With several of the Dallas Cowboys’ key players being sidelined with injuries and suspensions, this Week Three matchup between them and the Atlanta Falcons should heavily favor the latter.
The Cowboys will be without quarterback Tony Romo and wide receiver Dez Bryant, their two signature players on offense, forcing backups in Brandon Weeden and Devin Street to see a lot more action against the Falcons. Defensively, the Cowboys will be without pass-rushers Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory as well as linebacker Rolando McClain, meaning that an underrated Cowboys defense should be softer up front.
But that doesn’t mean that the Cowboys will be pushover for the Falcons. The Cowboys’ most likely gameplan will be one that leans heavily on their running game and physical offensive line to carry the offense, hoping to get Weeden into manageable third downs and passing situations. They could get a significant boost in that arena due to the expected return of left guard Ronald Leary this week, meaning their front five should be close to full strength.
Defensively, the Cowboys will try and limit the Falcons’ big plays and hope that their pass rush can get home against an improved, but still unproven Falcons offensive line.
This makes for a fairly conservative gameplan for the Cowboys, but fortunately for them, the Falcons aren’t expected to be overly exotic in their approach either. These are two like-minded teams and it will be another good test for the Falcons because the Cowboys will be their first opponent that attempts to embrace physicality in an attempt to impose their will on the Falcons. Dan Quinn wants the Falcons to be fast and physical, and Sunday’s game in Dallas will be another proving ground.
Potential success this Sunday for the Falcons starts on offense.
Offensive Key For Success: Letting Julio Attack Downfield
The Cowboys defense is an underrated group. They feature a lot of Cover-1 and Cover-3 looks rather than the conventional Cover-2 that defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s defenses are known for. That could lead to a number of one-on-one opportunities for Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones on the outside. However, the Cowboys did employ a lot more Cover-2 a year ago when they faced the Detroit Lions and Calvin Johnson, their last true test against an offense featuring a receiver with the size, speed and physical gifts akin to Jones.
This week, the Cowboys will likely try to minimize the number of instances where they utilize Cover-1 and ask their outside corners to much up man-to-man against Jones. Instead, a healthy usage of Cover-3 and Cover-2 will be utilized to try and give Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr as much safety help as possible.
Regardless of the coverages that the Cowboys employ, the Falcons need to do a better job attacking downfield with Jones this week.
Too often last week against the New York Giants, Jones was asked to run shallow routes or screens as a way of getting him the ball. It led to a high percentage of completions, as through three quarters Jones had nine catches on 10 targets. Yet it also resulted in very little yardage with Jones having just 59 yards, an average of 6.6 yards per reception (Jones’ career average is over 15 yards per reception). Nearly all of that yardage (63) came after the catch, with Jones seeing only one target through three quarters that went further than four yards beyond the line of scrimmage in the air. That happened to be the lone incompletion targeted at Jones during that span.
In the fourth quarter against the Giants, the Falcons started to push the ball downfield to Jones a bit more with three of his five targets traveling at least 16 yards in the air.
On the four passes that went Jones’ way that traveled more than five yards in the air through the entire Giants game, the Falcons were successful on three of them (75 percent). On the other 11 passes that went less than five yards in the air, the Falcons were successful on five of them (36 percent).
Utilizing Jones predominantly on quick, short throws effectively does the bulk of the work for the opposing defense by limiting his ability to generate big plays. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan needs to be more willing to air things out with Jones to try and generate yardage in chunks.
What will make things difficult for the Falcons offense if they do wind up taking more shots downfield this week is how stingy the Cowboys defense has been this year when it comes to limiting big plays. The Cowboys have allowed just three plays of 20 or more yards through two games, which is good enough to be tied for second best in the NFL. All three plays occurred in the final 16 minutes of both the Cowboys’ matchups against the Philadelphia Eagles and Giants, indicating that they are stingiest at the outset of games.
The Falcons will have to try and buck this trend by getting some big plays on offense early against the Cowboys, to try and put them behind the eight ball.
Offensive Key For Success: Starting Fast
There’s no doubt one of the goals of the Falcons this week will be stopping the Cowboys’ rushing attack. That’s why it’s important for the Falcons to score early to help out their defense. If the Cowboys are forced to play from behind, then they won’t be able to lean on their running game as much. Thus a productive Falcons offense is their run defense’s best friend on Sunday.
Getting Jones involved early and often will be important for a fast start. But the team will also need to get other playmakers involved. Leonard Hankerson, Roddy White and Devonta Freeman were relatively quiet through the first three quarters of last week’s contest against the Giants.
Hankerson and Freeman did come alive particularly in the fourth quarter, but they’ll need to start faster. But White at no point was able to get involved in the offense. He saw just one target on the Falcons’ second play from scrimmage against the Giants and was virtually a non-factor for the rest of the game.
