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What the Cowboys defense should expect from the Falcons offense

What should the Cowboys defense expect to see from the Falcons offense in week two?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Atlanta Falcons Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Week 1 did not go as planned for the Dallas Cowboys, and the team will have a good opportunity in front of them in Week 2 to get back on track. While the Falcons defense has a ton of holes in it for the Cowboys offense to exploit, the Falcons offense is still high-powered, and has the potential to put up some big points if the Cowboys defense isn’t prepared.

The first thing you notice when turning on the Falcons tape from Week 1 is how often they run the football on early downs. In a game in which they were never all that close to being competitive, the Falcons ran the football on 11 first downs, and six second downs. On those 17 running plays on first and second down, the Falcons averaged 4.2 yards per carry, which isn’t all that bad, but it’s also not as efficient as the passing game. Any team that willingly puts themselves in tougher situations on second and third down, is doing opposing defenses favors. Where the Falcons did have success on early downs is when they went to their play-action game to fool the Seahawks defense.

It’s important to remember that the success of the running game has nothing to do with how successful the play-action game is, but the Falcons do an excellent job of using their run-game tendencies to set up successful looks in the play-action passing game. They run play-action a ton out of 12-personnel to give defenses the threat of running the football out of two-tight end looks. That in itself will force the Cowboys linebackers to play with patience, and they can’t get caught being too aggressive crashing to the play-fake. Jaylon Smith and Joe Thomas will likely have their hands full balancing the threat of the run while also staying in position to cover TE Hayden Hurst off of the Matt Ryan play-fakes.

Speaking of Hurst, the Falcons added yet another weapon to their arsenal this offseason, and while he didn’t set anything on fire in Week 1, he was still very efficient when targeted in the passing game. Hurst will be a very tough cover on Sunday, and with Jaylon Smith’s struggles in coverage, you have to wonder if the Cowboys will want to use a player like Brandon Carr in passing situations to limit to impact Hurst will have in AT&T Stadium on Sunday.

While Julio Jones, Todd Gurley, and Matt Ryan get most of the attention in Atlanta’s offense, Calvin Ridley is developing into a full-on superstar. Ridley is a route-running technician and does an excellent job of attacking leverage and blind-spots against opposing cornerbacks as he does in the play above. Ridley isn’t a burner by any means, but is very successful separating deep using nuances in his route-running. Ridley will likely draw coverage from all the Cowboys cornerbacks, as all the Atlanta receivers move around all over the formation throughout the game. The Cowboys secondary must respect Ridley’s route-running, and that goes back to be patient off the line of scrimmage with his releases, and doing what you can to mirror his footwork off the line.

Something that popped up multiple times from Week 1 was the Falcons offense going empty-spread on third down, and using picks on their stacked side to create easy yardage for their receivers in the quick passing game. While the calling of offensive pass interference is very hit-or-miss, the Cowboys coaching staff would be wise to make the officiating crew aware of this heading into the game. We saw it in Week 1 with Tyler Higbee, but Hayden Hurst will be looking to pick guys in the secondary on important third downs throughout the game.

BREAKING NEWS: Julio Jones is still really, really good at football. Given Jones’ size, athleticism, catch radius, and route-running ability, he will be the Cowboys #1 priority heading into Sunday. The Falcons offense will be smart to get him matched up on Anthony Brown, Daryl Worley, and Jourdan Lewis as much as possible. Jones will see his reps against Chidobe Awuzie and Trevon Diggs as well, but getting Jones’ size and athleticism matched up against those undersized corners could be the key to the Falcons offensive success.

When Jones isn’t making spectacular catches, running over defenders after the catch, or consistently moving the chains, he’s running routes like the one above to pick up big-time yardage for the Falcons offense. Jones will use double-moves to get defenders off-balance at the top of the fake, before using his athleticism and flexibility to change directions and take the route back up the field. While one way to fix this is to shade a safety over to help bracket Jones, when you have to also worry about Calvin Ridley, Russell Gage, Hayden Hurst, and Todd Gurley, that is much easier said than done.

After Week 1, the Cowboys defensive line did not dominate the performance like many expected heading into Los Angeles, but they should be able to find more success in Week 2. Not only is the Falcons offensive line not very good, but Matt Ryan is not very good at avoiding pressure, or getting the football out when pressured. A lot of the Cowboys pressure plan going into Week 2 will rely on how much confidence Mike Nolan has in his secondary, but if they do show that they can hang with the Falcons receivers, it would be wise from Nolan to apply pressure early and often, and test the Atlanta offensive line to see if they can hold up.

The Falcons offensive line ranked 21st in the NFL last week in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric that measures how successful the offensive line was when pass-blocking. It needs to be noted that the Seahawks pass rush is one of the least exciting in the league, led by Damontre Moore, Bruce Irvin, and Benson Mayowa. If the Cowboys defensive front can’t get pressure on Matt Ryan more consistently in Week 2, it may be time to start lowering our expectations for this defense, even more than they already are.

Last but not least we have Todd Gurley. Gurley in Week 1 looked a lot like he did in 2019 with the Rams. A handful of nice runs early, but as the game wears on, Gurley tends to slow down. Given the state of the Falcons offensive line, and how little the Falcons use pre-snap motion, the Cowboys front seven should be more successful in Week 2 limiting the Falcons running game.

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