For the first time since mid-September, the Dallas Cowboys (6-2) are coming off a loss. After putting an awful performance on display last Sunday against the Broncos, the Cowboys need to get back on track in a big way this weekend against the Atlanta Falcons (4-4).
Before the Cowboys and Falcons square off on Sunday, here are three things to watch for in the matchup.
1) Can the Falcons defense get off the field on third down?
To this point of the season, the Falcons defense has really struggled. Atlanta ranks as the fifth-worst defense in football, according to Pro Football Focus, and has given up the fifth-most points (220) in the league. The Falcons have surrendered 28 or more points four times, three of those games coming against rather unimpressive offenses in the Eagles, Football Team and Dolphins.
This week, the Atlanta defense has potentially their biggest challenge of the season on their hands as they try to slow down the explosive Cowboys offense.
One thing the Dallas offense has excelled at this season is converting on third-down. The Cowboys have the fourth-best third-down conversion rate in football at 46.1%, converting 47 of 102 tries. Coincidentally, getting teams off the field on third down has been a huge problem for the Falcons defense. Atlanta’s defense has allowed opposing offenses to convert on 47.9% of third-down tries, the third-worst mark in the league.
Despite converting just 5 of 13 third-down tries against Denver last Sunday, the Cowboys have a great chance to get back on a roll against this Atlanta defense. If the Falcons want to have any shot at winning this game, their defense will have to step up their performance on third down in a big way.
2) Can the Cowboys defense force Matt Ryan into turnovers?
Coming into the season, expectations were not very high for 36-year-old Matt Ryan. The quarterback’s name popped up in trade rumors all offseason, but the former number one pick ultimately stayed with the Falcons to play his fourteenth season in the league.
Eight games in, Ryan has played much better than many expected. The veteran has completed almost 70% of his passes and thrown for 15 touchdowns. Pro Football Focus has Ryan at an 85.4 offensive grade, the seventh-best among starting quarterbacks and his best personal grade since 2017.
When the Falcons have won, Ryan has played well. In their four victories, Ryan has completed 71.87% of his passes and thrown eight touchdown passes to just one interception. On the other hand, when Ryan has performed poorly, so has the team. In their four losses, Ryan has completed just 67% of his passes while throwing seven touchdown passes to five interceptions.
Dating back to 2018, the Falcons are 10-17 in games that Ryan throws at least one interception. In games that he throws two or more, they are 2-6.
Now obviously teams are going to perform better when their quarterback does not turn the football over, but the Falcons are a team that does not have room for error when it comes to turnovers. The Atlanta defense has been so bad the past few seasons that if Ryan and the offense turn the football over and put them in bad spots they are unable to keep the game within reach.
Last Sunday, the Cowboys defense failed to take the football away for the second straight week. If that trend continues this week, the Falcons have a chance to stay in the game. But, if the defense is able to get back to their old ways and force Matt Ryan into turnovers, it could end up being a long day for the Falcons.
3) Will the Cowboys offensive line bounce back?
The Denver game was a disaster for a multitude of reasons, but the poor performance from the offensive line was one of the defining reasons why the Cowboys lost the game. Dallas allowed a season-high 16 pressures, and Dak Prescott was under duress all day long.
Second-year tackle Terence Steele, who slid over to left tackle to fill in for Tyron Smith, had by far his worst day of the year, allowing nine pressures, seven QB hurries and a sack. Steele’s PFF pass-block grade of 35.3 was 40 points lower than his average grade from the previous three games.
Whenever an OT's outside strike lands on the inside half of the edge rusher, bad things happen. Steele's poor hand placement (which could be a result of a poor set point) makes this way too easy for the EDGE. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/5NDkDMGRqp— John Owning (@JohnOwning) November 10, 2021
Luckily for the Cowboys, this week they get to go up against an Atlanta defensive line that has been one of the least productive pass-rush groups in football. The Falcons have the fewest sacks (11) in the NFL, and PFF has them ranked as the worst pass-rush unit in the league. Atlanta has just three players with double-digit sacks for a career, and not a single one has above two on the season.
Even if last week’s performance was an aberration, the Dallas offensive line needs a get-right game to reassert their dominance. If the offensive line plays to the level they are capable of, they should be able to dominate Atlanta in the trenches and bounce back nicely after a bad outing.