While White did manage to get open a couple of times in the first half of the Giants game, quarterback Matt Ryan barely looked his way. White had not been held to zero catches in a game since Week 13 of the 2006 season prior to last Sunday. Since then, White had played in 128 consecutive games with at least one reception. The Falcons would like to White back on track this week by getting him more involved on their first few series.
Freeman is another player that will need to pick up his play early since he’ll be starting in the stead of an injured Tevin Coleman. He started particularly slow last week against the Giants, as six of his first seven runs were unsuccessful. Something similar happened in Week One against the Eagles, where Freeman was successful on just one of his four first-quarter runs.
However, Freeman has finished strong each of the past two weeks, with four of his six fourth-quarter runs against the Giants and two of his four second-half runs against the Eagles being successful. The Falcons will want to open up their play-action passing attack in order to attack the Cowboys defense down the field this week, and it works much better if they having an effective running game led by Freeman to support it.
Defensive Key For Success: Stopping the Run
Just like the Falcons, the Cowboys will want to establish the run early when they have the ball. Thus it will be important for the Falcons defense to defend the run.
They will do this by maintaining discipline and physicality along their defensive front. It’s no secret that the Cowboys sport one of the league’s most heralded offensive lines, featuring three Pro Bowlers from 2014: left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick and right guard Zack Martin.
Last year, Quinn’s Seattle Seahawks defense gave up 162 yards on the ground to the Cowboys, the second most allowed by the Seahawks that year. The Seahawks gave up an average of 76.1 yards on the ground in their 15 other regular-season contests last year, meaning that the Cowboys front line was good enough to more than double the normal output.
The Falcons will likely employ a healthy dose of their base defense featuring their beefier defensive linemen with three linebackers and move strong safety William Moore into the box to help stuff the run. The Cowboys will counter by adding extra blockers onto the field with multiple tight-end sets and utilizing fullback Tyler Clutts a bit more than most weeks.
One important matchup will be Falcons nose tackle Paul Soliai against Frederick. In the Cowboys-Seahawks matchup from a year ago, on many of the plays where the Seahawks were able to stuff the run, they were led by nose tackle Brandon Mebane winning his matchup against Frederick.
The following GIF shows Mebane getting push upfield off the snap, disrupting the run play, leading to a gain of no yards for the Cowboys.
Soliai and other Falcons linemen such as Tyson Jackson and Ra’Shede Hageman will have to be more disruptive up front, allowing the Falcons linebackers and Moore to flow downhill to stuff the run like strong safety Kam Chancellor (No. 31) does in the above image.
The Falcons linebackers will also have to be disciplined in their run fits and gap responsibilities. In the next GIF, you’ll see Cowboys running back Darren McFadden run for a 10-yard gain despite facing a eight-man front by the Eagles last week. The Cowboys utilized their “13” personnel, featuring one running back and three tight ends stacked to the right side to gain a numerical advantage on that side of the line. The Cowboys also got help from Eagles rookie linebacker Jordan Hicks (No. 58) not maintaining his gap responsibility.
Here’s two more plays from last year’s Seahawks game in which the Cowboys are successful on the ground. In the first image, the Cowboys get a hat on a hat with their blocking, utilizing a power run play to DeMarco Murray. While it only gains four yards, it’s important to note that this was a 3rd-and-1 where the Seahawks stacked the box and knew the run was coming.
This second image is a counter play against another eight-man box where the misdirection allows guards Martin (No. 70) and Leary (No. 65) the time they need to get to the outside and wall off any pursuit against Murray. This results in an eight-yard gain for Murray on a 1st-and-10, giving the Cowboys a very manageable second down to continue the series.
While neither of the above images show gashing runs by the Cowboys, they are exactly the sort of medium and small gains that the team would like to achieve this week against the Falcons. Both are successful runs that either move the chains or allow the Cowboys to get into a very manageable situation on subsequent downs.
With Weeden lining up under center, that’s exactly what the Cowboys will be looking for this week given his limitations as a passer.
If the Falcons can stuff the run, particularly on early downs it’ll force the Cowboys into some 3rd-and-longs and obviously passing situations. That way the Falcons defense can pin their ears back and try to get some pressure on Weeden. But doing so will be easier said than done.
Defensive Key For Success: Providing Pressure
The Cowboys offensive line isn’t just known for their run-blocking prowess, but also their ability as pass protectors. According to Pro Football Focus, Romo saw pressure on just 28.5 percent of his dropbacks a year ago, which was the sixth lowest of any quarterback that dropped back to throw at least 200 times in 2014.
Through two games this past year, Romo saw pressure on just 28.9 percent, indicating that there has been minimal drop-off this season.
