advice is to own this head-to-head tiebreaker here and now. You would jump past Atlanta and be in a fine spot as the calendar turns to November.

Second, The Cowboys are on long rest. The Falcons had to survive a war with the Bears on Sunday night. I know we cannot read too much into bye week advantages, travel advantages, and sore bodies versus fitness, but all of them?

Third, can we all agree the Cowboys are long overdue for a win they can hang their hat on? This would be a win that I doubt anyone would take a shot at. We cannot say that about the first 3 wins versus Tampa, Carolina, and Kansas City. The mental edge of a big win on Sunday would go a long way.

Now, about the Falcons. I would call them a solid team. Doesn't sound to sexy to say that, but what I mean by that is simple; They are well prepared. They are organized. They don't beat themselves. They don't give games away. They appear to have very little "knucklehead" content on their sideline. You can beat them, but you will be required to earn it. They won't hand you the ball and they won't kill themselves with penalties. In fact, you could make the case that all they did in their win against Chicago was wait for the Bears to give them the game. It is a fine art, but the Falcons appear to do it quite a bit.

They are 3-0 at the Georgia Dome, and 1-1 away. Those two road games were drastically different - as they were pounded by the Patriots in New England in a game that appeared a bit big for them to handle. Then, they go to Candlestick to play the 49ers after San Francisco was only a Brett Favre miracle from 4-0 and beat the Niners like a drum. I mean they hammered them with amazing ease to a point that the game was completely decided at the half, at 35-10.

Well-coached and well-stocked with top end talent in many of the right spots, this represents a true challenge to the Cowboys and a great chance to launch out of the bye week with great confidence and momentum. A win would be just what this fragile team needs.


Tony Romo will have all of his toys back, it would appear, on Sunday. Roy Williams has missed 1 game, Marion Barber hasn't been right in weeks, and Felix Jones has been gone since Carolina. Also, they have Miles Austin in the starting group to hopefully attract some safety support and make things easier on Jason Witten down the middle of the field.

The object of the game now - after a week for Jason Garrett to examine what has worked and what has not from the first five games - is to go back to the 2 TE rushing attack and keep cranking up that diesel. Pass as a compliment, but you must not toss the ball around as a first priority. This team doesn't have enough match-up issues at WR for it to be done any other way in my opinion. Whether Garrett agrees has yet to be determined.

For Atlanta, only 8 teams in the NFL allow more yards per game than the Falcons do (359.2). Those 8 teams could all be in the debate for the worst 8 teams in the NFL. So, how are the Falcons still amongst the heavyweight contenders in the NFC? Easy. All of those yards don't mean a thing if you don't allow points. Atlanta has allowed 15.4 points per game. That is 3rd best in the NFL. The only 2 teams to allow fewer points this season? 6-0 Denver and 5-0 Indianapolis.

So what is the Atlanta Defense? And what is the difference between their defense and the Dallas D that gives up 2 fewer yards per game? Takeaways, Silly. Atlanta has taken the ball away 12 times in 5 games. Dallas has taken the ball away from its opponent 4 times in 5 games. 8 more turnovers generated saves points and gets field position for their offense. Football is sure easy when you play that way.

As I said yesterday, they are led by their two "Box" linebackers, Curis Lofton and Mike Peterson. Both fly around well, and Peterson will come on the inside blitz when you lose track of him. Beyond that, the pass rush is average, and the secondary is nothing better than "opportunistic".


1) - Be Physical with that Play Calling - Last week, I wrote about the excellence in the "12" and "22" packages . This week, We showed how poorly the Cowboys are in their 3rd Down package with Shotgun and 3 WRs. The Cowboys have to do two things: 1) Be mindful of what they do well and what they do not do well. And 2) Stay out of Down and Distance scenarios that force them into these bad spots where they have no choice but to roll the bones on 3rd and Long. When you can run the ball at will, and when you are playing a team that is not big on the defensive line, you read the recipe for a physical, dominating offensive game plan. I hope Jason Garrett sees this.

2) - Protect the Edge Pass Rush - Everyone knows John Abraham can rush the passer. To me, he looks like the prototypical speed pass rusher with the negatives that go with it - it seems you can run right at him. I think the Falcons know that as it is not uncommon for him to be rotated out periodically. Nevertheless, he likes to lower the left shoulder and turn the corner low and quick. Obviously, this is Flozell's weak spot. Certainly a challenge on the blindside. On the edge is another guy, who until I watched several Falcons games this week I had never heard of - Kroy Biermann, #71. This DE is another interesting high-motor pass rusher who shows up all over the place. I like what I see from him, and I am sure the Cowboys are looking for him on either edge.

3) - WRs must make plays - I hate to jump on top of the Roy Williams pile, but it would sure seem that these next few games will determine what he will be with the Dallas Cowboys. If he continues to under-achieve and pace himself for a 600-800 yard season, then the Cowboys will likely spend the off-season looking once again to find a lead dog in this group. He must make people guard him. He must make plays. He must be the #1 the Cowboys need him to be. Sadly, I am not sure he has the mentality for this job, and he may not have the ability to dominate a game either. His 28th birthday is coming, so it is fair to ask if this is what he is. If that is the case, then they better hope Miles Austin has more in his bag like he showed in KC. You can say it was poor tackling by the Chiefs, but that is the point: Make the other DBs look like poor tacklers once in a while, Roy.

