It seems like only yesterday that Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott entered the league and the Atlanta Falcons were in the Super Bowl. The Falcons haven’t been able to recapture the magic as their then offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan left town to coach the San Francisco 49ers, who just so happen to be the team that represented the NFC in the Super Bowl last season. Since Shanahan left, the Falcons have progressively gotten worse and are coming off of two straight losing seasons. Last week, they suffered a 38-25 home loss against another NFC powerhouse team, the Seattle Seahawks.
Both the Falcons and Cowboys are hoping to avoid an 0-2 start, but alas, only one will be successful. In what should be a good NFC battle, here are five things to watch out for when these two face off on Sunday.
1. Cowboys CB’s face a tough test
The Falcons are a passing team. Even with the addition of running back Todd Gurley, the Falcons haven’t changed how they do things on offense. They were ineffective running the ball as Gurley had just 56 yards in his return to Georgia. Instead, Matt Ryan aired it out 54 times, accounting for 72% of their total plays on offense. The veteran quarterback locked in on his usual favorites as both the Bama Boys Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley had big games, but a third receiver joined the party as Russell Gage had a nice game as well. Those three receivers contributed 401 of the team’s 450 receiving yards.
Unlike the Rams Jared Goff, Ryan steps back and relies on protection to attack downfield. When he has time, he can do some damage. The Cowboys cornerbacks were rarely challenged last week because the Rams were so run heavy, but that will all change this week. Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Trevon Diggs will all have their hands full as Ryan will spread the love to these three receivers.
2. Gotta get in Ryan’s face
While the threat of a big plays is a cause for concern for the Cowboys defense, it’s going to require that Ryan has time to operate in the pocket. It was hard to tell last week because of how quickly Goff got rid of the ball, but if Dallas stays persistent with their pass rush, they should be able to create some problems for Ryan. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan sent a lot extra rushers against the Rams; however, the Cowboys were rarely ahead in the down and distance battle, so they couldn’t fully utilize their pass rushing weapons. It will be imperative that they bring a strong pass rush on Sunday.
The Seahawks dialed up some blitzes and Ryan had no answer. Our old friend Benson Mayowa had a nice pass swat on a fourth-down play, and this added pressure allowed them to get the Falcons offense off the field. It may require the Cowboys defense to sell out at times, but getting after Ryan is crucial.
3. Gotta give Dak time to operate
The Falcons have a good defensive line. The combination of Grady Jarrett, Dante Fowler, and Takkarist McKinley present a force in the trenches as they combined for three sacks against an elusive Russell Wilson.
The Cowboys are banged up on the offensive line. Starting right tackle La’el Collins began the season on injured reserve, and swing tackle Cam Erving suffered an injury early in the Rams game. This will once again leave UDFA rookie Terence Steele to start out on the edge, and he’ll be going against McKinley which will be a matchup to keep an eye on. And while we are optimistic he’ll be good to go, left tackle Tyron Smith missed practice yesterday with an apparent neck injury. All these things collectively create some added nervousness for Cowboys fans because if the line starts to break down, Prescott’s internal clock is going to speed up in a hurry. And we all know what happened to the Cowboys last time against the Falcons when their backup tackles struggled (eight sacks is what happened!).
The Cowboys must come away will good protection if they want that potent offense to do it’s thing. Without it, it could be a frustrating day for the offense.
4. Attack the Falcons young corners
The Rams secondary did a nice job of keeping things out in front of them to where the Cowboys didn’t have any big passing plays that weren’t nullified by a dubious offensive pass interference penalty. They also were quick to wrap up the Cowboys receivers so they weren’t able to gain many yards after the catch. These things helped keep the Dallas passing game in check.
The same difficulties won’t exist with Atlanta. The Falcons have two young corners on the outside with third-year player Isaiah Oliver and rookie A.J. Terrell. Both are nice talents, but they don’t have the experience to handle the Cowboys arsenal of receivers. Last week, Russell Wilson was able to catch these guys in one on one matchups and take advantage when D.K. Metcalf got passed them. This is an area of vulnerability for the Falcons, but it’s on Dak and company to attack. If the line holds up, Prescott should be able to find some big plays, and don’t be surprised if rookie CeeDee Lamb catches his first ever NFL touchdown reception.
5. Zeke in the flat
Ezekiel Elliott is very dangerous in space, and from time to time we get to see examples of that. It would be nice to see more of that in the form of utilizing Elliott more often in the passing game. And we’re not talking about those cheap last second check-downs where the defender is draped all over him already. We’re talking about screen passes and shooting him outside in the flat and let him work his magic. Get him in space and good things happen.
Elliott had a touchdown reception on Sunday, and he would’ve had two of them had Dalton Schultz not been flagged for blocking too early down field. You know who else had two touchdown receptions? Seahawks running back Chris Carson.
Carson isn’t a guy who’s typically known for catching passes out of the backfield as he has a career average of just over two a game. On Sunday, he caught six passes and actually had more yards receiving (45) than he did on the ground (21) as well as those two touchdowns. If the Cowboys are having issues with the Falcons pass rush, then Prescott should look for his buddy Zeke to help him out.
What will you be watching on Sunday?