We have officially hit Week 10, which means we can all put the Broncos game in the rear view mirror and focus on the upcoming matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. And in a complete role reversal, the Falcons were able to pull off a comeback over the New Orleans Saints last week. Week 9 truly was weird.
The Falcons are no longer the weakest team on the Dallas Cowboys’ schedule this year. Winning three of their last four games, Atlanta is now a 4-4 team. The Cowboys opened the week as nine-point favorites over the Falcons, but that number has dropped a bit as they are currently listed as eight-point favorites according to DraftKings Sportsbook.
The Cowboys need to get back on track, so what will it take for that to happen?
The Cowboys Offense
Arthur Smith deserves credit for what we has done with the Falcons. He has improved this team, matching their win total from 2020 in just eight games. But for all the improvements the Falcons have made, defense is still this team’s weakness.
This is the perfect game for Dak Prescott and the offense to get back on track. It is a gift that a quarterback who completed 19 of his 31 pass attempts last week now gets a defense allowing one of the worst completion percentages at 68%.
In addition to having the 28th ranked pass defense by DVOA, Atlanta’s run defense is only slightly better, with a ranking of 27. Meaning that if the Cowboys’ offense struggles this week, there will be no excuse.
The Falcons’ defense is currently giving up a touchdown on 29% of their opponent’s drives, yet only forcing a turnover 9% of the time. Atlanta falls in the bottom ten of both metrics; put simply, they are not good at giving their offense momentum.
But what they are good at is forcing punts. The Falcons defense falls in the bottom ten of nearly every meaningful defensive statistic, except for the percentage of opponent’s drives that end in a punt. Atlanta’s defense is not going to produce a big play and turn the tide of the game, but they are able to get off the field.
This is the key to the game for the Cowboys’ offense. Dallas will have no problem with this one if the offense from weeks one through seven shows up, the team that was averaging a 47% third-down conversion rate. But if the offense we saw last week rears its head again, the squad that went 5/13 on third-down conversion attempts, there will be a problem.
Dak will be able to air it out on a weak Atlanta pass defense, especially with Michael Gallup returning. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard will have no problem on the ground. But the offense’s success hinges on their ability to keep the drive going on third down. An area the Cowboys have excelled in all year going into last Sunday.
The Cowboys defense
After getting run out of the building by Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon, Christmas must have come early this year because they now get to face Mike Davis. And for those who don’t know who Mike Davis is, there is a reason you haven’t heard his name this year.
This is one of the worst, if not the worst, rushing teams in the NFL. Cordarrelle Patterson has been an excellent gadget back this year, but his success has not come in the run game. Atlanta is currently averaging the eighth least rushing attempts in the NFL behind Davis and Patterson’s 157 total carries on the year.
And it is not surprising they have chosen to avoid the run. The two Falcons running backs are in the bottom half of the league by the following metrics: yards per attempt, missed tackles forced, 15 plus yard runs, PFF rushing grade, and yards after contact. The only metric they both land inside the top half of the league in is fumbles lost. The Atlanta rushing attack is not good.
So that means the Falcons have gotten to 4-4 on the arm of Matt Ryan alone. Their rushing attack and defense are solidly bottom ten in the NFL. But their passing offense is around league average.
Atlanta throws 38 passing attempts per game, more than the Cowboys, Rams, Packers, Cardinals, and Bengals. Matt Ryan might not be a highly efficient quarterback, but he will go down swinging.
The 36-year-old quarterback is having a decent season, given that he is being asked to carry this team. His adjusted completion percentage of 78% is one of the best in the league. But now that he is older, he isn’t going to take risks.
Matt Ryan hasn’t shown any weaknesses this year, primarily because he has been playing it safe. He is bottom four by average depth of target, but other than that, he falls around the NFL average by most other metrics. Meaning that Atlanta has succeeded by keeping it close to the line of scrimmage and letting Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts make plays.
This is concerning for a Dallas defense that has been a poor tackling team all year. Dan Quinn has drastically improved the Cowboys defense, but they are still horrendous at bringing the ball carrier to the ground. Currently ranked as the sixth-worst tackling team, there is concern that Davis, Pitts, and Patterson will be able to create plays in the open field.
Similar to how the offense’s success rests on their ability to convert on third down, the defense’s success hinges on finishing the play. Matt Ryan’s passes will stay close to the line of scrimmage, and the rushing game shouldn’t be a problem. From there, the Cowboys defense will have to finish the play and get off the field. This is not a difficult matchup for the defense, but it can be if the defense refuses to tackle.
Coaching and special teams
Arthur Smith, first-year head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, has had to completely reinvent his style of coaching. He moved from a Tennessee offense that could win the game by handing it to Derrick Henry 32 times to an Atlanta team that has to heavily rely on the passing game. It has been impressive, but Mike McCarthy is still the better coach in this one.
Interestingly enough, the Denver game was one the best games the Cowboys have had in terms of penalties committed. From a season average of eight penalties per game, they committed just five against the Broncos. Of everything that happened last week, penalties are the only thing that Dallas did right, the only aspect of the game they need to continue into Week 10.
But obviously, this is a big game for McCarthy. Will he be able to energize this team and get them playing like they were going into the bye, or will they come out flat again? Historically, McCarthy has rebounded well from getting blown out by the opposing team.
McCarthy’s performance and impact on this team have brought out varying degrees of support and criticism. Get the team ready to play and dominate an inferior opponent, and it will go a long way in silencing the naysayers. This is McCarthy’s time to prove it.
As for special teams, there is just one question mark. Lirim Hajrullahu was signed by the Cowboys on Wednesday, confirming the belief that Greg Zuerlein will be out after being placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
Since Greg Zuerlein was the savior of the Cowboys matchup last year with the Falcons, maybe the Kosovo-born CFL player can emerge as a hero in this one. Hajrullahu spent six seasons in the CFL, with a career field goal percentage of 83.3%. With a long of 56 yards, he made 87% of his field goals in 2019, his last season in the CFL.
Let’s hope that the newly-signed Cowboys kicker won’t be forced into a high-pressure situation, but he seems somewhat reliable for a player signed four days before the game. Atlanta’s special teams won’t change this game. So set Hajrullahu up with short field goal opportunities if necessary, expect more fourth-down conversion attempts if they are on the fringe of field goal range, and please, do not touch a punt block if it happens to go past the line of scrimmage.
We will find out who this team is on Sunday. Come out and convincingly beat an inferior team, and every Cowboys fan forgets about Week 9. If this is a close game or worse, Cowboys fans will likely be slamming the panic button.
But this is why we watch football. If we knew the Cowboys were going to win every week, it wouldn’t be exciting. With that being said, please get out of this one with a win.
Likelihood of the Cowboys winning: 80.0%
Final Score: Dallas Cowboys 38, Atlanta Falcons 28