When evaluating the Cowboys front however, there is one notable weak link among their starting five: right tackle Doug Free. While Free is by no means a bad player, he is considerably less stout in pass protection than his four other linemates. That’s evidenced by the fact that of the 19 sacks, hits or hurries that the Cowboys have given up this year according to Pro Football Focus, seven of them have been at Free’s expense.
In the following image, we can see Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox utilize his speed to go right around Free to deliver a hit on Romo, causing an errant pass that falls incomplete in the flat last week.
Given that the Falcons sport a solid group of pass-rushers, but nobody that individually is a standout quite yet, trying to win one-on-one battles with the Cowboys blockers outside Free may not suffice. Stunts may also be an effective way of attacking Free and the other Cowboys blockers to make up for this deficiency.
The following shows a successful stunt by the Eagles on the opening drive of their game last week against the Cowboys. Linebacker Connor Barwin (No. 98) loops around inside defensive end Vinny Curry (No. 75) to sack Romo. Thanks to be a bit of a hold by Curry, neither Martin nor Free are in a position to stop Barwin.
Here’s another stunt by the Giants in Week One, where linebacker Devon Kennard (No. 59) is able to crash into Free, which in turn frees up Damontre Moore (No. 98) to get a hit on Romo. Unfortunately for the Cowboys, Romo is able to deliver the ball in time to running back Lance Dunbar, who speeds past Giants middle linebacker Uani’ Unga (No. 47) for a huge 24-yard gain.
Dunbar’s speed is going to be an asset that the Cowboys look to utilize against the Falcons on the second level.
Defensive Key For Success: Matching Up Over the Middle
Because the Cowboys will want to take pressure off Weeden this week, they will likely feature more plays like the one above to Dunbar that will take advantage of some mismatches they have against the Falcons defense. One of those will be of course Dunbar matching up with the Falcons linebackers: Paul Worrilow, Justin Durant and Nate Stupar. None of whom have the speed to handle Dunbar.
There was another play in which Dunbar created a huge mismatch against the Eagles last week. This time the Cowboys split Dunbar out wide, where the Eagles tried to match him up against linebacker Jordan Hicks. Dunbar burned Hicks for a 39-yard gain on a go route in the third quarter.
It should be noted that Hicks is a very good athlete and gave the Eagles their most favorable matchup among their linebackers with Kiko Alonso sidelined with an injury.
The following spider chart comes from Mock Draftable.com, indicating how Hick’s Combine measurables stack up with other draft prospects dating back to 2000:
The Falcons’ most likely option will be splitting out Stupar or Moore out wide in case the Cowboys try to use Dunbar’s speed on the outside this week. You can see how Stupar’s athletic measurables don’t stack up favorably to past draft prospects and clearly there’s mismatch potential waiting to happen.
Speaking of the Falcons linebackers, they’ll have to deal with tight end Jason Witten as well. Even though Witten is sporting several injuries that are going to limit him this week, there’s never been real doubt that he won’t suit up for Sunday’s game as he’s listed as probable this week.
Not to mention, even though ankle and knee injuries might slow Witten, the simple fact is that speed was never going to be an asset to the 33-year old tight end this week. Much like former Falcons great Tony Gonzalez, Witten wins with savvy and polished route-running.
The Cowboys will want to get Weeden in “profitable” situations where on 3rd-and-shorts he can target a slower Witten on underneath throws and in the flat to help move the chains.
A year ago in the Seahawks-Cowboys matchup, there were several plays where Romo opted for the long ball to Bryant rather than taking the simple “profit” to Witten. That won’t be an issue for Weeden this week due to Bryant’s absence as well as the Cowboys wanting him to make easy throws and completions.
Here’s an example of one such play where Romo has an open Witten over the middle on 3rd-and-3, but doesn’t pull the trigger quick enough when Witten settles over the middle between linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. Romo was stuck looking downfield for Bryant (off-screen) towards his left.
By the time Romo’s eyes go back to Witten, the Seahawks pass rush has already gotten home and it’s too late. This week against the Falcons on similar plays, Witten will likely be Weeden’s initial read and the ball will come out immediately to convert.
On a later play, Romo throws across his body downfield for Bryant looking for the touchdown rather than taking the easy completiton to Witten on a crossing route on a 3rd-and-4. The Cowboys eventually settled for a long field goal.
This week against the Falcons, the Cowboys will want to deter Weeden from taking such risks and instead find a guy like Witten on these underneath throws.
Another potential mismatch that the Cowboys could look to exploit is slot wide receiver Cole Beasley. According to Pro Football Focus, Beasley spends 88.5 percent of his snaps playing in the slot this season. That will most often put him against Falcons cornerback Phillip Adams when the team employs their nickel sub-packages. Adams is a big corner that could struggle to deal with the speed and quickness that Beasley brings to table, allowing him to separate on short and intermediate routes.
