FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. -- Since Jason Garrett took over as the Cowboys head coach in 2011, Dallas has consistently been among the top rushing offenses in the NFL. Only once in that span have the Cowboys finished outside of the top 10 in rushing yards per play, and over the last three seasons they've ranked no lower than fifth in that category.
That aspect of Dallas' offense became even more potent with the addition of running back Ezekiel Elliott, who led the NFL with 1,631 rushing yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a rookie last season. Although it would be a blow for the Cowboys if Elliott, who faces a ruling on his appeal of a six-game suspension on Thursday, is unavailable against the Falcons, establishing the run will remain a large part of their offensive identity.
Dallas enters Sunday's game averaging 4.82 rushing yards per play, the most in the NFL. Atlanta's defense, meanwhile, is 23rd in that same measurement, allowing 4.24 rushing yards per play.
The Falcons have taken steps to improve their run defense throughout the season, and there have been signs that some of the early issues are being corrected, but they will need to play well in that aspect of the game against the Cowboys.
The importance of gap discipline for the Falcons
Many of Atlanta's early struggles against the run had to do with proper gap defense. When a defender blows his gap assignment, it leaves an opening for a running back and often results in a medium-to-long run.
"For us, we play a lot of eight-man fronts," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said following the loss to Miami. "It's really about having great gap control. If you're supposed to be in your spot, make sure you own that spot. Sometimes you want to get so aggressive. 'I want to take a shot, [but] I may have lost my gap.' That's where the ball hits on that play. [It's] Murphy's Law, so to speak. OK, 'I'm taking my shot, [and] it ran to that space.'"
Beginning with the loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 4, the Falcons allowed more than 100 rushing yards in three straight games before shutting down the New York Jets' ground game in Week 8. During that stretch, gap discipline was identified by the coaching staff as an area that needed improvement.
There were a few noticeable instances of mishaps in gap responsibility in Atlanta's Week 6 loss to the Dolphins.
On the Dolphins' first drive of the game, they faced a second-and-6 from their own 29-yard line. Miami lined up in an unbalanced formation with three extra blockers on the right side of the offensive line and it appeared initially that the run was designed to go between the third and fourth blocker on that side. Each defender in the box was accounted for with a blocker, leaving safety Sharrod Neasman as the closest uncovered player.
As the play developed, Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi saw defensive end Brooks Reed closing down that gap and redirected to bounce outside.
Without knowing what the defensive play call was, it's impossible to know which Falcons defender was responsible for setting the outside edge on the left side. Reed readjusts once Ajayi bounced out, but he didn't get a clean shot and Ajayi slipped through the tackle. As this was happening at the line of scrimmage, Neasman appeared to misread his angle and took a few steps inside instead of working to gain leverage and keep Ajayi from turning the corner.
Because no Falcons defender set a hard edge, Ajayi found space on the perimeter and picked up 18 yards, while Neasman was left chasing the runner.
The interior of the Falcons' defense did a good job defending their respective gaps, but this play illustrates how one breakdown can lead to a big gain.
Miami gained 138 rushing yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry against Atlanta with Ajayi accounting for all but 8 of them.
Against the Jets, the Falcons displayed much better gap control and it resulted in their best performance against the run this season, as they allowed just 43 yards and an average of 2 yards per carry.
"I thought the consistency of the run defense was what really jumped out, and I thought they took a big step towards becoming the unit, especially in the run game, that they can be," Quinn said after the Jets game.
Late in the third quarter, the Jets ran an outside zone play on second-and-8 with the ball at the Falcons' 22-yard line.
On a zone play, the offensive line reach-blocked in the direction of the play, leaving the running back to look for a cutback gap to open up behind a block. For a defender, staying true to the gap is important because these plays are designed to catch a player over-pursuing against the run.
Dontari Poe did a nice job of getting ahead of his offensive lineman, but he never overran his assigned gap. De'Vondre Campbell also beat his lineman into the gap and helped to form a pocket around Jets running back Bilal Powell, leaving him nowhere to go.
As Powell looked for an escape option, Takkarist McKinley shed his block and made the tackle for a 1-yard loss.
