In breaking down the Falcons the last couple of days, I understand why head coach Mike Smith's club has a record of 7-0. If you want to know why they are undefeated, it's two simple reasons: They don't turn the ball over, and they don't commit penalties. It's a combination that every team strives for, but Atlanta has done it better than the majority of the league.
What really makes this Falcons squad dangerous on so many levels is what they can do to a defense when it comes to attacking your scheme. Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has always been able to put his players in position to make plays, but he has never had talent like Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez.
This offense runs through Ryan and his ability to quickly digest how the defense is trying to break him down. There are very few times when you see Ryan get fooled by a coverage or a blitz, although you will see him bounce around in the pocket, trying to keep the play alive. I think he does a much better job of throwing on the move than, say, what Rob Ryan's defense faced last week versus Eli Manning. If Matt Ryan does have a weakness, there are times where he will throw the ball up for grabs, but he has so much confidence in his receivers, it's a risk that he's willing to take because he knows there's a pretty good chance they will come down with the ball.
White and Jones can make any quarterback look outstanding. To be honest, Jones' quick development is really shocking, especially considering he didn't play in a college offense that really threw the ball all that much or that well. Alabama is known more churning out running backs such as Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson than they are for producing receivers.
Both White and Jones are down-the-field players who, if the ball is within the framework of their body, are going to make the catch. White is a more polished route runner at this point, whereas Jones is still learning. You'll see him try to be more physical coming off the line, getting in his routes with brute force. Jones has a little Dez Bryant in him where you will see some crazy routes, but you also see some playing-making ability.
The Cowboys' secondary has to be careful because these receivers like to run crossing routes. There will to be times when the corners are going to have to carry guys all the way across the field. This is where the Falcons can hurt you badly, catching the ball on the move.
For what Jason Witten means to Tony Romo and the Cowboys offense, tight end Tony Gonzalez does the same thing for Matt Ryan and the Falcons. There were plenty of scouts that thought Gonzalez was done when he was traded from Kansas City to Atlanta, but that was far from the truth.
When the Falcons made the move, I remember thinking that Gonzalez, like Witten, is a quarterback's best friend from the perspective of having reliable hands and running routes that require simple throws. Gonzalez still has the ability to get up the field and make the adjusting catch, and while he is used more on the backside as a blocker, there was a time in his career when he was a good front side player.
Gonzalez is a part of Atlanta's bunch-formation packages because he is a big body that can get up the field and break off routes. Safety Danny McCray has done a really nice job of dealing with tight ends that can get long and make plays, and this week will once again be no different.
When the Cowboys played the Ravens earlier in the season, I thought they were the best offensive line that the team had faced up until that point. This Falcons line looks very impressive on tape when it comes to pass protection and the way they are able to keep Ryan upright. The group, starting with center Todd McClure, does a nice job of playing on its feet. You see them getting into their blocks and they sustain those blocks.
Rookie Peter Konz started last week against the Eagles for Garrett Reynolds and was able to hold his own. Konz was a center in college, but stepped in at right guard. Left guard Justin Blalock is a square protector, along with left tackle Sam Baker. If there is a weakness, it's on the right side with tackle Tyson Clabo. At time you'll see him get over extended and not recover as well as he needs to. Reynolds is a player they like to use as a puller, but overall, the Falcons coaching staff is not afraid to put any one of these guys on the move when they run screens because they can all get to the edge and play in space.
The Falcons have not rushed the ball as well as they would have liked, but that doesn't mean they can't. Michael Turner and Jason Snelling are big, physical players. Turner is not a nifty runner. He's more like those days of Stephen Davis with the Redskins – one cut and down the hill he goes. But while he doesn't make many people miss, you have to gang up on him to make a tackle. You don't want him to get his momentum going forward.
Jacquizz Rodgers is an interesting third-down back because he is not as tall as Turner, but he is physical and plays with more elusiveness. Rodgers can get around the corner and you do see him catch the ball on screens and get up the field. Where last week the Giants' Ahmad Bradshaw had problems with blitz pickup, this kid is not one bit afraid to stick his nose in the action. There is a lot to like about Rodgers' game.
Defensively, coordinator Mike Nolan likes to give an offense plenty to worry about. It starts on the outside with rushers Ray Edwards and John Abraham. Most Cowboys fans remember Edwards from his days in Minnesota in that playoff game where he was a nightmare for right tackle Marc Colombo rushing the passer.
As good as Abraham and Edwards have been, the Falcons have another weapon on the nickel rush in Kroy Biermann. I haven't seen a great deal of Falcons games on television or on tape the past couple of seasons, but Biermann is one of those players that is all over the field. It's just not all effort with him; he plays with technique and awareness. Although a hard guy to fool, he wants to attack up the field so much that teams have taken advantage by running the ball inside of him.
Biermann is not a big guy physically, but he plays well off blocks and gets in on the action. When he is over tackles Tyron Smith or Doug Free, neither one can relax for a second because he never stops coming at you. You almost have to play past the whistle to make sure he is blocked. Nolan will move him around to try and create matchups that he can win on either side, but you have to also watch how he will use twists and stunts to create problems in the blocking scheme.
The linebacking corps is one that moves well to the ball and doesn't get hung up on many blocks. Sean Witherspoon is a guy that the Cowboys are going to have to watch if he is healthy. Witherspoon hurt his ankle against the Eagles last Sunday and will probably be limited this week as far as practice goes. He plays on the weak side but you really see him run to the ball. On the strong side, Stephen Nicholas does a really nice job of holding up at the point of attack and can be hard to move. These linebackers really like to grab and clutch in coverage.
In the secondary, their best cornerback, Brent Grimes, tore his Achilles tendon on their opening game against the Chiefs and was put on injured reverse. Former Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel plays on the left side while Dunta Robinson mans the right. In the games I studied, neither Samuel nor Robinson wants to really mix things up when it comes to defending the run, especially when the ball spills to the outside. They both are soft on the edge but they are also soft in coverage. I didn't see a lot of press coverage or attacking the receiver off the line. They both like to give the receiver room then react to his route.
I did see a play against the Redskins where Robinson came off the edge on a blitz and managed to get quarterback Robert Griffin III on the ground.
Samuel has always been a gambler in the way he plays routes. Teams have tried to double-move him in the past, and have had some success, but he does show some catch-up speed and quickness. When he was with the Eagles, he used to bait quarterbacks into throwing his way, then drove on the ball, but I haven't seen him do that as much with the Falcons.
In the nickel, Robert McClain is their guy. I will say this about him: He can cover and he is a successful tackler. At safety, William Moore shows up more than Thomas Decoud.
Overall, it's a mobile front seven that lacks an aggressive player in the secondary, other than McClain and Moore. Nolan will try and mix his front with straight blitz from normal depth and zone blitz by dropping his defensive linemen.
If you key in on Biermann, the next thing you know he'll drop into coverage. The offensive line has to be ready for Atlanta's twist stunts and games to try and create pressure. And, if the Cowboys are going and run the ball, it should be to Biermann's side when he is in the game because of how he tries to get up the field.
Look for the Dallas receivers to have better opportunities to make plays on the outside if the Falcons continue to play off coverage.