As Rowan Kavner pointed out earlier this week, the Atlanta Falcons' offense is very similar to that of the Cowboys' Week 8 opponent in the New York Giants. To limit their production, the 'Boys will need to find a way to halt two incredible receivers and an elite quarterback. Throw in a Hall of Fame tight end for good measure, and you can see just how daunting a task faces the Cowboys in Atlanta.
35.1: Average yards per Falcons' drive.
The Falcons' boast one of the league's more potent offensive attacks, totaling the eighth-most yards per drive in the NFL. The Cowboys are right behind Atlanta at 34.4 yards. The primary difference between the two squads, as you may have guessed, has been points scored. The Falcons' 2.57 points per drive is the third-highest in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have totaled only 1.83 points per drive, 18th in the league. Some of the differential can be explained by starting field position, but perhaps not as much as you think. The Falcons' average starting field position of the 30-yard line is just three yards ahead of that of Dallas.
35.1: Percentage of Falcons' runs that have increased the probability of scoring.
The Falcons live and die by the pass. Only four teams in the NFL have had less rushing success than Atlanta (in terms of efficiency). Even the Cowboys, who have obviously had their troubles rushing the ball, have increased expected points on 40 percent of their rushes. Meanwhile, Atlanta has increased the probability of scoring on 57 percent of their passes, the best number in the league. Dallas isn't too far behind in passing success rate at 53.5 percent.
105.5: Matt Ryan'spasser rating* hen blitzed.*
Ryan has managed just 5.7 yards-per-attempt in the face of pressure this season, but much like Eli Manning, he's been able to beat the blitz by getting the ball out quickly. The Cowboys were able to stifle the Giants' passing offense last week and in the season opener by playing with two deep safeties on the majority of snaps. Against Ryan and his elite receiving trio of Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez, I think you'll see a lot of the same. Thus, the Cowboys once again need to find a way to get pressure on Ryan without sending extra rushers.
25.9: Percentage of Julio Jones' targets that have been 20-plus yards downfield.
In comparison, only 12.5 percent of Roddy White's targets have been deep, so Jones is undoubtedly the Falcons' primary big-play threat. When the Cowboys forgo Cover 2 and play with just a single-deep safety, they may want to shade him to the side of Jones.
121.9: Matt Ryan's passer rating when throwing to Roddy White.
White has caught 71.4 percent of his 56 targets in 2012, and although Jones is a major threat as well, the Cowboys can't forget that the Falcons own two of the league's premiere wideouts.
23.6: Average starting field position for Falcons' opponents.
No NFL defense has forced their opponents to start with worse field position than Atlanta. And while the Cowboys' defense has given up fewer yards per drive (29.7) than the Falcons' defense (30.3), Atlanta ranks sixth in points allowed per drive, compared to 17th for Dallas. Again, those results relate back to the offense; the Cowboys have committed turnovers at a higher rate than all but one NFL team, putting the defense in vulnerable positions. The Falcons have mostly avoided such mistakes.
5.1: Yards-per-carry allowed by Atlanta.
Only one team in the NFL has allowed greater rushing efficiency. The Falcons have given up a successful run, one that increases expected points, on 48.4 percent of plays, checking in at 30th in the NFL. Their defense typically concedes rushing opportunities in favor of defending the pass, especially because they've been winning the majority of the time this season.
54.9: Percentage of passes against the Falcons' defense that have increased expected points.
Only Houston has allowed fewer successful passes than Atlanta. Thus, the Falcons pose a unique challenge for Dallas because what the Cowboys do best on offense, pass the ball, is exactly what the Falcons excel at stopping. It will be interesting to see if head coach Jason Garrett attempts to attack the Falcons' run defense with the weakest part of his offense, the running game, or if he goes "strength versus strength" and sticks with the pass.
10: Falcons' interceptions.
Unlike the Cowboys, Atlanta has been able to force turnovers. They've picked off 4.4 percent of passes against them, the third-best mark in the NFL. Remember, takeaways are very strongly correlated with pressure on the quarterback. The Falcons have sacked the quarterback on 7.8 percent of dropbacks, fourth-best in the league, so it's no wonder they've been able to secure so many interceptions. If the Cowboys want to protect the football, their top priority should be protecting Tony Romo.
8.4: Defensive end John Abraham's pressure rate.
Abraham has long been one of the league's most underrated pass rushers. He's pressured the quarterback at a rate near that of DeMarcus Ware (9.2 percent) in 2012. Unlike most defensive ends, Abraham lines up all over the field. Only 58.6 percent of his pass-rushing snaps have come while lined up on the right side of the defense, so he'll face off against both Tyron Smith and Doug Free on a number of occasions.