Beating the block is half the battle
While correctly defending the gap is vital, it's only half of the battle. Offenses will account for every defender on each play, whether it's with an offensive lineman or the design of the play, itself. Once a defender reaches the gap, he will usually need to shed a block before making the tackle.
Poe explained it this way: "We've got to be there when we need to be, and then when it's time for us to make plays, we've got to get off the blocks."
Late in the third quarter against the Bills, the Falcons' defense did a decent job of defending the gaps but the offense won at the point of attack. This resulted in a 7-yard run by LeSean McCoy on second-and-6 at Atlanta's 27-yard line.
On the play, Buffalo lines up with fullback Patrick DiMarco in front of McCoy and calls a power run play that appears to be designed to hit between the right guard and the right tackle.
When the ball is snapped, the defense flows to their respective assignments and doesn't leave an obvious hole open for McCoy to run through.
The reason the Bills succeed on this play, however, is because the offensive line makes three critical blocks to clear a path for McCoy. Rookie linebacker Duke Riley gets knocked out of his gap by Buffalo's right guard while both Poe and Neasman get chop-blocked.
Although the Falcons put themselves in position to defend the gaps, they don't beat their blocks and the Bills pick up a first down.
Again, the Jets game provided a nice example of the type of execution needed in the run game and how it allows defenders to play off of one another.
On first down in the third quarter, the Jets run a type of power play with the center pulling to seal off the left side of the line and the tight end coming across the formation to act as a lead blocker for Bilal Powell.
The play should work if Adrian Clayborn gets too far upfield and the Jets' center can seal him off or use his momentum to help carry him past the running back, leaving a big gap open with the tight end in front to pick up the next defender.
Clayborn doesn't run himself out of the play, however, and he instead knocks the center backwards and seals off Powell's path to the hole.
Because the Falcons had sound gap integrity on the play, there is nowhere for Powell to go and Deion Jones tackles him for a 1-yard loss.
By beating his block and knocking the Jets' center back at the point of attack, Clayborn stops the play before it really gets going and allows the rest of the Falcons' defense to rally to the ball carrier.
Why the Cowboys will provide a tough test
Despite the progress Atlanta's run defense made against New York, which boasts an above-average ground game, the Falcons surrendered 201 rushing yards against the Panthers, nearly half of which came from quarterback Cam Newton.
The Cowboys will likely use more of a standard running back-oriented style of attack, but quarterback Dak Prescott is still a threat to run when the opportunity presents itself.
"I think the extension of plays has been something I've been impressed with his game," Quinn said of Prescott. "When he's able to get outside the pocket and extend plays, both with his feet and his legs. He seems like a person like Aaron Rodgers on the edge on a third-down play. 'I see the opening and can take it and run for the first down. I can extend the play and still throw it on the run accurately.' I'm not comparing the player, but I'm saying the mobility of a player where you can extend plays. I think it's an important factor and a big part of his game for sure."
Bottom line, the Falcons will have to have sound gap discipline and get off their blocks to hold the Cowboys in check.
Not only does Dallas possess one of the top offensive lines in the NFL, but its running backs, especially Elliott, have a diverse skill set and can utilize both speed and power to beat defenders. One underrated aspect of their run game is the patience the Cowboys' running backs have to let plays develop.
Against Green Bay, Elliott provided a perfect example of that type of patience and the subtle nuances that made him the league's top running back last season.
The play initially looks designed to go between the center and the left tackle, but the Packers do a good job closing down that gap. Instead of charging head-on into the pile, Elliott slows down a bit and allows everything to develop in front of them.
What's truly impressive about the run is how Elliott draws the defenders further into one gap before bouncing it one gap over for an 8-yard gain.
"How patient the backs are behind the line," Deion Jones said when asked what impressed him the most about Dallas' run game. "They really trust their line and they're real patient about it and pretty much wait for them to get guys out of their gaps. Their line will push their way through, and then they will make it happen from there.
"We've got to be real disciplined, stay with our keys, make our fits and make our hits. Take it one play at a time and reset, even if things don't go as planned."