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Dallas Cowboys 2020 opponents breakdowns: Atlanta Falcons

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Today we break down the Cowboys Week Two opponent, the Atlanta Falcons.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys will open up their home slate of games in 2020 with a matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.

Falcons File

2019 Record: 7-9 (Missed Playoffs)

Last Meeting: 11/18/18 Cowboys 22 - Falcons 19

Head Coach: Dan Quinn (Fifth Season/43-37 record)

Key Additions: RB Todd Gurley, DL Tyeler Davidson (Re-Signed), TE Hayden Hurst, DE Dante Fowler Jr., G Justin McCray,

Key Losses: CB Desmond Trufant, RB Devonta Freeman, DE Vic Beasley, TE Austin Hooper, LB De’Vondre Campbell

Offense Outlook

The Atlanta Falcons offense wanted to be the catalyst in a bounce-back season in 2019. After finishing 7-9 and failing to qualifying for the playoffs the previous year, Atlanta looked to their offense to help them regain form. That offense got of to a sluggish start, scoring less than 12 points in two of their first four games, and just as it looked like the offense got going, the Falcons saw themselves sitting in a hole with a 1-5 record.

Down the stretch of the season, the Falcons’ offense preformed extremely well. Atlanta scored 24 or more points in six of their final eight games of the season, winning all six of those games. Despite the excellent finish, the Falcons had dug themselves into too much of a hole, finishing the year with a 7-9 record.

A big reason for the early woes on offense was the struggles of signal-caller Matt Ryan. After a Pro Bowl season in 2018, the former MVP got off to a rocky start last year. In his first four games, Ryan threw six interceptions, and was sacked 10 times. After the shaky start, Ryan bounced back and played fairly well the rest of the season. If you look at his total numbers, the 26-14 interceptions does not look stellar, but if you take away the first four games of the year. he finished the final 12 games with 18 touchdowns to eight interceptions.

According to Pro Football Focus, Ryan had his lowest graded offensive season since way back in 2013. He finished with the 18th highest PFF offensive grade among all quarterbacks, and dropped his overall QBR 16 points from 2018.

The struggles of the offense can not all fall at the hands of Ryan. For the second straight season, Atlanta was just awful running the football. In 2018, they finished 27th in total rushing yards in the league. In 2019, the finished 30th, totaling just 1,361 yards on the ground. They finished with the third lowest run grade of any offense according to PFF, and ran the ball for just 3.8 yards per attempt.

Devonta Freeman, who Atlanta parted ways with this offseason, averaged just 3.6 yards per attempt and totaled just 656 rushing yards on the season. Second-year man Ito Smith struggled as well, rushing for just 106 yards on the season. It’s easy to see why the Falcons acquired Todd Gurley this offseason to try and boost their dreadful run game.

The Falcons’ offensive line added to the team’s inability to consistently perform on offense. Atlanta allowed 48 sacks on the season, ninth most in the entire NFL, and had an adjusted sack rate percentage of 7.9%. The group was hindered by injuries, and having a healthy James Carpenter and Chris Lindstrom will be key to a better year in 2020.

The Falcons’ receiving corps was arguably the only group on their offense that preformed at expectations last season. All-Pro Julio Jones had another dominant season, catching 99 passes for 1,394 yards and six touchdowns. Second-year man Calvin Ridley added a nice 63 catches for 866 yards and seven touchdowns, and former sixth-round pick Russell Gage came out of nowhere to catch 46 passes for 449 yards. Austin Hooper, who departed in free agency, added 75 catches for 787 yards in route to a second straight Pro Bowl selection.

Looking forward to this season, with a receiving corps that includes Jones and Ridley, and adding former All-Pro Todd Gurley to the mix, the Falcons’ offense once again looks like it has the potential to be very dominant. The big question is, can the offensive line keep 35-year old Matt Ryan off his back, be much better in the run game, and can the former MVP take care of the football? Despite acquiring Hayden Hurst, losing Hooper is a big loss, but replacing Freeman with Gurley seems to be a big addition. If somehow Gurley regains his old form, Atlanta could have one of the better offenses in the league in 2020.

