A couple days ago I previewed the Sunday Night Football contest between the Falcons and the Cowboys. For a nationally televised game between the NFL’s last remaining undefeated team and ‘America’s Team’, I’m clearly not the only one who is previewing that game.
Here is the Week 9 game picks from NFL.com’s Elliot Harrison. He previewed the Falcons vs. Cowboys (its at the bottom of his article), and brought up a point I touched on. Here’s a quote from Harrison’s piece:
Atlanta’s strength is its quarterback and wide receivers. Dallas’ strength has been shutting down opposing wide receivers. The Falcons don’t have the ground attack they once did, and Dallas has a healthy (and quite active) Pro Bowl nose tackle in Jay Ratliff.
All of this is very true. I’d like to clarify most of what he said– except what he said about shutting down the wide receivers.
The Falcons don’t have the ground attack they once did. Michael Turner isn’t the beast he once was. But here’s the thing: they still run the ball very effectively, and are willing and capable to lean on the run game at times. A backfield composed of Turner, Jacquizz Rodgers, and Jason Snelling is more than capable of running on Dallas’ defense. Here’s an interesting nugget: yes, the Cowboys have Jay Ratliff back, but they lost inside linebacker Sean Lee, who is one of the finest middle linebackers in the NFL. They miss him in both run support, and in pass coverage. He really hurts their ability to control the middle of the field and play the run.
Now, Harrison is close do right on the money with the Dallas cornerbacks. Morris Claiborne is a rookie and makes the occasional rookie mistake, but he is an outstanding cover corner and will one day be a shutdown corner. Brandon Carr played a lot of zone coverage in Kansas City, but he has played really well in a predominantly man-coverage defense with the Cowboys.
Let’s not forget the most important thing to know about Dallas’ defense: last week they kept the Giants Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz very much in check. Nicks had 4 catches for 38 yards, and Cruz had 6 for 58 yards. And let’s be honest, few other Giants receivers had big days. Dallas is currently third in the NFL in pass defense, giving up only 187 yards per game in the air. This is mostly on the strength of their two outstanding corners shutting down other guys receivers.
Dallas is 13th in the NFL against the run, giving up 104 yards per game on the ground. So they can be had, but they aren’t a pushover.
The Falcons receivers are super talented, and the veteran savvy of Roddy White combined with his chemistry with Matt Ryan counts for something. He’s going to make the Dallas corners pay some, especially in the Georgia Dome.
The biggest wildcard in this game, however, is Tony Gonzalez. He’s not a wide receiver. If you put Claiborne or Carr on him, he will out physical them. He’s too fast for any Dallas linebacker not named Ware, now that Lee is out of the lineup. The one person who Dallas cannot matchup with whatsoever is Tony Gonzelez, and Matt Ryan has one hell of a rapport with him.
Using Tony Gonzalez in the middle of the field will be crucial. He’s going to get his fair share of targets, and I would fully expect him to break the 100 career receiving touchdown mark on Sunday. It’s even more important to understand that just because Jones and White may be blanketed, doesn’t mean Matt Ryan will simply melt and have no outlet to throw passes to. He’s going to take what the defense gives him, and use every last one of his receivers. If he can run the ball, he’ll call a run play. If Gonzalez is open, he will hit Gonzalez. If Jacquizz or Turner are open, he’ll hit them. And if Jones or White somehow gets open against Dallas’ vaunted cornerback duo, you better believe he will hit them too.