It seems like only yesterday the Atlanta Falcons had a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl and were on the verge of being Super Bowl Champions. But in a matter of just over a quarter, bad stuff happened and the next thing you Tom Brady is hoisting another trophy over his head. It was a terrible thing to watch. While it was a heartbreaking loss for the Falcons, many people had them picked as one of the elite teams in the NFC that had a great chance of returning to the big stage. This had a lot of Cowboys fans circling this Sunday’s game as a matchup that could feature a battle between the conferences top two teams.
Well, the season is half over and both Dallas and Atlanta are not leading their respective divisions, but both teams are still right in the thick of the playoff hunt and a win on Sunday would do wonders for their chances. Here are five things to keep an eye out for when the Cowboys travel to Georgia.
1. The “New Look” running game
Ezekiel Elliott will finally be unavailable to run the ball for the Cowboys as he officially starts serving his six-game suspension. Sure, maybe something wild happens and Zeke somehow gets granted diplomatic immunity like those bad guys in Lethal Weapon 2. But us fans are done holding our breath on this whole ordeal, so let’s just get closure to this and move on. Whether Zeke is on the field or not, the running game can still produce. Alfred Morris has worked hard to get his body right and has looked great so far in limited action. Not only has he slimmed down and is in better shape physically, but he’s become a lot more acclimated to the Cowboys offense.
"I feel like it has been helping me," Morris said. "I changed my diet around, too, and I feel better all around. I feel faster, more explosive. My footwork is a lot better. Just worked on the little things and I think it helped me big time. It definitely helps being more comfortable, so I'm not thinking as much and I get to play faster because I know the offense a lot better than I did coming in last year.
Morris is now the RB1 and Rod Smith will be the RB2. Both these guys collectively make a nice one-two punch for the Cowboys running attack.
Cowboys should just keep running this play until Zeke gets back pic.twitter.com/FaNmHhPzTv— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) November 9, 2017
Nothing is ever going to be as good as having Zeke around, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a tad bit interested in seeing what Morris and Smith can do. And the best part is that six weeks from now, this will all finally be behind us and the thought of future games without Zeke will be no more.
2. Shanahan’s Shenanigans
Whenever an offensive coordinator of the league’s top scoring team takes a head coaching job somewhere else, many will wonder what type of effect it would have. Under Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons scored a league’s best 33.8 points per game last year. And they got off to a 3-0 start this season where they were averaging 29 points a game. A convincing Week 2 victory over the Green Bay Packers had people believing they were the same Falcons from a year ago.
But then things went downhill fast. The Falcons have lost four of their last five games where they’ve averaged 16 points a game. The once explosive Falcons offense are now ranked in the bottom half of the league in points scored. The absence of Shanahan can clearly be felt.
3. Don’t let Freeman run all over you
The last time these teams squared off was a defining moment for the Cowboys. Looking to build off their 2014 success, the team got off to a 2-0 start in 2015. But a couple injuries and offseason free agency meant that the offense would be missing all of their star triplets - Tony Romo, Dez Bryant, and DeMarco Murray, for the first time since they all started playing together. At first, it wasn’t so bad. Joseph Randle had three rushing touchdowns, including a big scamper down the sideline. Darren McFadden added another TD. Brandon Weeden had one of his best games as a Cowboys player, completing 22 of his 26 passes.
Despite the hot start, the Falcons would turn on the jets and completely demolish the Cowboys in the second half. Most of the damage came from second-year running back, Devonta Freeman, who had his coming out party at AT&T Stadium.
The last time the Cowboys and Falcons squared off, Davonte Freeman had 193 scrimmage yards and 3 TDs. pic.twitter.com/Zo7SHqNpkq— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) November 8, 2017
The Cowboys would go on to lose seven straight games and Freeman would go on to finish with over 1,600 scrimmage yards and double-digit rushing touchdowns, which is something he’s done for two consecutive years now. And looking at his numbers this year, he’s not too far behind from making it three years in a row.
With both Freeman and Tevin Coleman possessing a duel-threat ability as a runner and pass catcher, this is really going to challenge the Cowboys linebackers. Will Sean Lee be up for the challenge? The last time he played against Atlanta, he got his lip busted open and had to leave the field. And we all know why type of effect that has had on the Cowboys defense.
4. Don’t be victimized by J.J. and the big play
The Cowboys did a remarkable job against the Kansas City Chief’s speedy playmaker, Tyreek Hill. If you take away that silly little “Fail Mary” coverage snafu, the defense flat-out shut him down. When they roll into Atlanta, their sights should be set on stopping another big-threat receiver, Julio Jones.
The Falcons All-Pro receiver is having a down year by his standards. He’s coming off three-straight seasons with 1,400+ receiving yards. While his yardage totals have dipped about 20 yards per game, the most shocking difference this season is in inability to find the end zone. He only has one touchdown this season. Of course a play like this against Carolina certainly doesn’t help.
The Falcons will look to their star receiver to make big plays in the game. Jones is a big, physical receiver that can change direction quickly and create great separation. Matt Ryan has been off the mark this year and that puts a damper on Julio’s ability to hurt defenses, but we all know that can change in a heartbeat. The Cowboys are going to need force Ryan to lead long-play drives and don’t let him off the hook with a monster gainer.
5. Win the turnover battle
The improvement of the Cowboys defense has opened the door for some turnovers in recent weeks. Both DeMarcus Lawrence and David Irving are slapping the ball around. Orlando Scandrick has been playing up at the line of scrimmage, throwing his shoulder into anyone that comes his way. Whether he’s blitzing the quarterback or sniffing out jet screens, Scandrick has been all over the field lately. Rod Marinelli has been super aggressive and it’s paying off.
The reigning NFL MVP, Matt Ryan only threw seven interceptions last season. Halfway through the season, he’s already matched that total. And he’s also lost three fumbles. He’s just dying to give the ball away. The Cowboys defense must keep the pressure on him and force him to continue to make mistakes.
One the flip side, Dak Prescott continues to prove that he is one of the best quarterbacks at taking care of the ball. He only threw four interceptions last season and he’s on pace to having a second-straight season of single-digit interceptions. Just as a point of reference, Tony Romo only had one full 16-game season where he threw less than 10 picks. With no Zeke to rely on, the Cowboys young quarterback could be asked to do a little more than he’s accustomed to. How will he handle it?
This game could come down to a key turnover and the team that does a better job at taking care of the ball will have a huge advantage.
Those are the things I will be watching for on Sunday. What will you be keeping a close eye on? Can the Cowboys make it four wins in a row?