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Balance & Winning Turnover Battle Key for Atlanta

Even with the return of Steven Jackson, look for Jacquizz Rodgers to get a lot of snaps against Arizona. (Photo credit: falcfans.com)
The loser of this weekend’s game between Arizona and Atlanta will be hard pressed to make the playoffs. This is a must win for both teams, considering they have major challenges ahead in their respective schedules. With the schedule being so weak this weekend, this is actually one of the better matchups of the week.

We’ll see the return of John Abraham against his old team. It still pains me to see Abraham not in a Falcons uniform because of a “business decision”. Obviously the NFL is a business, but he was the leader on their defense for so many years and is still contributing on Arizona. It still boggles my mind on why he was let go. The attention will be on him throughout the game for sure.

Atlanta should be getting Steven Jackson and Sam Baker this week. Jackson hasn’t played since week two, due to a hamstring injury. That will be a huge boost for their offense, which needs all the playmakers they can get. While Baker has struggled this season and many fans aren’t happy about him being paid an enormous contract, it’s far too early to label him a complete bust. He has familiarity going up against Abraham, while Lamar Holmes and Jeremy Trueblood haven’t. If they are going to keep Matt Ryan from getting hit on a consistent basis, Baker is someone who can provide an upgrade.

I’ll be going solo this week previewing this game. This will just be a breakdown of what the game will come down to. It’s really hard to predict, since both teams are such a juggernaut right now. Many people don’t know what to expect from either offense, due to Arizona’s issues and Atlanta’s injuries. It may come down to a defensive slugfest, which you would think favor Arizona. Matt Ryan could change that advantage, with the way he’s been playing this season. He has played on an elite level, despite playing behind a below average offensive line and now essentially backup wide receivers, with a Hall Of Fame tight end.

Stay Balanced

As good as Matt Ryan has played this season, it’s highly doubtful that he’ll be able to throw all over Arizona’s defense. Roddy White will likely be out again this week and Arizona’s defensive line is one of the best in the league. The offensive line will have its hands full going up against the likes of Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, and John Abraham. Ryan will have to once again rely on the short passing game and even more on the running game. Even though the offensive line hasn’t opened holes on a consistent basis this year, you can’t have Ryan throwing 35 or 40 times against Arizona. He’ll take far too many hits, which could lead to turnovers.

Even though Arizona is seventh against the run, Atlanta needs to be persistent and keep pounding the ball. If Steven Jackson is active, they can’t afford to slow him into action. He needs to be ready to gain the tough yards like he’s been paid to do. We saw against the New York Jets, where Jacquizz Rodgers finally broke open for a 19 yard touchdown after being bottled up in the first half. You want to have balance offensively by not abandoning the run unless it’s absolutely necessary.

The screen game is obviously important to use with weapons like Jackson and Rodgers. They also need to continue to run more draws. It seems like the Falcons always have success running the draw. Defenses are constantly expecting them to pass, which is why linebackers are slow to react when they manage to use the draw play. Its plays like those that can lead to seven rather than three points on a drive.

Win the turnover battle

One of the main reasons why Atlanta’s defense played above expectations last year was by forcing turnovers on a weekly basis. It led to their turnover ratio being a plus 13, which is excellent for any team. This year, they are at a minus two despite Matt Ryan only throwing three interceptions in six games. That needs to change, especially against Carson Palmer who is averaging almost two interceptions a game. This is their game to step up and pick up the offense, which shouldn’t be expected to score 30 points.

There were obvious improvements last week, but it was clear that Tampa Bay is in complete disarray. They need to once again stop Arizona on third down and make sure to double cover Larry Fitzgerald, as much as possible. You can’t take him out of the game because Fitzgerald is simply too good. What they need to do is make Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts try to beat them rather than Fitzgerald. Palmer will start forcing Fitzgerald the ball if he starts to feel pressure, which will lead to opportunities for the secondary.

Another advantage for Atlanta to win the turnover battle will be the pass rush. Arizona’s offensive line may be the worst unit in the league allowing 20 sacks so far this season. Palmer has been forced to get the ball out quicker, which is part of the reason why he’s thrown 13 interceptions so far this year. This could be a coming out party for Osi Umenyiora and promising rookie Mallicah Goodman. Goodman has played better each game this season and has finally given Atlanta a defensive end that can stop the run. With his emergence, Atlanta shouldn’t be forced to play three defensive tackles on first down any longer. The entire defensive line should have opportunities to sack Palmer all day long. I’m looking forward to see what Goodman and Umenyiora can do the most. They can play huge parts in leading Atlanta towards their first road win of the season.

Use your star, limit their star.

Atlanta can’t allow Larry Fitzgerald to have a big game. He’s the only player on that offense, who can dominate and carry the Cardinals to a victory. Mike Nolan needs to double team him as much as possible. He’ll need to trust the rookie cornerbacks in Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford to cover their other receivers. Both rookies have both played well so far this season, despite Vincent Jackson getting the better of Trufant on more than a few occasions last week. The difference in this game is Arizona puts Andre Roberts in the slot, not Larry Fitzgerald. This is a matchup on third down, where Trufant should shut down Roberts. If they can limit Fitzgerald and force multiple turnovers like I mentioned above, they should come away with a victory.

The offense isn’t good enough right now to score 30 points a game, especially against this defense. Arizona’s secondary may be vulnerable, but their attention is going to be on Harry Douglas and try to take him out of the game. Patrick Peterson is more than capable of doing that to Douglas. Arizona’s defense has struggled against tight ends all season, so look for Tony Gonzalez to be productive. Although he was held in check last week, a tremendous article by Sam Monson from Pro Football Focus explained how much of an impact Gonzalez has on defenses even when he doesn’t catch the ball.

If they can limit Fitzgerald and Ryan doesn’t take too many hits, this should be a win. It’ll ride on the offensive line and secondary to make that happen. We know Matt Ryan is going to have another great game, as long as he isn’t getting pressured every other snap. If the running game can get going in some proportion, then they can score 24 or 27 points which is good enough to beat Arizona.

Final Prediction-Outlook

If Arizona’s offense was better, I’d probably take them. The defense is that good, despite Russell Wilson throwing all over them last week. Wilson’s speed and ability to throw on the run were huge difference makers against Arizona. Matt Ryan doesn’t have his speed, which will likely make this his toughest test of the year. The hopes for Ryan this week has to be to get the ball out quickly, use the screen game, and don’t turn the ball over. An early lead will do wonders for Atlanta, so they won’t need to throw the ball as much and they’ll have chances to force Palmer into committing turnovers.

Atlanta’s defense should have a productive game and actually lead them to a victory. Once again, it will be more towards Arizona’s offensive deficiencies than Atlanta’s talent defensively. Matchups are everything in football and this is a game where matchups are in Atlanta’s favor and need to be exploited. I trust Matt Ryan a lot more to make throws under pressure than Carson Palmer. It will be a scrappy game for four quarters that will be decided on field position and turnovers. Atlanta should be able to come out on top in that department. Atlanta goes to Arizona and earns a 23-16 victory.

You can follow me on twitter at @Allen_Strk

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