Defense Outlook

If you want the main reason the Falcons failed to reach their potential in 2019, look no further than their defense. Atlanta had one of the worst defenses in all of football, and their struggles were a main reason the team fell into a 1-7 hole to start the year.

In their first eight games, the Falcons defense held their opponents under 24 points just one time. In six of those games, they gave up 27 or more, including giving up 53 points to the Houston Texans in Week Five.

After an abysmal start, things got a little better in the second half. Atlanta gave up 20 points or more in just four of their last eight games, winning just two. PFF had the Falcons graded as the 12th worst defense in all of football in 2019, with the ninth worst coverage grade.

The problems were in all facets of the Falcons’ defense last season. They failed to consistently get to the quarterback, recording the second fewest sacks in the league at 28, they gave up the eighth most yards per attempt in the league, and they led the league with 127 penalties totaling 1,080 yards.

The Falcons’ secondary really struggled last season. Atlanta lost former Pro Bowl safety Keanu Neal for the second time in two seasons. Neal played in just three games in 2019 before tearing his Achilles. Long-time Falcon Desmond Trufant struggled with injuries and inconsistent play of his own, playing in just nine games. Trufant recorded an overall coverage score from PFF below 50 in four of the nine games he played in.

Injuries in the secondary forced younger players to step into roles, including Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield. Oliver and Sheffield went through some serious growing pains, both recording average coverage scores on the season below 55. Sheffield had some impressive moments but was far too inconsistent, grading out below a 55 in all but four games.

When you look at the play of the linebackers and defensive line, things did not get much better. Vic Beasley, who departed in free agency, was pretty solid registering 8.0 sacks. Grady Jarrett made his first Pro Bowl adding 7.5 sacks of his own, but third-year man Takk McKinley had the worst statistical season of his career to date, recording just 3.5 sacks and 18 tackles in 14 games.

Atlanta clearly realized they needed to upgrade their defense this offseason, bringing in some pass-rush help in Dante Fowler Jr., and drafting defense with four of their six draft picks. The two biggest names of that group being cornerback A.J. Terrell and DT Marlon Davidson. Terrell will be a huge help in the secondary, stepping in to likely start right away, and Davidson will be able to step in as a solid contributor on the defensive line.

Overall, the Falcons’ defense needs to preform much better if they are to be a serious playoff contender in 2020. It has to start with the secondary, and bringing in A.J. Terrell and getting a healthy Keanu Neal should help in a big way. The Falcons’ young secondary will also likely improve as they gain experience as a group. A lot of weight will fall on the shoulders of newly acquired Dante Fowler Jr. to replicate the production he had in Los Angeles last season.

X-Factor

The X-Factor that can change everything about this Falcons team is Todd Gurley. After all that has gone on surrounding the running back, it’s hard to believe we are just two years removed from him being named a First Team All-Pro. In that season, he rushed for 1,251 yards and scored a league-leading 17 touchdowns.

Now it’s fair to question with his injury history if that Gurley is still capable of being that guy, but for the Falcons even the Gurley we saw last season would be an upgrade from what they previously had. If Atlanta is able to get production from him, team’s will struggle even more to stop their impressive receiving corps, and Matt Ryan will not be forced to throw the ball as much as he did last season.

Health is a huge question mark, but there is no denying Gurley can change this team, for better or for worse. If he is able to produce close to what he did the first four seasons of his career, Atlanta could be a real contender in the NFC. If he is unable to stay on the field and struggles, the Falcons could be headed for a third straight 7-9 season or worse.

How they matchup with Dallas

When you look at how the Falcons matchup with the Cowboys, both offenses have a good shot to put up some points. On the Cowboys side of things, they should be able to run the ball well against a below-average Falcons’ run defense. Through the air, they will get to matchup against this young Falcons’ secondary early in the season, not giving Atlanta much time to get into a rhythm. Having to go up against an offense that includes Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, and Cee Dee Lamb in Week Two is not an easy task for any secondary, especially a young one.

For the Falcons, their ability to run the football relies on the healthy and availability of Todd Gurley, but through the air they should be able to have success against the Dallas secondary. Whoever is starting as the Cowboys cornerbacks, they will have a tough time keeping up with Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley. Overall, this Week Two matchup in Dallas figures to be a shoot out.