Atlanta sports fans are riding high this week. The Braves are World Series champs, the Bulldogs are number one in the nation, and the Falcons stole a win from the swamp people in New Orleans. It’s enough to have people in the Peach State buying the idea that Jorge Soler broke the Atlanta sports curse when he sent one over the railroad tracks in Houston. This week’s game against Dallas will put that notion to the test. Here is the Falcons vs Cowboys preview for this week.
Atlanta hasn’t faced a team as dangerous as the Cowboys since their week two matchup with Tampa Bay. The Falcons have improved quite a bit since that 48-25 drubbing, but have they grown enough to stand toe-to-toe with one of the top teams in the NFC? Are they ready to face off against a Dan Quinn-led defense?
Vegas thinks the Falcons are dead in the water, as Atlanta opened as nine-point underdogs. I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dry. No one will ever mistake me for a bright-eyed optimist, but I think the Falcons have a puncher’s chance this week. The path to an upset victory is narrow, but it exists. Here’s how the Falcons can find themselves with a winning record for the first time since 2017 vs the Cowboys.
Continue to Stand Strong Against the Run
I’ve harped for weeks that the Falcons run defense was a weakness that opponents had not fully capitalized on yet. Before the Panthers and Saints games, I called it the number one concern for the team. Carolina exploited that weakness and gained just enough of an edge to squeak out the win two weeks ago.
Sean Payton, a coach that’s never been shy about copying off someone else’s homework, looked to bully the Falcons defensive front last Sunday. It was a rousing success for the first two drives. The Saints averaged seven yards per carry, and though penalties killed the drives before getting into scoring position, it seemed Atlanta’s inability to control the line of scrimmage would doom them for a second consecutive week.
Then something strange happened.
Atlanta plugged in the recently elevated Anthony Rush alongside Mike Pennel at defensive tackle, giving the Falcons a pair of 330+lb run stuffers in the middle of the line. Shockingly this added girth facilitated a complete 180 for the Falcons’ run defense, and the team allowed a meager 2.6 yards per carry for the remainder of the game.
The defense still collapsed in the fourth quarter, but forcing the Saints to be one-dimensional allowed the Falcons enough time to build just enough of a lead to stay competitive.
Let’s Keep that Energy on Sunday
The Cowboys have one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL. So it seems the Falcons will have their hands full vs the Cowboys. Amari Cooper, Ceedee Lamb, and Dalton Shultz are a dangerous trio on their own. Wide receiver Michael Gallup appears set to make his return this week.
Despite the up-and-down performances of late, Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard are as talented of a running back duo as you’ll find. Dallas can beat you any number of ways, so the key is to make them one-dimensional.
Mike McCarthy wants to lean into the run game, but he will abandon it if successes don’t come early. Atlanta must limit Dallas’ run game, particularly early. Dak Prescott and the bevy of receiving options at his disposal are a daunting challenge on their own. If Dallas can mix up the play calling and control the game’s tempo, the opportunities for Atlanta will dwindle to nothing.
I Have a Plan, but You Won’t Like It
It’s nearly impossible to find a matchup between the Dallas offense and Atlanta’s defense that favors Atlanta. The Falcons should feel confident in AJ Terrell’s ability to handle his side of the field, but apart from him, you’d struggle to identify any competitive advantage to leverage.
Fans rail against soft zone coverages, but if they succeed in limiting the run, Atlanta’s best hope is to sit in zone coverage and ward off explosive plays. Forcing Dak Prescott to take what the defense gives him opens to door for misfires, and the Falcons have to capitalize on them if they happen. It won’t be pretty football, but Atlanta doesn’t have the horses to do anything other than try to win on the margins.
Which Matt Ryan Do We Get on Sunday?
Blunting the offense from Dallas is the best we can hope for, and that means Matt Ryan and this offense will have to score early and often to pull out the upset. We’ve seen breathtaking performances from Ryan over the last few weeks, but we’ve seen a few duds as well.
Despite the complete absence of a run game, Ryan navigated dirty pockets and led the team to victory against the Saints. However, a week prior, he could not overcome the rocky performance from his offensive line, and the offense failed to find its footing against the Panthers. The question is, which Matt Ryan shows up this week?
It’s probably unfair to place the entire burden of the offense at Ryan’s feet. He’s missing his best receiver, the run game has been mediocre at its best, and the offensive line’s struggles are apparent to anyone watching.
Despite the emergence of Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts, this is an offense without a clear identity. This lack of a clear identity, of something this team can count on from week to week, means the offense’s success depends entirely on Ryan’s ability to make things happen in imperfect situations.
D is Key for Dallas
Dallas poses many of the same challenges that the Saints defense presented. Despite the news that Randy Gregory will miss Sunday’s game, Dallas can still rush the passer. Micah Parsons has shown immense promise off the edge, and Osa Odighizuwa has flashed potential on the interior. The Cowboys secondary is an opportunistic group that is forcing turnovers at an impressive clip, largely thanks to the sensational start from Trevon Diggs.