4) - Stop Committing Penalties - Things are sabotaging this offense. By yardage and yards per play alone, this offense has the looks of a power. In fact, they are 1st in the NFL in a few of these yards stats. But, that doesn't mean a thing if they don't turn into points. Now, the Cowboys do not commit the most penalties in the NFL. In fact, the 40 that have been called and 37 that have been accepted are not near the league leaders (BUF: 61/52), but the Cowboys seem to have the market cornered in offensive penalties that kill drives. They consistently have a pre-snap killer that takes 2nd and 10 into 2nd and 15, and the Cowboys do not get out of that mess very well anymore. Good teams seldom beat themselves. Let the Cowboys prove they are a good team by getting the false starts, the illegal formations, and the illegal motion penalties under control.


Of the two units on the Cowboys, there is no question going in which one is being doubted. Most do not expect the Dallas Defense to have many answers for this dangerous Atlanta Offense. What makes the Falcons so impressive now is obviously what a premier WR and a premier TE can do to an opponent. Last year, it was making the defense choose between keying on Roddy White or Michael Turner. Now, Turner fades into the background a bit, and the initial choice is White on the outside vs Gonzalez in the middle.

The Cowboys have faced the following starting Tight Ends so far this season: Kellen Winslow, Kevin Boss, Jeff King, Tony Scheffler, and Sean Ryan. Now, they enter a string of games where they face Tony Gonzalez, John Carlson, Brent Celek, Donald Lee, and Chris Cooley. It would seem that this defines a dramatic step up at a position that generally gives the Cowboys LBs and Safeties fits. How Gerald Sensabaugh, Bradie James, and friends defend the middle will likely decide this game. If they are easily exploited, I have a hard time figuring out how they get stops at crucial times.


1) - Pressure, Pressure, Pressure - Matt Ryan is a young QB, but he is also one who is 15-6 in his 21 NFL Regular Season Starts. He has a wonderful awareness and a calm that reminds you a bit of Tom Brady. He seems to see the field well and understand his offense as well as you could hope a Young QB could. The entire Atlanta offense is based on getting the ball out quick and not letting Ryan get hit. Miami sacked him twice in week 1, and since then, he has not been sacked once. The Panthers, Patriots, 49ers, and Bears all were shutout of the sack pursuit. Surely, this cannot continue, right? The entire Atlanta OL wears a beard, and although that may not have anything to do with this point, I felt you needed to know that. The Cowboys need to get sacks. The way to get this is to blitz from the inside. When you do that, you occupy the RB in blitz pick-up, and they cannot then chip on Ware on the edge. If Ware is un-chipped, then he is straight up against the young and talented Sam Baker. This is where the Cowboys get to Matt Ryan. It all starts with rolling the bones a bit on a blitz and making Ryan think twice.

2) - Continue to plug the run up - Statistically, the Cowboys are not considered among the best run stopping teams in the NFL. But, in my estimation, in the last 4 games, the Cowboys have done a great job of making sure teams would get frustrated by their running games and just decide to do something else. The Cowboys are stout against the run. That will serve them well as the season continues, so don't let Michael Turner get going. Jerious Norwood will not play, so it will be up to a banged up Turner, and seldom used Jason Snelling to carry the mail on Sunday. The Cowboys need to be waiting with a sack of hammers.

3) - Figure out the Roddy White/Tony Gonzalez overload - This is how the Atlanta offense works. Figure out what the defense is doing with Gonzalez, and react. Sometimes it is based on the idea that if he draws the safety in the middle, that leaves Roddy White in 1-on-1. Sometimes it is based on if the ILBs go with Gonzalez, then they play a cat-and-mouse play action game with Michael Turner running the ball right where Gonzalez vacated. But, make no mistake, Matt Ryan and Mike Mularkey take their cues from you. So, it will require some varied looks and the type of complicated scheme that once had us remarking how great a defensive mind Wade Phillips was. Oh, and one other thing. Roddy White is the real deal. He maybe the most underrated premier receiver in the league. Twice in the last two weeks, they have thrown a 8 yard curl to him, and he breaks one tackle and is gone for a long Touchdown (just like Miles Austin's day in KC - except he has done it for several years). This idea of Newman locking him down seems very optimistic, but whoever is there must bring him down.

4) - Don't be afraid to mix in the occasional takeaway - This defense has not done the offense favors hardly at all. In fact, aside from Terrence Newman's interception against Carolina and Bradie James Fumble Recovery at Denver, you can safely say that in 300+ minutes this season, the Defense hasn't done anything to aid in offense. The Cowboys have the 30th best starting field position in football. They start each possession on average, 9 yards behind the New York Giants. When you consider that there are roughly 12 offensive series per game, that means the Giants get a 108 yard head start on the Cowboys every Sunday. Allen Rossum can cut into that some with better returns, but the only way to close that gap significantly is to get some help from the turnover.

SUMMARY:This result gives me great pause. If the game was in Atlanta, I would take the Falcons. Since the game is here, I am going to assume the Cowboys are pouring their best effort into it, and coming off the bye they are poised to perform. If they win this game, you can dream and see this set of 6 games (Atl, Sea, @Phil, @GB, Wash, Oak) as a reasonable stretch where a split on the road and a sweep at home sticks you at 8-3 heading into the final push. Optimistic, but not impossible - provided you do what you need to do on Sunday.

I have honestly no idea what Cowboys team comes out on Sunday. But, I think they know that a loss here would really, really cripple their ability to keep a brave face.

Dallas 26, Atlanta 24 (Yes, I have picked the Cowboys all 6 games. I know)

Past Issues:

Kansas City Game Plan

Denver Game Plan

Carolina Game Plan

Giants Game Plan

Tampa Bay Game Plan

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