Here’s a play from 2014 where Beasley beats Seahawks cornerback Marcus Burley on a whip route, gaining 11 yards on 3rd-and-10 for the Cowboys.
It’s just one more play where the Cowboys are able to effectively move the chains despite being put in a 3rd-and-long situation.
All together, the Cowboys have the potential to exploit the middle of the Falcons defense with players like Dunbar, Witten and Beasley.
The Cowboys will look to simplify their offense, asking Weeden to get the ball out quickly on his initial read which will often be Witten. His second option will often be a checkdown to the running back, which a player like Dunbar can exploit after the catch.
If the Cowboys are able to couple this with rushing success on first and second downs, it could be a long day for the Falcons defense.
Stat Worth Considering: First-Half Interception Rate
The only other time that Weeden has seen considerable reps in a Cowboys uniform came last season against the Arizona Cardinals. Weeden started in place of an injured Romo against one of the league’s premier defenses, resulting in a 28-17 loss for the Cowboys.
In that game, Weeden threw two second-half interceptions thanks in part to the Cowboys being forced to play from behind and Weeden’s own inaccuracy and penchant for turning it over. The Cowboys were down 14-10 at the point of Weeden’s first interception and were down 21-10 by his second pick.
Weeden’s career interception rate of 3.3 percent is higher than the league average of 2.6 percent over the same span. The Falcons defense is forcing interceptions at a rate of 3.2 percent this year, meshing up nicely with Weeden’s career rate of turnovers. That likely indicates a strong probability the Falcons can force at least one costly throw this week.
However the Cowboys will hope to capitalize and create some early mistakes by Ryan to get themselves into more favorable situations so that they aren’t playing from behind early. Fortunately, Ryan is not particularly prone to throwing interceptions early in games. Over the course of his career, Ryan’s interception rate in the first half is 2.1 percent at home versus 2.0 on the road. That likely indicates that the Falcons are in good hands in terms of preventing any early mistakes that could get them behind the count against hte Cowboys.
However, if the Cowboys do prove successful in forcing a Ryan interception in the first half, they will dramatically improve their chances of winning. Ryan doesn’t bounce back from early mistakes as readily on the road as he does at home. The Falcons sport a 40-17 career record when Ryan throws a first-half interception at home, while that record dips to 28-29 on the road.
This will be a challenging week for the Falcons defense despite the fact that the Cowboys are missing their starting quarterback and No. 1 wide receiver. The Cowboys will look to push the team around in the trenches, and it’ll won’t be easy for the Falcons to hold up against one of the best offensive lines in football.
This game ultimately will be a proving ground for that side of the ball for the new coaching staff under Quinn. Can this group with an improved pass rush and added discipline against the run hold up against an offense that desperately wants to run the ball and grind them into the turf?
I believe that this Falcons defense will rise to that challenge, but I don’t think it’s going to be without some missteps and breakdowns.
The Falcons offense needs to come out fast and loose and get the Cowboys into a game they don’t want to be in, which is one that sees Weeden dropping back to pass on the majority of early downs because they are playing from behind.
Based off what we’ve seen so far this year, I’m not quite as confident that the Falcons offense can accomplish this. While the combination of Ryan, Jones and the Falcons offensive line is probably the best that the Cowboys defense has seen so far this year, I’m not convinced that the Falcons offense will be able to start significantly faster than either the Giants or Eagles.
In Week One, the Falcons offense started strong thanks to the Eagles doing a poor job of containing Jones. But as the second half came on, that offensive momentum began to peter out as the Falcons were less successful exploiting the mismatch that Jones presented to the Eagles secondary.
Against the Giants, the Falcons offense started slow in the first three quarters largely because they could not generate big plays to Jones and the rest of the offense wasn’t capable of filling that void. Once they started to push the ball a bit more downfield to Jones last week, the offense started to get sparked.
While the Cowboys’ secondary isn’t great on paper, they have done an excellent job so far this year of limiting big plays in the air and I think that’s a testament to being well-coached. Thus, I don’t expect such quality coaching to allow Jones to run rampant this week when it’s so obvious that slowing him is the key to success.
I suspect the Falcons will be better than they were a week ago at getting the ball to Jones, but I don’t think they’ll be as effective as they were against the Eagles.
While I think there is certainly the potential for the Falcons to rout the Cowboys, I think it’s still a little too early in the Quinn tenure to expect that. All the pieces haven’t fully meshed together to expect the Falcons to put their best foot forward, thus it’s likely to be a more closely contested, low-scoring affair this week in Dallas.
Predicted Final Score: Falcons 20, Cowboys 16.