Though Dallas’s run defense isn’t as suffocating as the Saints, they still rank in the top ten in yards allowed and fifteenth in DVOA. Dan Quinn has this group playing confident, complimentary football, but there are weaknesses to be exploited.
Fast & Physical Means Small and Risky
We all know the score when it comes to a Dan Quinn defense. Though he’s pivoted away from his Legion of Boom-style cover three scheme a bit, his basic philosophies are unchanged. Quinn wants aggressive, athletic players who are focused on creating turnovers. It’s a winning strategy, but it leads to high variance football. It’s a boom-or-bust proposition every week.
In their win last week, Denver followed the same gameplan that regularly thwarted Quinn in Atlanta. The Broncos came out and punched the undersized Cowboy’s defense in the mouth and won the game at the line of scrimmage. Denver racked up 190 rushing yards and converted 53% of their third downs.
Teddy Bridgewater wasn’t particularly dynamic, but he didn’t make costly mistakes. It will be hard for Atlanta to follow that same script to the letter, but we should hope to see elements of it crop up on Sunday.
Run It Even If It’s Not Pretty
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Atlanta has to find a way to run the ball efficiently. That’s not to say I expect them to post 150+ rushing yards, but a success rate of 40%+ will make life much easier for Ryan and the passing offense to operate.
The Falcons run game was abysmal against the Saints, but Dallas doesn’t have the same sort of imposing linemen, especially with Randy Gregory sidelined with an injury. It’s probably too much to expect the Falcons line to generate a ton of push, but if they can keep the chains moving, this Dallas line will wear down. An average run game is enough when you have Ryan under center.
Who Covers Kyle Pitts (Part IV)
Kyle Pitts is the wildcard this week. He’s had a sleepy paid of performances against the Panthers and Saints. With Ridley away from the team, opposing defenses have been comfortable matching their best corner against Pitts. Stephon Gilmore and Marshon Lattimore effectively shut Pitts down, and it seems inevitable that task will fall on Trevon Diggs this week.
Diggs has been an interception factory this season, but his aggressive playstyle has also led to quite a few blown coverages. True to form with a Dan Quinn defense, Diggs is a big play waiting to happen. The problem is you’re never quite sure which team will make the big play. This may not be the week to lob up contested passes to Kyle Pitts, but opportunities will present themselves if Ryan can be patient.
Role Players Make the Difference
The other receivers need to continue to step up this week. No single player has to dominate, but each receiver needs to make an impact in some way. Last week Olamide Zaccheaus snagged a pair of touchdowns. Russell Gage pulled in a few clutch first down receptions, and we all remember what Cordarelle Patterson did to seal the game.
Spreading the ball around and keeping the offense on schedule is the path forward for this team. Creating explosive plays is crucial, but Atlanta can’t force the issue. Dallas’ secondary is dangerously opportunistic, but they will eventually break down if Atlanta can keep the chains moving. Patiently waiting on opportunities and striking when they present themselves is the easiest way for Atlanta to get (and hold) a lead this week.
Don’t Give Them Anything For Free
Mental mistakes, in all three phases, have cost the Falcons a few victories this season. Penalties, coverage breakdowns, and questionable play-calling gave Washington and Carolina enough opportunity to escape with wins they probably didn’t deserve. Dallas is too talented to gift them with easy yards.
While Atlanta overcame penalties from Fabian Moreau and Richie Grant last week, the margins will be a lot tighter against a better team this week. The Falcons need to channel Max Fried and pitch a near-perfect game to get the win this week. Mental mistakes will make the Falcons have a greater chance of winning vs the Cowboys.
The question in Atlanta all week has been whether the win against New Orleans was a turning point. Which is what makes this Falcons vs Cowboys preview sp hard. Turning points are something you can only identify in retrospect, but a win this week will make a strong case for that notion.
Atlanta’s recent successes have come against teams that are incomplete at best and terrible at worst. Dallas, on the other hand, is a true contender. A victory this week would put the league on notice that the Falcons aren’t a team you can write off.
The thing that scares me the most about this week is how poorly Dallas played last week. The Cowboys expect to be a top seed in the NFC, and they laid an absolute egg against Denver. There are few things as dangerous as a good team coming off of a bad loss.
If Atlanta isn’t ready from the opening whistle, they may find themselves in too deep of a hole to dig out. Absent another dud from Dallas, starting fast, and keeping pace is the only way Atlanta has a chance this week.
As hopeful as I want to be, it’s tough to predict a victory. Each gutsy performance is slowly eroding my pessimism about this team, but I can’t muster enough optimism to expect a win this week. I believe Atlanta will give Dallas all they can handle and even manage a sneaky backdoor cover, but ultimately this Cowboys offense will prove to be overwhelming. I’m hoping for a shoot-out, but expect Atlanta to end up on the wrong side once the dust clears.
Falcons vs Cowboys Score Prediction
Dallas 35 – Atlanta 31