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Cowboys vs. Falcons: Previewing the Atlanta offense

With so many playmakers, you’d expect the Atlanta offense to put up better numbers.

Atlanta Falcons v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

When the Atlanta Falcons went to the Super Bowl and almost won, it was on the strength of their potent and dynamic offense led by Kyle Shanahan. Since Shanahan left, though, new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has had a shaky go of things thus far. He has this offense performing better than last season, but there are still stretches where they seem to go cold.

On paper, it looks as if the offense is doing great. They’re averaging 27 points per game, Matt Ryan has just over 3,000 yards through nine games with 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions, Tevin Coleman has been solid in stepping up during Devonta Freeman’s absence, Julio Jones is already over 1,000 receiving yards, and rookie receiver Calvin Ridley has been a scoring machine.

However, there’s other factors to consider. They started the year by only putting up 12 points against an Eagles defense that is allowing 20 points per game. They proceeded to put up 31 or more points the next three games, but the offense sputtered in Pittsburgh and tallied 17 points. Another three week scoring explosion resulted in them only putting up 16 points against the Cleveland Browns in interim head coach Gregg Williams’ second game.

Conventional logic would say the Falcons are due for an offensive explosion against Dallas, and that’s quite possible. But the Cowboys’ defense is one of the NFL’s best, ranking third in the league in points allowed per game with just 19. They rank in the top ten in both run and pass defense, and are buoyed by shutdown corner Byron Jones, top tier edge rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, and reigning Defensive Player of the Week Leighton Vander Esch.

In fact, of all the teams that are currently top ten in the league in overall defense, the Falcons have only played one of those teams, and it was the Steelers defense that limited them to just 17 points. However, that was a road game for the Falcons, and Atlanta has scored 30 or more points in all but one of their home games thus far. Additionally, this team takes really good care of the ball. Ryan’s three interceptions is accompanied by just two fumbles that have been lost by this offense, which has them tied for fewest turnovers in the league.

Dallas, on the other hand, only has nine total defensive takeaways, tying them for 22nd in the league. In facing this offense, it’s unrealistic to expect any plays like Vander Esch’s interception last week. Instead, the Cowboys will have to simply be better than the Falcons’ offense, and that’s easier said than done.

When this offense is clicking, they’re a sight to see. Ryan is one of those quarterbacks who has the ability to make just about every throw, even as he approaches 34 years of age. It definitely helps that he has some incredible receiving targets in Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and Mohamed Sanu. Each of those players are averaging at least 12 yards per reception, with Jones chugging along at 15.5 per catch. Tight end Austin Hooper has blossomed into a safety blanket for Ryan as well, catching 46 passes for 418 yards. When defenses get so caught up guarding the receivers, it usually leaves Hooper open for chain-moving pickups, which makes him dangerous.

And then there’s Tevin Coleman, who is not only a talented threat on the ground, where he’s put up 442 yards and two touchdowns and proven he’s capable of being a featured back, but he poses a threat as a receiver as well. Coleman ranks fifth on the team in receiving yards with 224 and has turned four different receptions into touchdowns, more than Hooper, Sanu, or even Jones.

Of course, the red zone threat of this team has been the rookie, Ridley. Dallas was reportedly considering drafting the Alabama product in the first round, but chose Vander Esch instead. As it turns out, both players have gone on to be highly productive in their rookie years. Ridley has just 500 receiving yards so far but leads all Falcons skill players in scores with seven touchdowns. Anytime Atlanta gets close to the endzone, Ridley is someone that must receive close attention from the defense.

There’s really only a few ways to stop this offensive attack: take away the ball, hope that they get into one of their funks where the play-calling is poor, or do just enough on defense to force poor execution. Given the historical trends of both these teams, it seems Dallas might have to do a lot of hoping this week.

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